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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.

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