Cullen Murphy has an unusual talent for dealing in surprising ways with historical comparisons of past and present in lucid and lively prose. He writes intelligent history because he reads and understands current historical research and applies its results consistently. But he also talks to the historians who produce it and makes them and their research part of his book.
Murphy’s subject here is the history of the investigative and interrogatory techniques of 13th-century papally commissioned inquisitors of heretical depravity, and their successors, the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions and the present-day Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At the same time, Murphy links the technological features of the inquisitions to modern political techniques of forcibly acquiring and using information. He examines these techniques and those who use them less as regrettable features of historical Roman Catholicism than as expressions of technologies of power that were “enabled by some of the broader forces that brought the modern world into existence.” They were an early example, but not the originators, of a modernizing process that later took shape in other polities and now flourishes globally.
Murphy ponders “ what . . . any inquisition really is: a set of disciplinary practices targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic, but as a harbinger.” It was a harbinger of the world of apparently endless state campaigns to gather, extract, store and (often) fabricate information. Such a state routinely operates under the assumption that emergency government is the normal condition of politics and diplomacy. In order better to protect itself and its endless need for intelligence, it has tacitly or overtly legitimized or redefined torture and obliterated the moral and legal stigma long attached to it.
Those investigative techniques shaped ecclesiastical discipline in the later Roman Catholic Church in Continental Europe and the Americas, but also during the Reformation in Protestant England and elsewhere. Later, when secular states in need of information acquired comparable powers of organization and enforcement, they, too, adopted and refined some of these techniques. The story that Murphy tells so vividly and provocatively thus raises serious and thought-provoking questions about conventional narratives of modernization.
Murphy skillfully brings to life the places, things (especially manuscripts, books and archival caches), atmosphere and people of the Inquisition’s history. He takes the reader along with him, from the Piazza del Sant’ Uffizio in contemporary Vatican City to southern France in the 13th century when the Church first leveraged secular powers against those it considered heretics, then to Seville and Simancas in the 15th and 16th centuries, when an Inquisition became a component of the Spanish state, and back to Giordano Bruno’s Rome and Galileo’s Florence, where the Church itself was a state.
Even these chapters on early European history contain arresting examples and alarming comparisons from our own world. His account of the control of information — from the Index of Forbidden Books to Orwell’s “memory holes” to proposals for Internet restriction and the editorial standards of the Texas Board of Education — makes the reader think at least twice about the similarities and differences between some aspects of that distant world and our own, the world of the inquisitorial state.
Full disclosure: This reviewer makes an appearance or two in the book, notably opening the door for Murphy when he came to the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia and visited the wonderfully preserved 19th-century library of Henry Charles Lea, the great American historian of the medieval and Spanish inquisitions. Murphy does justice to Lea, also.
Murphy is neither an inquisition-basher nor an inquisition-apologist. He comes to the subject with frankly acknowledged personal interests and experiences. This is very high-end, appealing and thought-provoking popular history. It does its historical duty by making us look at several aspects of the past from an unconventional and surprising perspective. It does its public duty by making us consider our own world as the outcome, at least in some respects, of a process of modernization that needs to be understood and regarded more critically. It is certainly not a world from which the United States can any longer be exempted. And Murphy rightly worries about its present and future — as should we.
The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
By Cullen Murphy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 310 pp. $27