Trial by Ordeal

A Defense of Trial by Ordeal:

I was interested by this paper on trial by ordeal (h/t: Instapundit). The author uses economic theory to suggest that trial by ordeal actually sorted outcomes correctly. The concept is that belief in the reality of miracles would cause innocent men and women to choose the ordeal; guilty men and women would refuse. Priests would judge whether the person choosing an ordeal was sincere or cynical, and then manipulate the ordeal so as to ensure the correct outcome.

Several counterarguments arise immediately in one's mind, but he seems to offer an explanation for all of them as you go through the piece. Are they sufficient explanations? I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader.

What I would like to add is that the idea of priestly manipulation of justice goes very well with our debate from last year about trial by combat. One of the reasons that priests would have objected so strongly to being forced into trial by combat was that it put justice in the hands of the warrior class, instead of in the hands of fellow priests. One of the reasons that the warriors might have been so staunch in their insistence on trial by combat as a final appeal was to preserve their independence from such manipulation.

This works if warriors are cynical about priestly manipulation of the ordeals, but also if they are not. An innocent warrior might reasonably prefer to fight than to carry a hot iron bar, trusting God to protect him in either case, but being more comfortable in his vocation. A guilty warrior, expecting God to convict him, might reasonably prefer to die with honor than to be burned by boiling water, and then disgraced by execution. With cynical warriors of either type, the odds of success must seem higher in trial by combat, where they need only do what they have spent their lives training to do.

An interesting piece. Good work.

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