God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
Cullen Murphy
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25

Several years ago, a Jesuit historian of the Reformation was regaling me with the horrors endured by Catholics who were hanged, drawn and quartered for their faith in the 16th century. When I remarked that Catholics don't seem so bothered about the scores of Protestants burned at the stake under Mary Tudor, he replied: "Oh, burning at the stake? That's nothing - it's all over in a few minutes. But hanging, drawing and quartering is truly terrible and the executioners were expert in cutting off the victims' organs of generation and stuffing them into their mouths while they were still alive."

Cullen Murphy's journey through a millennium of inquisitions and torture is both beguiling and horrifying. In a mix of travel, history, interview, anecdote and acute reflection, he is immensely entertaining while being horribly specific about the mechanics of man's inhumanity to man in the name of conviction. He could have told my Jesuit friend, for example, that there were a variety of ways in which to make burning at the stake an unspeakable death: not least the custom of using green firewood to slow down the torture. More humane executioners would strangle their victims before lighting the fires.

Yet one of the more queasy aspects of the book is the justification for inquisitorial culture expressed by some of Murphy's informants. Catholic defenders of the inquisitions have recently claimed that they were the precursors to modern legal systems. Murphy argues that the Catholic inquisitions were a prelude to modernity itself. He makes much of how the inquisitors kept elaborate records, anticipating the proliferating centralised databases of the French Revolution, the FBI, the Gestapo, the Stasi and, indeed, the UK's surveillance bonanza, which boasts four million spy cameras - apparently a world record.

I am not entirely persuaded by the "modernity" argument. The ecclesiastical record-keeping of the early inquisitions might have owed as much to imperial Rome as to the dawn of the modern, but I think that Murphy is right to draw comparisons and even an equivalence between the past and the present.

He takes us from the southern French sites of the 12th-century destruction of the Cathars to the cities of the Spanish Inquisition, to the Roman Inquisition and the groaning library shelves of the Vatican's old Holy Office, and on to the more recent inquisitions of Guantanamo Bay. On the way, we meet an intriguing cast of characters: monks and librarians, army officers and academics.

Throughout the book, Murphy moves back and forth between the historic and contemporary. Yet the attempt to make connections between the Catholic inquisitions and the current "war on terror" reveals hazards of which, to his credit, Murphy is well aware. On a visit to Magdalene College, Cambridge (under the eaves of the Pepys Library), Murphy has a conversation with Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity in the divinity faculty. Duffy tells him:

What makes religious persecution so shocking to us, I suppose, is that cruelty in the pursuit of the things of God seems particularly outrageous. I'm not sure it's any more outrageous than protecting democracy with, you know, waterboarding. Systems find ways of protecting themselves and ways to justify these things to themselves.

The good professor, whom I know personally to be a gentle soul, is ramming home the dangers of anachronism. "I feel less shocked by the Inquisition than a lot of people do," he goes on. "Because you ask yourself: what should she [Mary Tudor] have done?" He later stresses: "That was then, and this is now."

However, carried too far, this argument ends in moral relativism. It can be exploited to exonerate, if not to justify, virtually any brutality in the interests of security, survival and conviction on the basis that the perpetrators were in a "different place." What ultimately explodes the anachronism fallacy in the case of the Inquisition are those instances of condemnation in which courageous dissidents went against the tide.

An example of this is that remarkable hero Father Friedrich Spee (another Jesuit), appointed by the bishop of Würzburg as con­fessor to the women condemned to the stake in the witches' trials in 17th-century Germany. He discovered that torture did not encourage truth-telling and wrote a powerful book in Latin, entitled Cautio Criminalis ("A Warning to Prosecutors").

Alas, it has done rather less well than the infamous inquisitors' handbook, Hammer of the Witches. I suspect that Spee's courageous, rationalist stand against the power of super­stition was more modern than the records that the inquisitors kept. And it tends to undermine Duffy's argument that because they saw things differently then, we today should not be quick to condemn.

Ironically, a late instance of 20th-century Catholic inquisition, reported by Murphy, reveals the fragility, if not the entire implosion, of his overall argument about "modernity". In 1903, a pope who took the title Pius X was elected and set about attacking those whom he called the "modernists". Under his secretary of state, Cardinal Merry del Val, and a nasty monsignor called Umberto Benigni, he instituted a spy network employing the most up-to-date methods of espionage. The example reveals what a weasel word "modernism" can be.

Pius X borrowed his inquisitorial methods from the new media of the time (telegrams, "Banda" machines, codes and sophisticated databases). Yet the "modernity" he attacked was the attempt of a new generation of theologians to engage with science, rationalism and democracy, and to understand the Church and its doctrines in the light of history.

Does one create the good society or community by greater control? Or is it modern to believe that we flourish by greater freedom? Murphy has written a book rich in stories and imaginative connections. It succeeds, however, in raising rather more questions than it answers.

John Cornwell is the author of "Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint" (Continuum, £18.99)