GOD'S JURY: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, by Cullen Murphy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 310 pp., $27.
"God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World" isn't exactly a history. As the subtitle suggests, the author, Cullen Murphy, is really interested in examining the dread institution's relation to the world we live in now. His last book was titled "Are We Rome?" His new one is short, entertaining and formidably smart.
"The late medieval world," Murphy writes, "experienced an information revolution of its own. Haphazard approaches to organizational management were wrestled into something recognizably modern."
In other words, what made the Inquisition possible was the rise of bureaucracy. If you wanted to catch out a heretic in a contradiction, you needed to be able to quickly ascertain what he'd said the last time he was questioned, even if that was 20 years ago. "Collect, preserve, retrieve: inquisitions depend on data storage."
But an effective inquisition requires more than capable administration. The other "indispensable ingredient," Murphy writes, is "the conviction that one is absolutely right." Once you're operating under that kind of moral certainty, "the unthinkable becomes permissible."
If you're fighting pure evil -- on the side of God or democracy -- then no method is too extreme. And that's where torture comes in. Accordingly, there's a lot in this book about pain and mutilation, most of it (except for one medieval incident of eye gouging and lip lopping) not too unbearably graphic.
"God's Jury" is divided into elegantly concise chapters devoted to eras in the 700-year life span of the Catholic Inquisition -- medieval, Spanish, Roman, global (the last introduced to the New World by Christopher Columbus).
Finally Murphy reaches the "secular inquisition" of our own day, which has in fact been his theme all along. His real interest is the inquisitorial impulse in human nature and the institutions we create.
He demonstrates that the harassment of Catholics in England following Henry VIII's break with the Church was the "mirror image" of what the Church was doing on the continent, although the English victims tended to be drawn and quartered rather than burned at the stake.
The Catholic Inquisition, moreover, was far from lawless. It consistently tried to "codify its practices and place restrictions on its behavior," even if "rogue elements" (as the Bush administration would later call them) were always taking things a little further than their superiors envisioned.
Murphy moves smoothly from Renaissance England to contemporary Britain, where surveillance is as widespread and sophisticated as it has ever been ("If you've got nothing to hide," goes the government's motto, "you've got nothing to fear"), from the Nazis to the Stasi and on to Guantánamo Bay.
His tone is neither shocked nor, on the surface at least, especially outraged. I imagine that's because, as a Catholic himself, he has absorbed the idea of original sin and regards the fallen nature of humankind without surprise.
He takes note of something bland and essentially mindless about the whole enterprise he's depicting. The historical Inquisition was "a bureaucracy like any other, subject to the same myopic imperatives, the same petty ambitions and animosities, that one finds in 'Dilbert' or 'The Office.' "
Murphy doesn't cite this banality, any more than Hannah Arendt did, to let the torturers off the hook. His point is that we have to stay eternally on guard against the inquisitorial argument that the greater good justifies the smaller wrong. Since Sept. 11, as he makes clear, we haven't been doing such a great job.