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:
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.

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