The Inquisitorial Impulse

The sun rises and sets on my writing today: in addition to the Thinking Small review that the San Francisco Chroncile ran today (see the previous entry), my review of Cullen Murphy’s grisly, wonderful God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World was the lead book piece in this Sunday’s Boston Globe.

Click here to read the entire review. Here’s how it gets going:

July 21, 1643 was a typical day during the Spanish Inquisition – hot and dusty, haunted by flimsy denunciations, and tinged with blood.

Over the preceding year or so a nasty, convoluted debate between some friars and members of what passed for the civil authority had raged. Each faction made accusations of witchcraft and blasphemy, and in a sudden eruption of violence a group of renegade church partisans attacked and slaughtered Luis de Rosas, a former governor. On this July day the newly installed governor apprehended eight men he divined were responsible for the killing of Rosas and, with the authority granted by the Inquisition, had the conspirators beheaded. In “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,’’ journalist Cullen Murphy quotes a tourist guide’s description of this town’s plaza as site of “the largest mass beheading of Europeans by Europeans in a continental American town.’’

The town in question? Santa Fe, N.M.

We rarely think of the Spanish imperial presence in North America, but that the Inquisition raged with such ferocity in what was to become US territory feels doubly strange. Like much of the world, New Mexico, Texas, and California all saw spasms of inquisitorial rage. What the world hasn’t seen, “God’s Jury’’ argues, is the Inquisition’s end. “Modernity . . . is not a time – it’s a place,’’ Murphy writes, quoting geographer David Harvey. Likewise, the Inquisition isn’t an institution so much as an instinct, one that persists.

Murphy offers a ghoulishly readable replete with perverse, lunatic details. Some of my favorite passages detail the gallows etiquette of torching heretics. Acts of mercy included affixing a bag of gunpowder to the condemned’s neck in order to abbreviate their agony. At root, though, God’s Jury is a elegant warning to be wary of unjustifiable certainty, one of humanity’s most persistent and corrosive flaws.

As he writes:

The presumption is now widespread, though rarely articulated in these terms, that a lack of certainty is unacceptable. It is the presumption that if we only knew enough, and paid enough attention, and applied sufficient resources, then ills of all kinds would disappear. Anti-terrorism measures are built on this assumption, and so new forms of search and surveillance area added continually to older ones….Certitude can be a snare. Doubt can be a helping hand….Humility is the Counter-Inquisition’s most effective ally. It can’t be legislated, but it can come to be embraced.


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