April 6, 2010

Ordeals

  • Peter Leeson

    Senior Fellow, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
Key materials
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For 400 years the most sophisticated persons in Europe decided difficult criminal cases by asking the defendant to thrust his arm into a cauldron of boiling water and fish out a ring. If his arm was unharmed, he was exonerated. If not, he was convicted. Alternatively, a priest dunked the defendant in a pool. Sinking proved his innocence; floating proved his guilt. People called these trials ordeals. No one alive today believes ordeals were a good way to decide defendants guilt. But maybe they should. This paper investigates the law and economics of ordeals. I argue that ordeals accurately assigned accused criminals guilt and innocence. They did this by leveraging a medieval superstition called iudicium Dei. According to this superstition, God condemned the guilty and exonerated the innocent through clergy conducted physical tests.

Citation (Chicago Style)
Leeson, Peter. "Ordeals." Working Paper, Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 2010.