Torturer’s Apprentice

The new science of interrogation is not, in fact, so new at all: “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” and “waterboarding” all spring directly from the practices of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The distance, in both technique and ideology, between the Inquisition’s interrogation regime and 21st-century America’s is uncomfortably short—and provides a chilling harbinger of what can happen when moral certainty gets yoked to the machinery of torture.
Science Museum/SSPL

Umberto Eco, in his best-selling 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, summons to life a dark and compelling character: Bernard Gui, a bishop and papal inquisitor. In the movie, he is played with serpentine menace by F. Murray Abraham. The year is 1327, and Gui has come to an abbey where a series of murders has been committed. It falls to him to convene a tribunal and examine the suspects. Eco describes the inquisitor’s bearing as the tribunal gets under way:

He did not speak: while all were now expecting him to begin the interrogation, he kept his hands on the papers he had before him, pretending to arrange them, but absently. His gaze was really fixed on the accused, and it was a gaze in which hypocritical indulgence (as if to say: Never fear, you are in the hands of a fraternal assembly that can only want your good) mixed with icy irony (as if to say: You do not yet know what your good is, and I will shortly tell you) and merciless severity (as if to say: But in any case I am your judge here, and you are in my power).

Bernard Gui is a historical figure. He was a Dominican priest, and in 1307 he was indeed made an inquisitor by Pope Clement V, with responsibility for a broad swath of southern France. Over a period of 15 years, Gui pronounced some 633 men and women guilty of heresy. We know the disposition of these cases because Gui wrote everything down—the record survives in his Liber sententiarum, his “Book of Sentences.” It is a folio-size volume, bound in red leather. File a request at the British Library, in London, and before long the document will be delivered to the Manuscripts Reading Room, where you can prop it up on a wedge of black velvet. The writing, in Latin, is tiny and heavily abbreviated.

Inquisition records can be highly detailed and shockingly mundane. An itemized accounting of expenses for the burning of four heretics in 1323 survives from Carcassonne:

For large wood 55 sols, 6 deniers.
For vine-branches . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 sols, 3 deniers.
For straw 2 sols, 6 deniers.
For four stakes 10 sols, 9 deniers.
For ropes to tie the convicts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 sols, 7 deniers.
For the executioner, each 20 sols . . . . . . . . 80 sols.
In all 8 livres, 14 sols, 7 deniers.

An event like this would typically have occurred on a Sunday, in the course of a ceremony known as a sermo generalis. A throng would gather, and the various sentences would be read aloud by the inquisitor. The recitation of capital crimes came last, and the prisoners were then turned over—relaxed was the euphemistic term—by the spiritual authorities to the secular ones: churchmen did not wish to sully themselves with killing. To emphasize that his hands were clean, the inquisitor would read a pro forma prayer, expressing hope that the condemned might somehow be spared the pyre—though there was no hope of that. Bernard Gui’s most productive day was April 5, 1310, when he condemned 17 people to death.

Late in 2010, Google Labs introduced something called the NGram Viewer, which allows users to search a database of millions of published works and discover how often particular words have been used from year to year. If you search for the word inquisition, you’ll get a graph showing a sharp upward climb beginning about a decade ago. The word comes up more and more because people have been invoking it as a casual metaphor when writing about our own times—for instance, when referring to modern methods of interrogation, surveillance, torture, and censorship. The original Inquisition was initiated by the Church in the 13th century to deal with heretics and other undesirables, and continued off and on for 600 years. But it’s a mistake to think of the Inquisition as just a metaphor, or as relegated to the past. For one thing, within the Church, it has never quite ended; the office charged today with safeguarding doctrine and meting out discipline occupies the Inquisition’s old palazzo at the Vatican. More to the point, the Inquisition had all the hallmarks of a modern institution—with a bureaucracy, a memory, a procedure, a set of tools, a staff of technocrats, and an all-encompassing ideology that brooked no dissent. It was not a relic but a harbinger.

You can see this in the work of someone like Bernard Gui. Few personal details are known about the man himself, but Eco’s fictional characterization gets at something authentic. He was methodical, learned, clever, patient, and relentless—all of this can be inferred from the paper trail. Gui was a prodigious writer. Among other things, he compiled a lengthy manual for inquisitors called Practica officii inquisitionis heretice pravitatis, or “Conduct of the Inquisition Into Heretical Depravity.” The manual covers the nature and types of heresy an inquisitor might encounter and also provides advice on everything from conducting an interrogation to pronouncing a death sentence.

Gui would never have put it this way, but his aim in the Practica was to create something like a science of interrogation. He was well aware that interrogation is a transaction between two people—a high-stakes game—and that the person being interrogated, like the person asking the questions, brings an attitude and a method to the process. The accused may be wily and disputatious. Or he may seem humble and accommodating. He may feign insanity. He may resort to “sophistries, deceit, and verbal trickery.” The inquisitor, Gui advised, needed a variety of “distinct and appropriate techniques.”

Gui’s was not the Inquisition’s first interrogation manual, but it was one of the most influential. A generation after Gui, another Dominican, Nicholas Eymerich, produced the Directorium inquisitorum, which built on the work of his predecessor and achieved even greater renown. In our own times, the techniques of interrogation have been refined by psychologists and criminologists, by soldiers and spies. Place the medieval techniques alongside those laid out in modern handbooks, such as Human Intelligence Collector Operations, the U.S. Army interrogation manual, and the inquisitors’ practices seem very up-to-date.

The inquisitors were shrewd students of human nature. Like Gui, Eymerich was well aware that those being questioned would employ a range of stratagems to deflect the interrogator. In his manual, he lays out 10 ways in which heretics seek to “hide their errors.” They include “equivocation,” “redirecting the question,” “feigning astonishment,” “twisting the meaning of words,” “changing the subject,” “feigning illness,” and “feigning stupidity.” For its part, the Army interrogation manual provides a “Source and Information Reliability Matrix” to assess the same kinds of behavior. It warns interrogators to be wary of subjects who show signs of “reporting information that is self-serving,” who give “repeated answers with exact wording and details,” and who demonstrate a “failure to answer the question asked.”

But the well-prepared inquisitor, Eymerich writes, has ruses of his own. To confront an unforthcoming prisoner, he might sit with a large stack of documents in front of him, which he would appear to consult as he asked questions or listened to answers, periodically looking up from the pages as if they contradicted the testimony and saying, “It is clear to me that you are hiding the truth.” The Army manual suggests a technique called the “file and dossier approach,” a variant on what it terms the “we know all” approach:

The HUMINT [human intelligence] collector prepares a dossier containing all available information concerning the source or his organization. The information is carefully arranged within a file to give the illusion that it contains more data than is actually there … It is also effective if the HUMINT collector is reviewing the dossier when the source enters the room.

Another technique suggested by Eymerich is to suddenly shift gears, approaching the person being interrogated in a seeming spirit of mercy and compassion, speaking “sweetly” and solicitously, perhaps making arrangements to provide something to eat and drink. The Army manual puts it this way:

At the point when the interrogator senses the source is vulnerable, the second HUMINT collector appears. [He] scolds the first HUMINT collector for his uncaring behavior and orders him from the room. The second HUMINT collector then apologizes to soothe the source, perhaps offering him a beverage and a cigarette.

Eymerich and the Army describe many other techniques. You can try to convince the prisoner that resistance is pointless because others have already spilled the beans. You can take the line that you know the prisoner is but a small fish, and if only you had the names of bigger fish, the small one might swim free. You can play on the prisoner’s feelings of utter despair, reminding him that only cooperation with the interrogator offers a path to something better. The Army manual refers to this as the “emotional futility” approach:

In the emotional-futility approach, the HUMINT collector convinces the source that resistance to questioning is futile. This engenders a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness on the part of the source. Again as with the other emotional approaches, the HUMINT collector gives the source a “way out” of the helpless situation.

And then there is the matter of torture. Pope Innocent IV authorized its use by the Inquisition in 1252 in the papal bull Ad extirpanda. Few words summon the Dark Ages as quickly as torture, but the uncomfortable reality is that the emergence of torture as an instrument of justice marks the advent of a modern way of thinking: the truth can be ascertained without God’s help.

Torture as a tool of jurisprudence was little known in the darkest part of the Dark Ages. The ability of human beings to discover the truth was thought to be limited. Thus the reliance not on judges or juries but on iudicium Dei—the judgment of an all-knowing God—to determine guilt or innocence. This often took the form of trial by ordeal. The accused would be submerged in water, or made to walk on red-hot coals, or forced to plunge an arm into boiling water. If he or she suffered no harm, or if the wounds healed sufficiently within a certain period of time, then it was the judgment of God that the accused was innocent. This regime was common in Europe for many centuries. It was unquestionably primitive and certainly barbaric. In its favor, it was devoid of hubris about what mere mortals can ever really know.

The late-medieval revolution in legal thinking—manifest everywhere, from Church courts to secular ones—took the pursuit of justice out of God’s hands and put it into the hands of human beings. In his book Torture, the historian Edward Peters explains that the medieval legal revolution was based on one big idea: when it came to discovering guilt or innocence—or, more broadly, discovering the truth about something—there was no need to send the decision all the way up the chain of command, to God. These matters were well within human capacity.

But that didn’t quite settle the issue, Peters goes on. When God is the judge, no other standard of proof is needed. When human beings are the judges, the question of proof comes to the fore. What constitutes acceptable evidence? How do you decide between conflicting accounts? In the absence of a confession—the most unassailable form of evidence, the “queen of proofs”—what form of questioning can properly be applied to induce one? Are there ways in which the interrogation might be … enhanced? And in the end, how do you know that the full truth has been exposed—that a bit more isn’t waiting to be discovered some little way beyond, perhaps with some additional effort? So it’s not hard to understand, Peters concludes, how torture comes into the picture.

From time to time, exhibits of torture instruments go on tour. The effect is oddly Disneyfied—a theme-park view of interrogation. The very names of the instruments reinforce a sense of distant fantasy: Brazen Bull, Iron Maiden, Judas Cradle, Saint Elmo’s Belt, Cat’s Paw, Brodequins, Thummekings, Pilliwinks, Heretic’s Fork, Spanish Tickler, Spanish Donkey, Scold’s Bridle, Drunkard’s Cloak. They could just as easily be the names of pubs, or brands of condoms, or points of ascent on a climbing map.

The Inquisition rarely resorted to these specific instruments. It relied on three different techniques, all of them used today. Before a session began, the person to be interrogated would be brought into the torture chamber and told what was about to be done. The experience of being in conspectus tormentorum was often enough to compel testimony. If not, the session commenced. A physician was generally in attendance. Meticulous records were kept; the usual practice was for a notary to be present, preparing a minutely detailed account. These documents survive in large numbers; they are dry, bureaucratic expositions whose default tone of clinical neutrality is punctuated matter-of-factly—“Oh! Oh!”—by quoted screams.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy, Vanity Fair’s editor at large, was The Atlantic’s managing editor for 20 years. This essay was adapted from his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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