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Book Review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy

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Torture is a story that almost writes itself. No one wants to be its victim, but it happens. As for the torturers, there is no placebo in mind when they punch the clock. No doubt if is one captured in war or caught up in ethnic cleaning the prospect of torture looms large. So, that begs the question why should one want to read about torture and its legacy — I think when a polemic subject is well researched with new first sources into a fascinating page-turner. Cullen Murphy’s book God’s Jury joins a growing historical niche and adding adventure — told part travelogue part research and all investigative journalism. I even discovered torture’s real appeal to its inventors.

I received an advance reading copy of God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (publication date 1/17/12) written by the same author of the widely acclaimed and prized Are We Rome? — Cullen Murphy editor-at-large for Vanity Fair magazine. And in his book Murphy takes us inside the Inquisition and its patners in crime. There was not “one” Inquisition but at least four. We learn that there is more than one way to skin a non-Catholic. The Spanish Inquisition famous for its Jewish hunt, the non converts left among them and the crypto-Jews who were converts in name only — continuing to practice Judaism is the one most oft cited.

Medievalism may conjure images of monasticism, romance and knights to modern minds, but for the huddled masses which deflect crushing poverty it was a time when the great men were popes, kings, queens, and the lesser men: clergy, the “urban intellectual” (often the impoverished peripatetic professor), craftsman and farmers. Yes, the 1% and the 99% as well as torture have always been with us.

Inquisitions support torture and Murphy defines its hallmarks: “…any inquisition is a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systemically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path.” In today’s lingo, Inquisitions are probably the purest form of “hate crimes.”

Crimes against humanity are easy to perpetrate on illiterate masses and the Medieval Catholic Church took full advantage. Then it was a veritable and shameful “pay for pray.” That meant that only those authorized to sell the stock of the day could do so. Anyone else caught hawking “heresy” was instant fodder for the Papal torture-mill made up of God’s jury. It was also a time you had to be Catholic or convert, true spiritual monopoly. And it was imbedded into standard operating procedures — that went unchallenged. The papal trail was closed to the non initiate. But the box which held the match and kindle wood was open.

The creation of the inquisition began innocently enough when “in 1231 Pope Gregory IX issued two documents that effectively created what we know as the Inquisition…Rome would pick specially trained clerics to serve as inquisitors — primarily of the Dominican Order, but also Franciscans.” The inquisitor was judge, confessor and jury all rolled into one. For this reviewer, Cullen Murphy is a modern-day Paul Revere reading his way through some of the darkest hours in human history. Warning us that the harbinger of torture remains whether in media metaphor or acted out in the well-maintained holds of Guantánamo bay.

Using the charm offensive he dazzles the reader with his command of the facts and the research doors which were opened to him at the Vatican in Rome. It’s all assembled in a masterpiece of conviction that is fodder for the jet set or the desk set — a must-read book that is part Da Vinci Code and part picturesque Provencal post card.

In addition, God’s Jury weaves powerful tales that lurk beneath Christian cathedral cornerstones — including Ferdinand Martinez whom we might liken to a professional political blogger wielding a bully pulpit that literally whips up the 1391 frenzy complete with riots in Seville, Barcelona, Cordova and Valencia leading to the death of thousands of Jews in Spain. This bloodletting was followed by the creation of ghettos, pograms, latter-day crypto-Jews, and yellow badges. There were other methods — expulsion — when conversion did not work. All of which eventually barred Jews from professional life thereby structuring an adaptable and moral compass for Nazi Germany and other systematic genocides.

Just who was the architect of terror by torture? Without mention of “the mastermind” this book would be incomplete: the name Tomás de Torquemada strikes fear in the heart. Part myth part man and part converso (i.e., Jewish ancestry) which was not uncommon through the centuries of intermarriage, after royal Spanish sanction, Torquemada becomes the general inquisitor. An ascetic sight because “he wore a hair shirt, shunned finery, ate no meat…but amassed a considerable fortune.” He even wrote the instruction manual for the holy inquisition. It becomes clear in reading this book that Catholic Spain as well as Rome first shook hands with the devil before they burned him, along with thousands, at the stake. They burned bodies and books on the altar of conversion; the church sacrificed men to their gods of suspicion.

From the Middle Ages to the present age of terrorism, the world currency is suffering.  America too sadly owns a brand of the inquisition — an outlet called Guantánamo Bay. Murphy argues that it was chosen “because it was a place where it was perfectly legal to have no legal regime at all.” He says legal aspects were later added. And we know now that it didn’t take long for writers and researchers to link those two words, thanks to Google Labs, creating a great uptick in the search for “Guantánamo” and “inquisition” morphing into tight linkage “The Guantánamo Inquisition.”

In God’s Jury Murphy is the benevolent inquirer peering into a fascinating society peopled by holy men who do unholy things in the pursuit of purity. He is also part tour guide taking the reader along on his “visa” from the Vatican to uncover the connection between the Inquisitions then and the inquisitions now. His focus is to gather evidence to support his claim that the roots of modern murder, torture, and genocide were built on a carefully constructed castle known collectively as the Inquisitions. But it is not so simple since there were many inquisitions throughout Europe, not in one place one city or one country or within one decade. Under the guiding hand of Torquemada, the French, the Spanish, the Roman and the English all impose a face on the timeline of the inquisition. Europe is quick to find that there is more than one way to kill Cathars, Muslims, Jews, Joan of Arcs, Puritans and conversos.

Torture and the inquisition are roommates but the groundwork for activities such as water-boarding was laid down long before Guantánamo Bay welcomed its first Muslim. In Europe we are led from palatial halls to the dark dungeons where only the shadows of sins remain. In one of the final chapters “War on Error” we are transported to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba where the U.S. pays rent to the Cuban government for a piece of property where post 9/11 it will rise to new heights in population as well as infamy when details of torture go public.

Cullen Murphy is no stranger to the blank page as editor and award-winning author who has made an invaluable contribution to the literature. While neither historian nor novelist by trade he finds and forges history any academician would honor. It’s clear that one needs only a passion for truth and time to write a great expose on a dark cell of human history. God’s Jury has all the elements of a gripping historical whodunit.

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