Bureaucrats with torches

What the Inquisition really announced about the world

An engraving depicting the torture in the name of the Spanish Inquisition, circa 1520, complete with a scribe (at right).
Three Lions/Getty Images
An engraving depicting the torture in the name of the Spanish Inquisition, circa 1520, complete with a scribe (at right).

Say what you will about the Inquisition, but it was an unequivocal success in one respect: Everyone knows its name. The Inquisition has long since been transmuted, by a kind of mental alchemy, from historical episode into universal metaphor. It has become a byword for intrusive and brutal intolerance — for moral certainty wielded with pitiless zeal.

At the same time, without really thinking about it, we’ve come to regard the Inquisition as safely in the past, a high-water mark of benighted medieval prejudice: the glowering interrogators in their hoods, the creaking winches and tightening ropes of the rack, the flickering torches applied to pyres outside the walls of Seville or in the cobbled marketplace of Rome.

This view isn’t wrong: The Inquisition was definitely medieval, in a literal sense. This disciplinary effort mounted by the Church got its start in 1231 AD and continued for centuries. Thousands of people were burned at the stake; hundreds of thousands were subjected to lesser punishments. The Inquisition targeted heretics, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and rationalists. Read the transcripts of interrogations — and the theological points on which many of them turn — and you become conscious of a worldview that is very far away.


And yet to consign the Inquisition to the distant past — to think of it as merely medieval — is a mistake. Though the underlying mind-set reflects another age, what made the Inquisition possible at all — what underlay its operations and gave it staying power — was the fact that the world, in fits and starts, was becoming what we think of as modern.

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The past several decades have seen a golden age of Inquisition scholarship as historians have sifted through voluminous archives in Spain, in France, in Mexico, and in cities throughout Italy. In 1998, the Vatican for the first time opened its own Inquisition archives to scholars. Modern historians have shed light on many specific questions. But from between the lines a larger truth emerges — that the Inquisition was driven by a host of innovations. They are innovations that we take for granted, woven into the world we live in now.

It was becoming possible not just to collect and preserve information about people, but also to organize it in such a way that it could be retrieved when needed. In the Church as well as in secular governments, laws were being codified more coherently, making it possible to draw a clearer line between what was permissible and what was not. Self-perpetuating bureaucracies were being created, staffed by trained personnel. Even interrogation techniques were becoming systematized in a quasi-scientific way.

To look at the Inquisition is to watch the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. There had always been outbreaks of hatred and persecution. But for persecution to continue for centuries, it needed a modern platform — the advantages afforded by a growing web of law, communications, administration, and, to use an anachronistic term, information technology. The Inquisition was waged not by thugs or mobs, but by what today we would call technocrats.

To understand this is to understand something about all sustained persecutions: Whatever particular moral certainty they arise from, the machinery on which they run is generic and widely available — and once set into motion, it’s very difficult to stop.


For all its familiarity as a reference point, the real Inquisition remains very little known to most people. The term “Inquisition” derives from the inquisitio process — adapted from ancient Roman practice — in which judge and prosecutor were one and the same, and defendants were questioned often without knowing the charges against them or the names of witnesses.

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PREJUDICE GETS SYSTEMATIC: an 18th-cebtury engraving of the Spanish Inquisition.

The first “inquisitors of heretical depravity” were sent forth under papal warrant in the early 13th century to combat the inroads made by troublesome heretical groups in southern France and northern Italy — sects like the Cathars and Waldensians, who not only rejected Church teachings but also represented a very real threat to papal authority. The efforts of these early inquisitors, which were very decentralized (and very successful), are known collectively as the Medieval Inquisition.

Two centuries later came the Spanish Inquisition, instituted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and always tightly under the control of the crown (not the pope). The Spanish Inquisition, overseen at the outset by the implacable Tomas de Torquemada, had its roots in a deepening anti-Semitism and in the unifying ambitions of the Spanish monarchs. It set its sights on Jews and “judaizers,” among others, and as Spain’s empire circled the world, so did the Inquisition. (The Portuguese Inquisition followed a parallel course.)

Then, in the mid-16th century, the papacy revived its own inquisitorial efforts. The so-called Roman Inquisition was enlisted mainly to fight the rise of Protestantism, but it did not ignore Jews, freethinkers, homosexuals, and the superstitious. The Roman Inquisition is the one that put Galileo on trial and created the Index of Forbidden Books. The Enlightenment eroded its influence, and the end of the Papal States removed its temporal power, but it was not formally abolished until 1908. Many of its functions were rolled over into a Vatican office now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — still the Vatican’s theological watchdog. The Congregation in fact occupies the Inquisition’s old palazzo. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was the Congregation’s prefect until moving across St. Peter’s Square in 2005 to become Pope Benedict XVI. (Ratzinger was once introduced from the pulpit by New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor as the “grand inquisitor.”)

Before the appearance of Henry Charles Lea’s magisterial “A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages” in the late 19th century, most writing about the Inquisition had consisted of polemical salvos launched from one side or another. It remains an emotional subject. But recent scholarship on the Inquisition is robust, and has altered a number of traditional views. It emphasizes that the Inquisition was not a singular but a plural — there were many Inquisitions, and they varied markedly in virulence and effectiveness. It has revised downward the overall casualty figures — still horrific, but in the tens of thousands rather than the “million” favored by pamphleteers — and underscored how inquisitors sought to operate within a body of established rules, including rules governing the use of torture. Rules, of course, can be stretched, and they were.


This scholarship also offers a clear sense that the Inquisition was, in its very DNA, an institution with modern characteristics. There’s a reason why the Inquisition arose when it did: It was made possible in part by organizing tools that we today take for granted, but that centuries ago were just coming to the fore. First, and crucial, was the arrival of modern bureaucracy. Flawed and patchwork though it was, the secretarial machinery of the Church represented a degree of bureaucratic infrastructure that hadn’t been seen in Europe since antiquity. At the dawn of the 13th century, papal chanceries turned out perhaps 300 letters annually; a hundred years later, that number had grown to 50,000. Church councils discussed the proper way to fill out forms. Operating this modern machinery required the service of professionals. Clerics of various kinds, usually priests of the Dominican Order, were trained with the help of instruction manuals that covered everything from definitions of heresy to a how-to on the art of interrogation (with sample dialogue).

An effective bureaucracy couldn’t have operated without new methods of managing information. As the historian James B. Given has pointed out, conducting interrogations and tribunals required accessible records from the past. Had some defendant come before the Inquisition previously? What about friends and family members? On the manuscript page, trial transcripts were abstracted in boxed synopses in the margin, for quick scanning. The compilation of indexes, which inquisitors brought to a high level of utility, allowed for easy cross-referencing.

Tribunals aside, there’s the matter of systematic censorship — an attempt to exercise what today we’d call “thought control.” The Roman Inquisition in particular mounted an aggressive effort, spurred by development of the printing press. There had always been book burnings — you can find examples in the Bible — but the explosion in publishing made possible by Johannes Gutenberg, and the freedom that came with it, confronted the Church with an emergency. It was now all too easy for ideas to cross borders; they had to be attacked at every stage of the life cycle. The inquisitors deployed a suite of techniques. They read manuscripts before publication, insisting on changes. Teams of visitors were sent out from Rome to pay stern calls on publishers. Expurgators examined books that had already been published. They scratched out every occurrence of the offensive “coitus” and replaced it with the more demure “copula.” With heavy ink they blotted out woodcuts of Erasmus and Luther. Agents traveled to the Frankfurt Book Fair (which dates to the 15th century) to keep track of new and shocking titles as they flew off Europe’s presses. Inspectors were on hand at major ports and border crossings. The administration of the Inquisition was never a paragon of competence, but censorship took a toll. And though impossible to quantify, the resultant self-censorship may have been just as pernicious.

The historian Edward Peters has noted that the long decline of the actual Inquisition over the centuries was paralleled by the rise of a metaphorical Inquisition that lives on in works of art and literature, in comedy and polemic.

The Inquisition has flourished in metaphor for a reason: The institution itself may have been dead or dying, but practices that looked very Inquisition-like were still prevalent in the living world. The methods and mind-set of the Inquisition had escaped the Church and into the wild. They had taken on lives of their own and could be found in the institutions of secular society. Arthur Koestler set his inquisitorial novel, “Darkness at Noon,” in a simulacrum of Stalin’s Russia, at the height of the purges in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg, cited the Inquisition in his summation at the close of the trial of major Nazi war criminals. Inquisitorial thinking, reinforced by modern capabilities, underlies much of the dark side of the past 100 years: the police states, the dirty wars, the Red Scares, the fatwas.

Today, the fledgling bureaucracies of the Middle Ages have evolved into the goliaths we now encounter anywhere we turn — ever-expanding, deeply entrenched, operating on auto-pilot. Multitudes of ordinary people — their employees — are invested in their well-being. The bureaucracies are corporate as well as governmental. Meanwhile, data-collection and digital record-keeping are among the most aggressive endeavors of our time, and take place more or less automatically with every stroke on a keyboard and every stride past a camera. These tools are not inherently bad — they make our present civilization possible. But they are powerful and hard to control, and can be deployed in ways that already give us pause.

No one can predict how, decades or centuries hence, these tools will have been directed, the ends to which they will have been put, the ways of thinking they may have been bent to serve. Revolutionary change is often the stuff of slow increments, not sudden overdrive. But one doesn’t need to look far to see possible futures in embryo.

Warrantless wiretapping of our private conversations, or an airport surveillance system that photographs our naked bodies, would have been unthinkable overreach in a previous generation. Today, we’ve come to accept them — products of vast bureaucratic momentum, coupled with fear. Once in place, it’s hard to imagine many security measures ever scaled back.

In other countries, a far more intrusive level of surveillance is part of everyday life. In Britain, a network of more than 4 million CCTV cameras keeps watch on vast swaths of ordinary geography. Elsewhere, the object is ideological scrutiny. China’s so-called Great Firewall, which puts restrictions on Internet access, is not absolute, but it curtails freedom and encourages self-censorship. The Internet gets applause for helping to spark the Arab Spring, but it’s just as useful in the hands of the surveillance bureaucracies in Iran and other countries as they troll for names of activists and dissidents.

Technology gives us no shortage of brave new worlds to imagine, many of them unpleasant and, in our conjuring, uncharted. But the example of the Inquisition suggests a different lesson: We should not be surprised if they look strangely familiar.

Cullen Murphy is the editor at large of Vanity Fair and the former managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His new book, “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,” is being published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.