Why the trial by ordeal was actually an effective test of guilt

Peter T. Leeson, professor of economics at George Mason University, has an interesting explanation of why trials by ordeal may have worked well. He starts out:

The only ones who know for sure whether a defendant is guilty or innocent are the defendant himself and God above. Asking the defendant to tell us the truth of the matter is usually useless: spontaneous confessions by the guilty are rare. But what if we could ask God to tell us instead? And what if we did? And what if it worked? 
For more than 400 years, between the ninth and the early 13th centuries, that’s exactly what Europeans did. In difficult criminal cases, when ‘ordinary’ evidence was lacking, their legal systems asked God to inform them about defendants’ criminal status. The method of their request: judicial ordeals.

He then explains how it could have actually worked. Pretty nifty, though whether his explanation is true or not is another matter, I suppose.


Grim said...

This is not a new theory; I read a version of this decades ago. It is pretty plausible. Of course, humans being human, if the priests believe you are guilty the water will really be boiling.

james said...

There was a related explanation for the sasswood trials in West Africa. The officiant could jigger the concentration, of course, but one key was that the sasswood poison could make you vomit. If you gulped it down, eager to get it over with, it tended to come right back up. If you drank it slowly, worried about the consequences, it tended to stay down. Never saw it in action.

Tom said...

Interesting. I'd never heard this before. I think Leeson is writing a book trying to find good explanations for what sound like bizarre practices. He probably got this idea from research.

I'd never heard of sasswood trials.

Korora said...

Or the deadly Calabar beans vs. the non-toxic beans that mimic it to deter herbivores and omnivores.

Of course, I do remember an Agatha Christie novel (I won't say which one) where a murderer caused an innocent man to believe himself a homicidal maniac.

Ymar Sakar said...

If Jean De Arc had right to trial by combat... all the Inquisitors would be dead and she would go back to France.

Humans aren't stupid enough to go with a system that will adjudicate the issue against them.

Anonymous said...

Some things bother me here.

First, assumption that there were no miracles. Everything is the manipulation of man.

Second, assumption that nobody saw through the deception. Nobody in the congregation could see through the facade. I am unaware of complaints in the historical record on this matter.

Implication, the priests knowingly engaged in magic tricks to deceive and the powers that be were homogenous enough that they got away with it.

I don't like that result, but I have no proof one way or the other.

-stc Michael