History of Inquisition aims high but falls short

‘God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World’

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

In 1963, the Singing Nun (an actual Belgian nun) was a guest of the “Ed Sullivan Show” and became identified with the merry, French song “Dominique” when it struck number one on the American pop charts. Remarkably, the song is about Dominique Guzman, the monk who founded the Dominican order in 1231 and became the leading edge of the Catholic Inquisition. “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $27) by Cullen Murphy is peppered with anecdotes, like the one about the Belgian one-hit wonder — equally colorful and more or less tangential.

Many readers, as I did, have probably equated “Inquisition” with “Spanish Inquisition” and Jewish persecution. And we have been absolutely correct—up to a point. By Murphy’s account, Jews arrived in Spain during the time of the Roman Empire. In 1391, as a prelude to the Inquisition, thousands of Jews were murdered during a series of pogroms. Afterwards, there was a wave of forced conversions (those who refused to convert were confined to ghettos, forced to wear badges marking them as aliens, and otherwise deprived of civil liberties).

During the century that followed, these conversos intermarried, and as Christians were now free to assimilate within professions, civil service and business; conversos funded Columbus’s voyage to the New World.

Then in 1478, conversion turned out to be short-lived security, when under the influence of a Dominican friar, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella successfully petitioned the pope for an inquisition of converted Jews and/or their descendants suspected of judaizing—(secretly) practicing Judaism. Murphy is spare on the details, but Muslim conversos were also targeted.

The Inquisitors traveled from town to town, urging people to confess personal lapses (and be gently reconciled) or to denounce their neighbors. The alleged unfaithful were subjected to “enhanced” interrogation meant to elicit a confession. Tortures used, such as the rack and pulley could result in crippling injury or paralysis. During interrogations, a notary often took notes on the case—for instance, that of a woman suspected of judaizing because she did not eat pork. These case files became part of a vast repository of Church records, over 50 miles of shelf space in Rome alone, now open to scholarly research (although those from 1939 forward remain sealed). 

The Spanish Inquisition, which spread from Spain to Portugal and their colonies (for instance, in the American southwest), lasted for 350 years and led to 15,000 executions, usually by burning at the stake. In 1492 as a corollary action of the monarchy, Spain expelled its Jews and within, literally, a handful of years, the Portuguese crown followed suit.

But the big qualification: The Spanish Inquisition was only one of three. In France during the 13th century, the Medieval Inquisition, conducted by the aforementioned Dominicans, effectively eradicated an heretical sect. The introduction of Protestantism and the printing press gave rise to the Roman Inquisition, which was centralized in Rome as an office of the papacy.

Cullen Murphy writes for Vanity Fair and is the author of other non-fiction books. Often, his latest reads like a breezy travelogue—wending from the Vatican palazzo, which housed the Congregation of the Inquisition (until it was dismantled in 1908) to the French Pyrenees, Spain (including Cordoba where once lived 10,000 Jews) and Guantanamo. Murphy also trails the Inquisition in Western culture—through Goya’s paintings, “Harry Potter” and media comparisons between the special prosecutor for “Monica-gate” and the Spanish Grand Inquisitor Torquemada.

The book’s subtitle, “The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” suggests a hypothesis about the Inquisition’s imprint on current society. But the author fails to deliver on that thesis. True, the book spotlights contemporary instances of interrogation, torture and ethnic cleansing. But the author does not connect the dots, for instance, to show how America’s use of waterboarding is a direct outcome of the Catholic Inquisition. 

Sometimes the affable style of the itinerant historian is unnerving. While writing about the Spanish Inquisition, Murphy describes sermons about “purity of blood” and a papal bull denouncing convictions motivated by confiscation of the accused’s assets. But some pages later, the author plays host to the paradoxical theory of a British historian that anti-Semitism and economic exploitation were not factors in the Spanish Inquisition and that ultimately Spain is to be blamed for the Spanish Inquisition, not the Catholic Church which conducted it.

“God’s Jury” is an easily read and well-researched book. Because the author grew up Catholic he supplies some valuable “anecdotes,” for instance, about the liturgy which before major Vatican revisions alluded to the “perfidious Jews” and included other anti-Jewish slurs. But this is a disconcerting book, because:

• It is not as deep and prophetic as the author would have us believe;

• Contrary to what Murphy both claims and implies, the history of the Inquisition is about the mindset of the Catholic Church — not the rest of the world;

• Regarding the Inquisition’s 700 years of intolerance and repression, the author fails to register some degree of outrage.


Editor’s note: This story has been changed from the original version in the printed Jewish Light.