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The Inquisition: A Model For Modern Interrogators

The Inquisition revolutionized record-keeping and surveillance techniques that are still used today, says Cullen Murphy. His new book God's Jury draws parallels between some of the interrogation techniques used in previous centuries with the ones used today.



Monday, January 23, 2012

Guest: Cullen Murphy

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As a Catholic and an American, my guest Cullen Murphy wanted to understand how in the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX launched an inquisition targeting heretics, sanctioning torture to extract confession, and how Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, who funded Columbus' voyage, also led an inquisition against the Jews of Spain that led to torture and expulsion.

Murphy's new book is called "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." There is really nothing funny about the Inquisition except for maybe two things, which Murphy even cites in his book: this Monty Python sketch...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition...


MICHAEL PALIN: (as Cardinal Ximenez) Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

GROSS: And the second funny thing is this Spanish Inquisition song-and-dance number from Mel Brooks' movie "History of the World, Part I."


PHIL LEEDS: (as Chief Monk) All pay heed, now enters his holiness Torquemada, the Grand inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.


LEEDS: (as Chief Monk) Torquemada, do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada, do not beg him for forgiveness. Torquemada, do not ask him for mercy. Let's face it, you can't Torquemada anything.


MEL BROOKS: (As Torquemada) Let all those who wish to confess their evil ways and to accept and embrace the true church convert now or forever burn in hell, for now begins the Inquisition.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Characters) (Singing) The Inquisition, let's begin. The Inquisition, look out sin. We have a mission to convert the Jews. Jews. We're going to teach them wrong from right. We're going to help them see the light and make an offer that they can't refuse, that the Jews just can't refuse.

(As characters) Confess, don't be boring. Say yes, don't be dull. A fact you're ignoring, it's better to lose your skullcap than your skull or your govalt. The Inquisition, what a show. The Inquisition, here we go. We know you're wishing that we'd go away. But the Inquisition here, and it's here to stay...

GROSS: All right, so that's it. Don't expect any more laughs on today's show. Let's begin the interview about the real horror of the Inquisition with Cullen Murphy, author of "God's Jury." Murphy is editor-at-large at Vanity Fair and former managing editor of The Atlantic.

Cullen Murphy, welcome to FRESH AIR. So let's explain what we mean when we use the word the Inquisition.

CULLEN MURPHY: In the 13th century, the church was faced with a huge upsurge in heretical activity, you know, activity by sects of believers that departed radically from what the church wanted people to believe. And it was not just a spiritual conflict, there was also a political conflict. This had real implications for the papacy, which was trying to centralize itself and assert its authority.

So the Inquisition begins then, when the pope pretty much deputizes various clerics, mainly Dominicans, to go out into some of these regions to - you know, they would come to a town, they would announce that they were there. They would begin to question people. Sometimes they would use harsh methods, you know, enhanced interrogation as the Bush administration would call it.

They would try to get a handle on what people were thinking in this area, who was infecting who, who the ringleaders were, and they would conduct tribunals, and they would sentence people to various punishments, and sometimes it was relatively mild, you know, you went around wearing a certain kind of garment...

GROSS: A garment that labeled you a heretic.

MURPHY: That's right. They were white garments with a yellow cross on them, and you might have to wear that for a year as you went about your business, you know, whether you were a miller or a baker or whatever.

GROSS: So you're talking about the First Inquisition, which is started in 1231 under Pope Gregory, and you're describing how, you know, the Vatican sent out priests to various areas to see who were the heretics. So the heretics at this time that were most under attack by the Vatican were the Cathars in the South of France. Who were they? Why were they considered heretical? What did they believe?

MURPHY: Well, nowadays we would think of them as kind of New Age-y, but what they really believed was that the physical world was evil, and the spiritual world was the only world worth paying attention to, the only world that was pure. The people who were in the highest ranks of the Cathars were celibate, and they were very doctrinaire. They would not accede to the teachings or the ministrations of the church at all. They were more than willing to go to their death, and hundreds of them did.

There's a very famous moment at Mount Segur, which is this great mountain in the South of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which eventually became a Cathar stronghold and was surrounded by the troops of the King of France, who were summoned by the Inquisition.

And they eventually gave up after a long siege, and they marched down from the mountaintop, and 200 of them were burned at the stake all at once.

GROSS: Torture, the use of torture was actually justified in a document issued by the pope in 1252. Have you read that document?

MURPHY: I have read it. It's been translated and it appears in any number of textbooks. It's a seminal document. You know, the idea that the pope would authorize the use of something as heinous as torture by priests or people working for priests is a pretty astonishing development.

GROSS: What did it say? How did it justify the use of torture?

MURPHY: The language of many of these medieval documents is very ornate, and it invokes the justification of this reason and that reason, and in some ways they're kind of fun to read.

But ultimately, the justification that it really invokes is the one that anybody uses when they're using torture for reasons that are not sadistic, and that is in essence: The moral cause that we're engaged in is too important to settle for half-measures. We need to do what we're doing because it is the right thing to do.

And, you know, in our own age, that is not a view that is absent, I'm afraid.

GROSS: So in this sense, in this case, where the justification of torture is coming form the Vatican itself, the fear is that the heretics' view of religion is a direct threat to the Catholic Church.

MURPHY: That's part of it, and part of it, part of it can almost be called sincere spiritual concern, which in a way is a very troubling thought. If you knew that the people who were conducting torture, whether in our own age or in the Inquisition, were terrible, manipulative people all the time, that's one thing. That's almost understandable.

But if they are people who are sincere and who in some level actually think they're doing the right thing, that's troubling in a very different way, and when you read Inquisition transcripts, when you read accounts of torture, you get the unmistakable impression that the people involved, the people doing the torture or conducting the torture, somewhere inside them, they actually think they are saving souls.

GROSS: Better to burn at the stake than to live with a heart that doesn't comprehend the true meaning of God, is that the idea?

MURPHY: In part, and better, even if you must burn at the stake, to at the last moment, you know, admit your sins and be reconciled. There's a huge literature of attempts by clerics, you know, essentially mounting the funeral pyre, talking to the people who are about to be burned, pleading with them to, you know, confess their sins, there's no time left. You know, the pyre is about to be lit.

GROSS: And if they did confess their sins, would they be released from the funeral pyre?

MURPHY: No, but they would go to heaven.

GROSS: OK. There's actually an advice manual for inquisitors that was written by Bernard Gui called "Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Depravity." What kind of advice did he give on interrogation?

MURPHY: When I first began looking at Gui's book and at others that are like it, I was really astonished at how similar they are to the kinds of manuals that are available today, whether it's from the intelligence agencies or police departments that are trying to instruct folks on how to conduct modern interrogations.

I would have thought without knowing anything about the subject that the people in the Middle Ages would be a little bit behind the times on some of these techniques, but they're not. They have thought of everything. And so if you look at a modern manual like the Army Field Manual, which has lots of information on this.

And you look at it side-by-side with a manual like Bernard Gui's, you see that everything that is being suggested now had already been anticipated. You know, so for instance, you want to spook the person you're interrogating. And Bernard Gui and others, they have a whole bunch of tricks they lay out.

So the person to be interrogated comes into the room, and the inquisitor gives the advice: Be sitting there. Have a huge stack of documents in front of you. And as the person is answering questions, flip through the documents as if you have more information than this person could dream of. And every so often, shake your head as if you don't believe what they're saying.

And advice like that is just, it's carried over, it's almost word for word, you find the same thing in modern handbooks.

GROSS: What else?

MURPHY: There's the - what today we would call the good cop, bad cop. That's laid out by the Medieval inquisitors in exactly the same way. There's one that's called, you know, basically despair, instilling despair. The inquisitor says to the person he's questioning: You know, my time is running out, and I've got a few more questions for you, but I'm not going to be able to get back to you until I finish this trip, which is going to take about, oh, nine or 10 months.

So we're going to leave you here, and when I come back, we can finish this up. And of course, I mean, you can imagine what the effect of that is. And again, the emotional futility approach, as modern handbooks call it, re-creates that same dynamic.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cullen Murphy, and his new book is called "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." And Colin Murphy is an editor-at-large at Vanity Fair. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the Inquisition. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cullen Murphy. We're talking about his new book "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." And it's a book that's a history of the Inquisition that makes some connections to what kind of wars and torture and interrogations are carried out today.

So we were talking about the First Inquisition. You write about several Inquisitions, and the First Inquisition starts in the 1300s, led by the Vatican. When was torture considered appropriate during the First Inquisition that was hunting down heretics?

MURPHY: The basic line that was drawn was: Has this person confessed or not? And torture was generally brought in when you needed a confession. Centuries earlier, when there was trial by ordeal, issues of guilt or innocence were essentially being taken care of by the judgment of God, or so people believed.

But once you have a different kind of legal system, once you've decided that issues of guilt or innocence are things that human beings can figure out - which is essentially what happens after a lot of new thinking in the late Middle Ages - then the question of proof comes to the fore.

So how do human beings know that something is true? And the answer is, well, if they confess, we can be pretty sure if it's true. Well, what happens if they don't confess? Then you've got a problem. And torture comes into the picture in order to obtain a confession.

GROSS: And so if the person doesn't confess, the torturer would consider that to be an ambiguous answer because maybe they just haven't confessed yet.

MURPHY: Yes, you're - once the torture starts, you're never in a good position. The inquisitors knew full well that torture was itself problematic. They understood that people will say anything under torture to make it stop. They tried to enact rules that would, you know, solve this problem.

For instance, if a person confessed to something under torture, the inquisitors were not prepared to accept that confession basically as evidence. They said OK, now you've got to give it some time, you know, let a day go by, bring the person someplace else, then ask them the question again, and if they still confess, then we'll accept that confession.

But it's not as if the person who made the confession has forgotten the fact that they were just tortured and could be tortured again. In any event, they were mindful of the flaws of torture, but they went ahead and did it anyway.

GROSS: What did this Inquisition succeed in doing? How many people - is there an estimate of how many people were killed during the First Inquisition?

MURPHY: It's very hard to get an estimate. You know, the records understandably get better as you get closer to our own time. You're certainly dealing with thousands of people who were killed. And then you have to factor in a significant multiplier there in terms of how many people felt themselves affected.

You know, for every person burned at the stake, there were many, probably there were 50, who were given some other kind of punishment. You know, they might have property confiscated, they might have had to, you know, wear these awful garments.

So I think the rough ratio of for every person burned at the stake, maybe 50 others who were sentenced to something. But then if you factor in the families of those people, the people called as witnesses, you actually have a great deal of penetration into society. Everybody was aware that this was going on. And it's not hard to see why the Inquisition weighs so heavily on the psychology of people at the time.

GROSS: So you write about several Inquisitions in your book. We've been talking about the First Inquisition, which starts in the 1300s. Let's skip ahead to the Second, the Spanish Inquisition, started in the late 1400s by Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Who were their targets?

MURPHY: The most prominent targets were Jews, Jews or people whose ancestors had been Jews and converted to Christianity. The great concern of the people who started the Spanish Inquisition - and just to provide some basic information - it was instituted by Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen we know from the Columbus context, and it came into being in the late 1400s.

Tomas de Torquemada was the great inquisitor general. And the ostensible reason for it was that Jews who had converted to Christianity were reverting to Judaism. That was the charge. And, you know, the degree to which it was or wasn't true is one of those things historians debate to this day.

And these charges were leveled at a time when anti-Semitism in Spain was on the increase. There had been terrible pogroms beginning in the late 14th century. There had been forced conversions. There had been continued rounding up of Jews into ghettos. So the situation was terrible even before the Inquisition began, and then once the Inquisition began, it became worse.

GROSS: So a lot of Jews had converted to Christianity, in part because they felt forced to, because of the discrimination against Jews, and during the Inquisition, there was a fear that a lot of these Jews who had converted were secretly still Jewish.

MURPHY: Yes, it was - you know, it was the fear that we've seen, you know, in the mid-20th century about a kind of a fifth column, these people who seem loyal, but secretly they're doing dark things. It was that kind of attitude. And it was - the attitude was poisoned further by the fact that many conversos, as these Jews were called, were very prominent.

You know, they had positions in government. They had positions in finance. They had positions in the military and even in the church. So the idea that behind-the-scenes Judaising conversos were doing their deeds and undermining the state just had a powerful resonance.

GROSS: So during the Spanish Inquisition, the chief inquisitor and the most famous of all the inquisitors was Torquemada. Just tell us something about him and where he fits into the Inquisition.

MURPHY: Not a great deal is known about Torquemada, oddly, for all the impact he's had on world history. He was from an illustrious family. Some of the members of his larger family are thought to have been conversos, although it's not clear that he was at all. He was a zealot. He was humorless. He feared for his life.

He went around generally with 50 armed guards. He had been the confessor to Isabella when she was a girl and so had a great deal of influence on her, and then he eventually became the confessor also of Ferdinand.

There's a story that's told by a person who was there, but one doesn't know whether it is real or not, but the king and queen decided to sign the Act of Expulsion. A delegation came from the Jewish community saying tell us what we can do to make this go away, you know, we want to stay, we are your loyal subjects, give us a pass.

And the king and queen thought about it and were taking this under advisement, and Torquemada supposedly came into the room - it was the Hall of the Ambassadors at the Alhambra - and basically said, you know, Judas sold out the lord for 30 ducats, you know, what are you going to sell out your kingdom for, listening to these people? And it fortified Ferdinand and Isabella in their resolve to expel the Jews.

And the final thing to say about Torquemada is that he seems to have died in his sleep.

GROSS: Cullen Murphy will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Cullen Murphy, author of the new book "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." It's actually about three Inquisitions. The first was launched by Pope Gregory IX against heretics, and sanctioned torture to extract confessions.

When we left off, we were talking about the Second Inquisition, launched in the late 1400s by Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, against the Jews in Spain.

So during the Spanish Inquisition, there's something called the auto-da-fe, which translates to act of faith. These were public spectacles of punishment. Would you describe this?

MURPHY: Yes. Under the Spanish Inquisition, these auto-de-fes really achieved their, you know, their awful, spectacular apex. There had always been something like this, even in medieval times, when, you know, the victims would be led out of the church, the bishop or the inquisitors would pronounce sentence. Some of them would be put on the pyre and burned. And during the Spanish Inquisition, these become extremely elaborate. You would invite the diplomatic corps, for instance, to come and watch. The nobility would be there. People would be lined up in the streets to watch everyone going by. If people who were condemned had, in fact, already died, their bodies would be dug up and they'd be brought by on carts.

GROSS: Torture was a very important tool during the Spanish Inquisition. Forms of torture included the pulley, the rack, something along the lines of waterboarding. Would you describe what these forms were like?

MURPHY: There were basically three. One of them was the one we all know, which is the rack. And, you know, there's not much to be...

GROSS: When you say we all know, I think people who know old movies know the rack, because it was such a popular form of punishment in old period films. I think if you haven't seen those films, you wouldn't know what it is.

MURPHY: So imagine yourself on a table, and there are ropes tied to your arms and to your legs, and those ropes are attached to winches. And there are people - you can imagine them wearing hoods - who are turning the winches and stretching your body. And, you know, they will get to a point where your body is extremely taught and pain is beginning. And then with each new turn, they'll begin asking questions. So that's being stretched on the rack. And so that was one...

GROSS: And your bones can actually get pulled out of the socket, tendons can break. I mean, it can really destroy a body.

MURPHY: It can, indeed, and it did. Technically, the Inquisition had guidelines in place that were supposed to stop torture before it got to that point. But, you know, the history of torture, if it teaches anything, it's that guidelines don't work. People are always willing to look for ways to get around whatever the rules are. And, you know, for instance, you were supposed to torture a person only once during the Inquisition. But if you wanted to torture a person a second time or a third time or a fourth time the, there was a way in which you could simply define, you know, the second, third and fourth times as just a continuance of the first time.

GROSS: So you said there were three forms of torture. What were the other two?

MURPHY: There was the pulley, and there was waterboarding. And the pulley is one where imagine yourself standing up, your hands are tied behind your back, and then a rope is tied to your hands and it's thrown over a, say, a rafter or a pulley, and then you're hoisted up into the air. And sometimes you're dropped, you know, with a jerk, and then hoisted up again. And this was a form of punishment that was actually used on John McCain by the North Vietnamese. That's why his arms, to this day, are very awkward.

There was a prisoner interrogated at Guantanamo who was subjected to this form of, you know, I would say torture, and who died. So the pulley, the garrucha, the strappado, was the second form of torture. And then the third was waterboarding. And, you know, this is a form of torture that - as you may remember - many people in the Bush administration were insisting was not torture at all. And the Inquisition was actually very clear on the matter. It obviously was torture. That's why they were using it. And for waterboarding, what happens is imagine yourself on a plank with your head lower than your feet, and then a cloth is put over your face. And that's what gives waterboarding its name and in Spanish, the toca. And then water is poured on the cloth, and it produces the sensation of drowning. And, in fact, if it continues, you will drown.

GROSS: There were great records, very careful records, kept during the Inquisition. And there are records of what some of the torture victims had to say as they were being tortured. You quote a couple of those in your book, and I'd like you to read one of those transcriptions on page 89. Why don't you explain the circumstances for us first?

MURPHY: Well, it's a very typical case. Women were tortured, just as men were. There was no discrimination based on gender. And this was the interrogation of a woman from Toledo. And she had fallen under suspicion because neighbors had said that she did not eat pork. So she was suspected of Judaizing. So she was put on the rack. Here's a verbatim transcript of what happens as the winches are being turned.

(Reading) She was told to tell what she had done, for she was tortured because she had not done so, and another turn of the cord was ordered. She cried, loosen me, senores, and tell me what I have to say. I do not know what I have done. Oh, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. More turns were ordered, and as they were given, she cried, oh, oh, loosen me, for I don't know what I have to say.

GROSS: And we don't really know what was going through her mind at that time, but let's, for instance, take her at face value for a moment and say that she really didn't know what to say. She had no idea why she was being tortured. Do you know the outcome?

MURPHY: I don't know the outcome. The interrogation goes on for pages and pages. What I just read is, you know, perhaps 100 words, and it goes on for perhaps 1,000. And it's very typical. And it's not surprising that the person being interrogated doesn't know what they're supposed to say, because in most cases, there was no there there. They were being accused of something that they hadn't done. These were innocent people. And so as you hear her crying out, she's desperate for advice from the inquisitors - tell me what I need to say for this to stop - because she simply doesn't know.

GROSS: One of the forms of punishment during the Spanish Inquisition was basically turning people into galley slaves.

MURPHY: The interesting thing about the Spanish Inquisition is that it is run by the state. It's a very early example of a very integrated theocracy, in a way. The pope had some control over the Medieval Inquisition, and the pope would have a lot of control over the Inquisition that came later in Rome. But the pope had no control over the Spanish Inquisition, and as a result, you had the government, the monarchs, presented with this extraordinary tool which they could use for a variety of purposes.

And when I was talking earlier about how the inquisitors often sincerely had the spiritual welfare of their victims in mind - at least from their point of view - well, the Spanish government didn't necessarily have the welfare of the victims in mind. What it did have in mind was the uses it could put prisoners to. And one of the things that the monarchy needed was galley slaves. I don't know if you've read much about being a galley slave, but it's probably the worst punishment that can ever be meted out. Your life expectancy was not more than a couple of years. The conditions were appalling. Disease would carry off entire ships on a regular basis.

GROSS: I think you need to explain what a galley slave is.

MURPHY: Imagine the warships of the Mediterranean in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were powered by hundreds of slaves who were chained to benches and they were chained to oars. And, you know, we remember these great images from movies about Greece and Rome of oared vessels, you know, ramming one another and sailing in - well, not sailing, but, you know, rowing into battle. And these same kinds of ships were used, you know, up through the Middle Ages. And, you know, the governments of the Mediterranean - the Turks as well is the, you know, the Spaniards - had an inexhaustible need for galley slaves because they survived, you know, only for a year or two. So you see the Spanish government effectively using the Inquisition as a way of getting galley slaves.

GROSS: So the main target of the Spanish Inquisition is Jews. How many Jews are estimated to have fled or been expelled during the Inquisition? And how many Jews are estimated to have been killed?

MURPHY: Although the records, again, are not exactly what you would want, you're certainly talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000, 20,000 people killed. And we know that 2,000 were killed within 15 years of the Inquisition's to start. In terms of the number of people who were expelled from Spain, this was a separate matter. The Inquisition really went after conversos, people who were ostensibly Christian, who were being suspected of Judaizing. But in an entirely different category were people who had never converted at all, people who were still proudly Jews. And in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella decided that they were going to expel all such people from the kingdom. And they did.

There's a note in Columbus' log book where he actually - he's preparing to come on his first voyage, and he's watching Jews on their ships leaving Spain. The estimates vary. Every part of this is mushy. But it could be as many as 100,000, and it could be 40,000. But it was a large number, given the population at the time. And many of the people who left were people who were very important to Spain.

GROSS: So we're talking about the Inquisition. My guest is Cullen Murphy, and he's the author of the new book "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the Inquisition. My guest Cullen Murphy is the author of "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." He's also editor-at-large at Vanity Fair and author of the earlier book "Are We Rome?"

So we've talked about the first two Inquisitions, the Inquisition that the pope starts in the 1300s, the Spanish Inquisition, which starts in the late 1400s. And the third Inquisition that you write about begins in the 16th century, during the Reformation. And the focus this time around is Protestants. Why are Protestants under attack by the Vatican?

MURPHY: Well, from the Vatican's point of view, it thinks of itself as under attack by Protestants. But, in essence, what has happened is Martin Luther. And the Protestant Reformation is underway, and along with this, there's another kind of revolution, and that is the revolution that - brought about by the printing press.

For a long time, the church had had an effective monopoly on intellectual life in Europe, and publishing was something that was - you know, it involved actually copying manuscripts, and a lot of it was under the control of monasteries or universities. And suddenly, there's a new technology on the block, and the Church sees this as a threat. So this combined attack - from the church's point of view - of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation is really the thing that instigates the launch of a new Inquisition, and this was called the Roman Inquisition. And it starts in the mid-16th century, and this is the Inquisition that puts Galileo on trial. It's the Inquisition that burns Giordano Bruno at the stake, and it's the Inquisition that starts the Index of Forbidden Books.

GROSS: Because now there are books, because there's a printing press.

MURPHY: Exactly.

GROSS: Accessible books. Accessible books.

MURPHY: Accessible books and endless books. When you read the documents in the Inquisition archives in Rome you just – you have this impression of these clerics, you know, throwing up their hands saying, you know, if only we could stop the presses for one year, then we could maybe do something about this. But it's a tide of publication that's washing across national borders and the papacy is desperately looking for ways to stop it.

And they have all kinds of ways. They post people at the border of various countries. They have watchers at the ports that look at what's coming in on ships. They send agents out to libraries and, you know, physically look through people's books and they make marks in those books. They cross out sentences. I mean, it gets to a point where it's very silly.

Now, for instance, they didn't like the use of the word coitus, and they preferred the word copula for, you know, intercourse. So you can imagine these highly trained inquisitors, you know, with the equivalent of, you know, doctoral degrees going through some duke's library, finding books, seeing the offending word, getting out their ink pot, crossing out coitus, writing in copula.

But this is the level to which it got and, I mean, it may seem amusing but on the other end, there were book burnings, there were confiscations, there were penalties against publishers, and it had an impact.

GROSS: Was torture, burning at the stake as common in this third Inquisition as it was in the first two?

MURPHY: No, it was not. It was not quite as common. When I think of the various Inquisitions, what stands out in my eyes from this third one, the Roman Inquisition is more the attempt to exert intellectual control by various means, including censorship, rather than the killing of people. But that said, people went to the stake and people were tortured.

GROSS: So how did it end?

MURPHY: So I'll draw a contrast. You can argue that the, you know, the first Inquisition ended because it ran out of people to prosecute. You know, it burned them. As one historian says, you know, they ran out of combustible material. And the Spanish Inquisition, although it didn't end until the 19th century, there is something of a similar dynamic. Lots of Jews were expelled from Spain and didn't come back.

And the conversos who remained, they knew what the consequences were going to be if they were, you know, in the Inquisition's clutches. So in some sense, you know, from the Spanish monarchy's point of view, you can think of that as a success, something that, you know, dealt with what they saw as a Jewish problem and also with a Muslim problem.

The Roman Inquisition is different. It comes to an end for a very different reason. I think the answer in a word is the Enlightenment. What kills the Inquisition is the growth and the development of a completely different way of thinking. It's a way of thinking that makes tolerance a positive value - not just something that you accept grudgingly, but something that you embrace as a glorious thing.

And over time - you know, this doesn't happen overnight - but over time there's a new mindset in the West and the kind of, you know, brutally wielded moral certainty as exemplified by the Inquisition is just not acceptable. And so you begin to see, you know, the habitat for an Inquisition begins to shrink and shrink and shrink. This is an example, at least I would argue, of a victory of the power of ideas.

GROSS: Nevertheless, you draw a lot of parallels to the present, and looking in the present, what you find is ethnic cleansing, which is not unlike the expulsions of the Inquisitions, torture. What other parallels do you see?

MURPHY: I see quite a few and they worry me a great deal. One of the points I make is that, you know, to have an Inquisition or any kind of, you know, violent, intolerant regime that persists over time, to have such a thing, it requires more than hatred. It requires more than just simply wanting to impose your belief on someone else. That happens all the time. It's happened for, you know, thousands of years, but it doesn't have much shelf life. You know, it flares. It burns out.

What gives that form of hatred and intolerance shelf life is a kind of institutional basis. You know, you have to have a bureaucracy of some sort. You need to be able to keep records. You need to be able to train people. You need manuals. You need an apparatus of censorship. There's a whole list of things that you can point to that help you, you know, keep a regime of repression going. And if you don't have it, it just peters out.

And what you see in the Middle Ages is that for the first time a lot of these tools are being developed. You know, they look primitive. The kind of recordkeeping of an inquisitor in Toulouse in 1250 has doesn't look like a, you know, a search engine but it's pretty effective for its time.

And my argument is that all of these tools that make inquisitorial kind of activity possible in the first place, you know, we have these tools in a very advanced state right now.

GROSS: The recordkeeping.

MURPHY: And the bureaucracy.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MURPHY: The capacity - you know, one thing that you see when you look at something, for instance, like the Roman Inquisition is the capacity for a bureaucracy to just keep going and going and going. And that is one of the, I mean, to my mind it's just one of the object lessons of the Inquisition that, you know, even without fresh impetus people who are inquisitors train other inquisitors. They keep doing their jobs decade after decade after decade. It takes on a kind of life of its own.

GROSS: My guest is Cullen Murphy, author of the new book "God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Cullen Murphy, author of the new book "God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." You majored in medieval history when you were in college and another part of your professional life is that you collaborated with your father, your late father, on doing the "Prince Valiant" comic strip. You worked on that for about 14 years. You wrote it. He drew it. He inherited the comic from the originator.

And so was there a connection in your mind between "Prince Valiant" and your interest in medieval history?

MURPHY: Well, we certainly used torture in "Prince Valiant." I mean "Prince Valiant" didn't, but his enemies did. Oddly, Terry, the fact that I majored in medieval history had nothing to do with my wanting to write "Prince Valiant." The reason I wanted to write "Prince Valiant" was because it meant I would work with my father and it was a happy coincidence that, it turned out, that I majored in medieval history.

GROSS: So you say you used torture, that the bad guys used torture in "Prince Valiant." What kind of torture did you use in the strip?

MURPHY: You know, for instance, the rack which was, you know, it was certainly something used at the time. I don't think we ever used waterboarding, but the rack was a device that appeared once or twice.

GROSS: And you feel like you understand the meaning of that a lot more now than you did when you wrote the comic?

MURPHY: I'll tell you what brought the meaning of that home to me more than anything else was reading transcripts of Inquisition interrogations. You know, they are so minute. The secretaries who are sitting there in the corner and, you know, they're like accountants. They don't care what's going on. They're just writing down what people are saying. And when you read those interrogations you feel as if you're hearing something across the ages in real time.

And to hear the cries of, for instance, that woman from Toledo who was accused of eating pork, that's what really brings the reality of torture home for me.

GROSS: Cullen Murphy, thank you so much for talking with us.

MURPHY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Cullen Murphy is the author of the new book "God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World." You can read an excerpt on our website, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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