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 into 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 criminals' guilt and innocence. They did this by leveraging a medieval superstition called iudicum Dei. According tothis superstition, God condemned the guilty and exonerated the innocent through clergy conducted physical tests.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Trial by Ordeal
Chicago economist Peter Leeson has posted this interesting and definitely counter-intuitive new paper about Trial by Ordeal, which was prominent in the Middle Ages (9th-13th centuries). Here is the abstract: