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The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God

The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God

by Jonathan Kirsch

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The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual by nationally bestselling author Jonathan Kirsch is a provocative popular history of the Inquisition, the 12th century reign of church-sanctioned terror. Ranging from the Knights Templar to the first Protestants, from Joan of Arc to Galileo, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual is a fascinating and


The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual by nationally bestselling author Jonathan Kirsch is a provocative popular history of the Inquisition, the 12th century reign of church-sanctioned terror. Ranging from the Knights Templar to the first Protestants, from Joan of Arc to Galileo, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual is a fascinating and sobering study of the torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of “heretics” in God’s name—the original blueprints for persecution originally drafted in the Middle Ages but followed for centuries afterwards, up to and including the “advanced interrogation methods” recently employed at Guantanamo Bay.

Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times
“A scathing account of the Inquisition’s 600-year campaign to stifle religious dissent, as well as to persecute various groups of people it branded as alien menaces to communal security.” –Los Angeles Times
Washington Post
“Jonathan Kirsch is a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing to modern audiences.” —Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Mention the Inquisition to any informed person and you're likely to garner a response somewhere between horror and disgust. Kirsch, a prolific writer and documenter of our past (A History of the End of the World; Gods Against the Gods), offers up an amazing recounting of the abuses by clergy and state in those terrible times. Clinical in its descriptions, the narrative's lively and crisp prose brings us right into the torture chamber, shining a much-needed light into the mindset of the church and its representatives. Alarmingly, the author insists that although the Inquisition is but a memory for us today, the inquisitional mindset is alive and well. Kirsch discovers many examples in more modern and familiar history: the Salem witch trials, Hitler's Germany, Roosevelt's placing Japanese-Americans in interment camps and Senator McCarthy's Communist-hunting. All of these injustices, he says, find their root in the same sense of power and privilege. Kirsch's forceful and cautionary account is essential reading for historians and anyone who wants to understand the potential dark side of religion. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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The Grand Inquisitor's Manual

A History of Terror in the Name of God

By Jonathan Kirsch
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

Jonathan Kirsch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060816995

Chapter One

The Pietà and the Pear

Christendom seemed to have grown delirious and Satan might well smile at the tribute to his power in the endless smoke of the holocaust which bore witness to the triumph of the Almighty.

Henry Charles Lea,
A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages

Let us imagine a traveler arriving in the city of Rome when the Renaissance was in full flower, a pilgrim or a merchant or a diplomat.

He seeks out the chapel near St. Peter's Basilica where the Pietà of Michelangelo is now on display, and he spends a few moments admiring the sublime depiction of the body of the slain Jesus in the lap of his grieving mother. Pietà means "pity," and the scene is rendered with exquisite tenderness and profound compassion. Like Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling of the nearby Sistine Chapel—the finger of a very fleshy God touching the finger of an equally fleshy Adam—the Pietà celebrates the beauty, dignity, and grace of the human body and the most exalted emotions of the human heart.

At the very same moment, however, and not far away, hooded men in dungeons lit only by torches—henchmen of what would come to be calledthe Roman and Universal Inquisition—are applying instruments of torture to the naked bodies of men and women whose only crime is to have entertained some thought that the Church regarded as heretical. The victims' cries, faint and distant, reach the ears of the traveler who gazes in prayerful silence at the Pietà, or so we might permit ourselves to imagine. Yet the torturers are wholly without pity, and they work in the sure conviction that the odor of the charred flesh of heretics is "delectable to the Holy Trinity and the Virgin."1

The scene allows us to see the Renaissance and the Inquisition as a pair of opposites, the highest aspirations of human civilization coexisting with its darkest and most destructive impulses at the same time and place. Tragically, the genius that Michelangelo applied to the celebration of the human body is matched by the ingenuity of the grand inquisitors in their crusade to degrade and destroy their fellow human beings. Consider, for example, the contrivance known simply and even charmingly as La Pera—the Pear.

Fashioned out of bronze, richly and fancifully decorated, and cunningly engineered to open and close by the operation of an iron key-and-screw device, the Pear was the handiwork of a skilled artist and craftsman with a vivid imagination and a certain measure of wit. The first examples of the Pear date back to roughly the same era as the Pietà. But unlike the scene depicted in Michelangelo's statuary, the diabolical faces and demonic figures that embellish La Pera are the stuff of nightmares, and the object itself was designed as an instrument of torture to afflict the bodies of accused heretics who refused to confess, whether because they were wholly innocent of the accusation or because they were true believers in their own forbidden faith.

Exactly how the Pear was used to insult and injure its victims is a gruesome topic that we will be compelled to examine in greater detail a bit later. For now, let La Pera serve as a symbol of the willingness, even the eagerness of one human being to inflict pain on a fellow human being. None of us should be surprised, of course, that otherwise ordinary men and women have always been capable of heart-shaking and heartbreaking atrocities, but the fact that a man with the soul of an artist and the hands of a craftsman should apply his gifts to the creation of something as fiendish as the Pear reveals something dire and disturbing about how we use the gifts we have inherited from our distant art and toolmaking ancestors.

An even more sinister irony is at work here. What the men in black did to their victims with such tools was not a crime. To the contrary, when they tortured and killed countless thousands of innocent men, women, and children, they were acting in obedience to—and, quite literally, with the blessing of—the most exalted guardians of law and order. Significantly, the official seal of the Inquisition carried the Latin phrase misericordia et justitia ("Mercy and Justice"), and all the atrocities of the friar-inquisitors were similarly veiled in pieties and legalisms.2

Here begins something new in history, an international network of secret police and secret courts in the service of "Throne and Altar," a bureaucracy whose vast archives amounted to the medieval version of a database, and an army of inquisitors whose sworn duty was to search out anyone and everyone whom a pope or a king regarded as an enemy, sometimes on the flimsiest of evidence and sometimes on no evidence at all except the betrayals and confessions that could be extracted under torture and threat of death. The worst excesses of the agents of the Inquisition—priests and monks, scribes and notaries, attorneys and accountants, torturers and executioners—were excused as the pardonable sins of soldiers engaged in war against a treacherous and deadly enemy.

The strange story of the Inquisition begins in the distant past, but it cannot be safely contained in history books. The inquisitorial apparatus that was first invented in the Middle Ages remained in operation for the next six hundred years, and it has never been wholly dismantled. As we shall see, an unbroken thread links the friar-inquisitors who set up the rack and the pyre in southern France in the early thirteenth century to the torturers and executioners of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia in the mid–twentieth century. Nor does the thread stop at Auschwitz or the Gulag; it can be traced through the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Hollywood blacklists of the McCarthy era, and even the interrogation cells at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.


Excerpted from The Grand Inquisitor's Manual by Jonathan Kirsch Copyright © 2008 by Jonathan Kirsch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of ten books, including the national bestseller The Harlot by the Side of the Road and his most recent work, the Los Angeles Times bestseller A History of the End of the World. Kirsch is also a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a broadcaster for NPR affiliates in Southern California, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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