Does the Inquisition Explain the Modern World?

In 1568, in the Spanish city of Toledo, Elvira del Campo was brought before the local tribunal of the Inquisition. Del Campo, a scrivener’s wife, had been accused of avoiding pork—in other words, of secretly practicing Judaism.

Del Campo admitted that she didn’t eat pork, claiming that it disagreed with her. But even as the inquisitor threatened torture, she insisted that she was a good Christian.

So she was brought to the torture chamber, where the interrogation began with the usual tactics, by stripping the prisoner naked and tying garrotes (razor-sharp cords) around her limbs. The inquisitor interrogated Del Campo as the torturer tightened the garrotes with a kind of wooden lever; it was not unusual for the cords to cut literally to the bone. 

Henry Charles Lea, author of the groundbreaking A History of the Inquisition of Spain, quotes at length from the “passionless, businesslike” report of the recording secretary:

One cord was applied to the arms and twisted [….] She was told to tell what she had done contrary to our holy Catholic faith. She said “Take me from here and tell me what I have to say—they hurt me—Oh my arms, my arms!” which she repeated many times and went on “I don’t remember—tell me what I have to say—O wretched me!—I will tell all that is wanted, Señores—they are breaking my arms—loosen me a little—I did everything that is said of me.”

But del Campo’s confession was not specific enough. So they put her in the potro, which Lea describes as “a kind of trestle, with sharp-edged rungs across it like a ladder,” and wrapped more cords around her body. 

Del Campo begged for someone to tell her how to confess: “If I knew what to say I would say it.” Instead, a toca, or linen strip, was placed in her mouth, and water was poured on it to simulate the sensation of drowning.

When del Campo became insensate, the inquisitor suspended the interrogation. After the customary four-day interval, they brought her back for more. It was during her second torture session that, as Lea puts it, “the inquisitors finally had the satisfaction of eliciting a confession of Judaism and a prayer for mercy and penance.”

The torture of Elvira del Campo makes for difficult reading, even with the intervening centuries. Thus it is remarkable to learn that hers is one of thousands of such records; as Cullen Murphy makes clear in God’s Jury, the Inquisition was characterized by both its brutality and its efficient record-keeping.

Both were present at its very beginnings. Murphy explains that its first iteration, the Medieval Inquisition, was a response to Catharism, a dualist heresy that flourished in southwest France at the turn of the 13th century. A bloody twenty-year crusade stamped out the overt practice of Catharism, though underground its embers continued to smolder.

Thus in 1231, Pope Gregory IX created the role of inquisitor, a “detective, prosecutor, and judge rolled into one,” as Murphy puts it. Usually a Dominican friar, the inquisitor moved fast, traveling with an assistant and perhaps a few armed guards. When he entered a town, he would first sermonize, urging those who had strayed to foreswear their heresies. A grace period then followed, when heretics could repent for a lighter punishment. After the grace period, the trials began. 

Murphy argues that “in a sense, the period of grace ended up creating heresy.” Why not confess to something—anything—just to get the inquisitor off your back? Or if you had a grudge against your neighbor, why not turn him in? (Or her: one witness against del Campo seems to have been a disgruntled servant.)

The inquisitors were untroubled by such contradictions—nor by torture, which Pope Innocent IV authorized in 1252. Of course it was unseemly for priests to bloody their own hands with such work: there is evidence that professional torturers were hired, and if the sentence were death, the prisoner would be “relaxed” into the authority of the executioner.

The Inquisition’s fusion of cruelty and bureaucracy is nicely exemplified by the Dominican inquisitor Bernard Gui (1260 or 1261-1330). Gui’s legacy includes the first inquisitor’s manual, which provided interrogation tips, and his Liber Sententiarum, or “Book of Sentences.” This book was a kind of professional diary in which Gui recorded 633 guilty verdicts, including over 40 death sentences, and even the expenses incurred during a 1323 execution (55 sols 6 deniers for wood; 20 sols per executioner).

This institutional knowledge was carried over into the Spanish Inquisition, which caught Elvira del Campo in its pincers. But the Spanish added some new twists—the auto da fé, or “act of faith,” a public spectacle of humiliation and punishment; the obsession with limpieza de sangre, or “purity of blood,” which culminated with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and again with the Muslim expulsion of 1609.

The Spanish Inquisition would be the longest and furthest-reaching era of this divine institution. It began in 1480, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sought to root out backsliding conversos, Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity but were supposedly practicing their original faiths in secret. It ended in the early nineteenth century, as the Church’s temporal power weakened. While it lasted, tens of thousands were tried and thousands executed (Murphy is understandably vague on the statistics). As late as the 19th century, inquisitors carried out their grim business in Manila, Cartagena, Santa Fe, and Mexico City.

A third, overlapping phase, the Roman Inquisition, began in the 16th century. Under the direct authority of the Holy See, its biggest target was Protestantism. But it also went after Jews, witches, and homosexuals (all the interesting people, apparently). And it went after ideas, inventing the Index of Forbidden Books, roasting Giordano Bruno for espousing multiple worlds, censoring Galileo for his heliocentrism. It was a busy time for inquisitors: between the 16th and 18th centuries, they conducted perhaps 50,000 trials, resulting in about 1250 executions.

But the Church, in the end, was overmatched by Enlightenment principles and Protestantism (even if the latter had its inquisitorial moments under Calvin in Geneva and Queen Elizabeth in England). By the time of Italy’s unification in 1870, the Inquisition was concerned more with internal discipline than external hereticism.

And yet even in its death throes, the Inquisition still had teeth. In 1858, Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child in Bologna, took ill and was secretly baptized by a Christian servant who feared for his soul. The boy recovered, and when the Inquisition got wind of the story, he was taken from his parents and raised by Pope Pius IX himself. Mortara joined the priesthood, specializing in preaching to Jews. He lived until 1940.

It may be redundant to say that God’s Jury is almost ridiculously informative. The book would be an excellent popular history if it weren’t for two distracting tics.

One is that Murphy seems to have visited almost every place he mentions in God’s Jury, and he’s not afraid to tell us about it: “I passed the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade”; “The roads of southwestern France, in the shadow of the Pyrenees, wind among deep valleys and steep gorges”; “Reading a book in an aircraft cruising above the Syrian Desert.” And so on.

Then there’s Murphy’s habit of interrupting his narrative to prove his grand thesis, that the Inquisition “helps explain what the world is today.” Certainly there are many connections between the Inquisition and more recent institutions. But Murphy strains to connect the Inquisition to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to McCarthyism, to the “dirty war” in Argentina, to the proliferation of security cameras in present-day Britain—in short, to practically any and every relatively recent infringement upon civil liberties.

Murphy has a particular disgust for the Bush administration’s use of torture, and with good reason; the waterboarding “debate” made me feel ashamed to be an American (even though the del Campo demonstrates that we didn’t invent the technique). But Murphy seems to be trying to establish a moral equivalency between two presidential terms and seven centuries of torture, intimidation, public humiliation, incarceration, and execution. I would like to see Guantanamo Bay closed, but it is not a gulag; medieval popes did not have term limits.

But Murphy does have a point. If I have problems with his argument, it is merely a matter of degree. For the Inquisition indeed echoes loudly in the hysteria over Muslims and illegal immigrants. And the story of Elvira del Campo teaches us to ask two questions: How far will they go? And who’s next?