God’s Jury The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin Hardourt, 2012)
If you are uninformed about things as I tend to be, you might take this book, from its title, to be about THE Inquisition. You know that terrible religious event that went on “back then,” that involved the Catholic Church and had something to do with persecuting people the Church didn’t like for some reason or another. It turns out as you begin reading this illuminating account that the author is using the term Inquisition as a collective noun as there have been and are any number of inquisitions.
During the 700 year period of what I thought of as the Inquisition there were three separate ones that are generally agreed upon: a Medieval Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, and a Roman Inquisition. The first of these was dedicated mostly to discovering and persecuting members of the Church itself that were believed to be possible heretics. The Spanish Inquisition had most importantly to do with seeking out Jews who claimed to have converted but might have been lying or backsliding. The Roman Inquisition, that came later, after the Reformation, was aimed at Protestants. I, of course, did not know this before I read this fine and informative book.
In addition to his discussion of the three Inquisitions mentioned, the author explains at considerable length the unbelievable amount of archival material about the period that exists in the vast Vatican archives. Until 1998 none of this material was available to historians or other researchers, when at that time materials up to 1903 were made available. Since that time more and more of the archives have been opened. (some are still off limits). Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope, was instrumental in allowing access to this wealth of material. The Vatican has also spent a great deal of time and money in modernizing and updating the Archives and providing facilities for researchers. There are now many scholars from around the world doing research on the history and behavior of the Church including, of course the Inquisitions.
Murphy lays out the requirements for an Inquisition to occur. There needs to be a system of law and the means to administer it, there must also be a defined process for interrogations, as well as procedures for record-keeping and retrieving information. There must also be a bureaucracy with a trained staff to manage it, an ability to send messages across considerable distances and some capacity to control or restrict the communications of others, and a source of power to insure enforcement. The most important single factor in making an Inquisition is the conviction that the originators must believe they are morally superior and absolutely right. Although hatred, intolerance of others, suspicions, and so on were present for a long time in human affairs, the conditions for an Inquisition did not exist until the Middle Ages when they began to develop. As these conditions came to exist in a far more sophisticated form as technology improved, the grounds for Inquisitions are even more ubiquitous now than ever before. Murphy devotes his last chapter to a discussion of a few current bureaucracies with which we all have some familiarity. The source of power that drove the first Inquisitions came from the Church, but Inquisitions can obviously be purely secular as well.
When the Church opened the archives of the Inquisition to the public, it acknowledged the Inquisition as “a tormented phase in the history of the Church,” and maintained the Church “has no fear of historical truth” (although the archives dealing with the papacy of Pius XII, who was remarkably silent during the Nazi period and everything since have still not been opened). As scholarship proceeds and more and more information is made available it may indicate that (1) not as many people were killed during the early Inquisitions as we normally believe, and (2) when compared to what was happening in the secular societies of the time the Church may not have been as bad.
The subtitle of God’s Jury, The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, would seem to imply a steady growth of the Inquisition from the Middle Ages to the present. This could, it seems to me, be a bit misleading as the existence of Inquisitions in the Modern Age perhaps could possibly have more spontaneously arisen from the presence of the same conditions on their own with no necessary link to the past, but this is merely nitpicking. Similarly, as Inquisitions have been, and are, importantly secular as well as religious, one might also question the title, but again, that is mere nitpicking.
So, nitpicking aside, this is a very interesting and informative book, a job well done, a credit to the author, and a warning about the overly righteous whoever they may be.