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God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World Hardcover – January 17, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 98 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Cullen Murphy

Q: Why the Inquisition—and why now?

A: This question gets to the very heart of the book. We’ve all heard of the Inquisition—and we all remember the Monty Python line, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"—but we tend to think of it as something safely confined to the past, something "medieval" that in an enlightened age we’ve moved far beyond. But that’s exactly the wrong way to think about the Inquisition. Rather than some throwback, it’s really one of the first “modern” institutions. This attempt by the Catholic Church to deal with its enemies, inside and outside, made use of tools that hadn’t really existed before, tools that have only improved and that are part of our lives today.

Q: Like what?

A: Well, let’s start with what an inquisition is: it’s a disciplinary effort designed to enforce a particular point of view, and it’s built in such a way that it can last for a long time—in this case, for centuries. To last for a long time you need to have some sort of functioning bureaucracy. You need to have trained people—"technocrats," we might call them today—who can run the machinery, and you need to be able to keep training new people. You need to be able to watch and keep track of individuals, know what they think, collect and store information, and then be able to put your hands on the information when you need it—you need what today we’d call search engines. And you need to be able to exert control over ideas you don’t like—in a word, censorship. It’s quite a feat of organization. We take these kinds of capabilities for granted today. With the Inquisition, you can watch them being invented.

Q: Go back to the beginning and fill us in—when did the Inquisition start, and why?

A: Over a period of about seven hundred years, there were many Inquisitions mounted under Church auspices, and they varied in intensity from era to era and place to place. That said, you can divide the Inquisition into three basic phases. The first of them, called the Medieval Inquisition, is usually given a starting date of 1231, when the pope issued certain founding decrees. It was mainly concerned with Christian heretics, especially in southern France, whom the Church saw as a growing threat. Then, in the late fifteenth century, came the Spanish Inquisition. It was run by clerics but effectively controlled by the Spanish crown, not by the pope, and its main targets were Jews and to a lesser extent Muslims. After that, in the mid-sixteenth century, came the Roman Inquisition, which was run from the Vatican, and was mainly concerned with Protestants. This is a very simplified outline. And all kinds of people were caught up in the Inquisition’s machinery—Jews and heretics, yes, but also witches, homosexuals, rationalists, and intellectuals.

Q: How did the Inquisition work?

A: In the early days inquisitors would arrive in a particular locale and ask people to come forward to confess their misdeeds or to point the finger at others. Because there was a "sell by" date—anyone who came forward by a certain time would be treated with lenience—a dynamic of denunciation was set into motion. Interrogation was at the center of the inquisitorial process—hence the Inquisition’s name. The accused was not told the charges against him or the names of the witnesses. The questioning often made use of torture. Detailed records were kept. Most of those who came before tribunals received sentences short of death—for instance, they had to wear a special penitential gown for a year or two. But tens of thousands were burned at the stake for their beliefs. In all, hundreds of thousands of people passed through the tribunal process. The psychological imprint on society would have been profound. And as time went on, the Inquisition in some places became a fixture, with its own buildings and with officials in permanent residence. In some places, the networks of informers were complex and dense.

Q: Burning at the stake frankly doesn’t seem all that contemporary. Why do you say that the Inquisition is essentially "modern"?

A: I’ll start by asking a different question: why was there suddenly an Inquisition when there hadn’t been one before? After all, intolerance, hatred, and suspicion of the "other," often based on religious and ethnic differences, had always been with us. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution—to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life—did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those omnipresent embers of hatred did not exist. Once these capabilities do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well—just look at the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. Or, on a far lesser scale, the anti-communist witch hunts. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.

Let’s think about those tools—the ability to put people under surveillance; to compile records and databases, to conduct systematic interrogations, to bend the law to your needs, to lodge your activities in the hands of a self- perpetuating bureaucracy, and to underpin all this with an ideology of moral certainty. The modern world has advanced far beyond the medieval one on all these fronts. Look at what governments can do when it comes to listening in on private conversations, or what corporations can do to distill personal information from the Internet, or what law enforcement can do on a hint of a suspicion.

Q: In the wake of 9/11, torture has certainly made a comeback.

A: Yes, it has, and it has done so for the same reason it always does: when the stakes seem very high, and when the people who want to do the torturing believe fervently that their larger cause has the full weight of morality on its side, then all other considerations are irrelevant. If you’re absolutely certain that your cause is blessed by God or history, and that it’s under mortal threat, then in some minds torture becomes easy to justify. The Inquisition tried to put limits on torture, but the limits were always pushed. Thus, if the rules said you could torture only once, you could get around that obstacle by defining a second session of torture as a "continuance" of the first session.

That’s how it is with torture—once it’s deemed permissible in some special situation, the bounds of permissibility keep being stretched. There’s always some desired piece of information just beyond reach, and there’s always the hope that one more little turn of the screw will secure it. The Bush administration pushed the limits not only in practice but also in theory. In its view, an act wasn’t torture unless it caused organ failure, permanent impairment, or death. Ironically, that’s a far narrower definition than what the Inquisition would have accepted. The Inquisition understood that torture began well short of that threshold—and if it was reached, it had to stop.


"In his typically compelling style.....Murphy powerfully shows that the impulse to inquisition can quietly take root in any system—civil or religious—that orders our lives."

--Publishers Weekly


"Entertaining, lively chronicle of the Inquisition, touching on a wide variety of issues across the centuries."

--Kirkus Reviews

"Cullen Murphy's account of the Inquisition is a dark but riveting tale, told with luminous grace. The Inquisition, he shows us, represents more than a historical episode of religious persecution. The drive to root out heresy and sin, once and for all, is emblematic of the modern age and a persisting danger in our time."
--Michael J. Sandel, author of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

"From Torquemada to Guantanamo and beyond, Cullen Murphy finds the 'inquisorial Impulse' alive, and only too well, in our world. His engaging romp through the secret Vatican archives shows that the distance between the Dark Ages and Modernity is shockingly short. Who knew that reading about torture could be so entertaining?"
--Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side.

"God's Jury is a reminder, and we need to be constantly reminded, that the most dangerous people in the world are the righteous, and when they wield real power, look out. At once global and chillingly intimate in its reach, the Inquisition turns out to have been both more and less awful than we thought. Murphy wears his erudition lightly, writes with quiet wit, and has a delightful way of seeing the past in the present."
--Mark Bowden, author of Guest of the Ayatollah

"When virtue arms itself - beware! Lucid, scholarly, elegantly told, God’s Jury is as gripping as it is important."
--James Carroll, author of Jerusalem, Jerusalem

"There will never be a finer example of erudition, worn lightly and wittily, than this book. As he did in Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy manages to instruct, surprise, charm, and amuse in his history of ancient matters deftly connected to the present."
--James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic

"The Inquisition is a dark mark in the history of the Catholic Church. But it was not the first inquisition nor the last as Cullen Murphy shows in this far-ranging, informed, and (dare one say?) witty account of its reach down to our own time in worldly affairs more than ecclesiastical ones."
-- Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, former editor, Commonweal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (January 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618091564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618091560
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #877,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The word "Inquisition" harkens back to ancient European history - Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Catholic Church. But in Cullen Murphy's frightening account, that repressive past was only prologue: The self-propagating bureaucracies of the modern world contain the seeds of inquisitions potentially far vaster and more destructive than anything wrought by the Catholic Church.

Murphy seamlessly traces the 700-year history of successive Catholic Inquisitions to expose their underlying mechanisms, to highlight the fundamental similarities between then and now. The "enhanced interrogation" practiced at Guantanamo is not so different from the Roman rigoros esamine (rigorous examination), he explains. Indeed, modern interrogation techniques as outlined in a U.S. Army manual are eerily parallel to the sophisticated inquisition techniques first outlined in a manual from the 1300s.

Murphy, himself a Catholic, encourages us to broaden our historical lens to see that inquisitions need not necessarily be religious. They can occur any time members of a dominant group - whether religious, political, corporate or national - appoint themselves "God's jury," believing that they alone know the true and right path. The "inquisitorial impulse" springs directly from moral certainty. Think about the inquisitions over the last century alone, just in the United States: The Palmer Raids (an early Red Scare led by the young J. Edgar Hoover in the 1920s), The Japanese internment, Cointelpro, the Patriot Act. The McCarthy Era alone was more far-reaching than any church inquisition, he argues.

But inquisitions demand certain tangible assets, and it is these that the modern world possesses in abundance:

A bureaucratic machinery: Bureaucracies are self-perpetuating and expansionistic.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Here is another thoughtful and endlessly engaging book by Cullen Murphy. God's Jury is subtitled The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. Nowadays the word Inquisition actually has a somewhat humorous sound to many people thanks to its caricature by Monty Python. Murphy's account, while making it clear that the Inquisition in its various forms (Spanish, Roman, etc.) was a deadly serious and tragic development in European history, also demonstrates a sort of black humor based on irony. Even more importantly, Murphy draws comparisons between the Inquisition and its modern counterparts which serve to illuminate present day follies.

God's Jury is part history, part travelogue, and part commentary. I was fascinated to learn of the many remnants the old Inquisition has left behind: buildings, prisons, and above all the records. Murphy makes the good point that the Inquisition was more than any thing else a bureaucracy, self perpetuating and aggrandizing as are all bureaucracies, dedicated to preserving records of the most trivial offenses, some of which caused even the Chief Inquisitors to write dismissive notes on their pages. Even more interesting were the parallels Murphy draws between the Inquisition's practices and those of our own time, including an amusing comparison between an Inquisitor's questioning of a man caught in a sexual dalliance and the Starr Report. More troubling parallels are drawn between Inquistorial practices and those of our own modern surveillance society and between the Inquisition's fear of conversos and the post 9/11 distrust of Muslims.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy is a fitting examination of one of the darker episodes in human history. While not the same as the Holocaust, and certainly with different aims, the period of the inquisition marks a low point the history of the Catholic Church and the administrators that managed the affair.

One point worth making is that I'd never really thought of the inquisition as something that needed to be managed and administered, an activity that generated enormous piles of records that need to be stored and preserved. Murphy writes:

"At the time of my first visit, the Inquisition archive--officially, the Archivio della Congreazione per la Dottrina della Fede--splled from room to room and floor to floor in the palazzo's western wing, filling about twenty rooms in all. "

Again making my own comparison to the Nazi regime, I am stunned at the amount of record keeping activities such as the inquisition and the extermination of entire populations generate and the compulsive nature of man to record such activities.

Murphy does a good job in explaining the two inquisitions, Spanish and Roman. I'm not a historian and certainly not an expert in this area, so finding out that there were two inquisitions is an eye opener for me.

The reader is introduced to the library of the inquisition, the dungeon and torture chambers and left to ponder the purpose of these activities. The Spanish Inquisition commenced in 1492 when the Jews of Spain were told to convert to the Catholic faith or leave Spain. The activity of the Inquisition was to root out those who openly converted but continued to practice their old faith.
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