Monday, March 8, 2010

Leeson on Ordeals: An Update

[I'm moving up this post from January to note that the University of Chicago Law Faculty Blog has recently posted a lengthy account, by the student blogger Hanna Chung, of Professor Leeson's presentation of the paper to Chicago's Law and Economics Workshop.]

Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University’s Department of Economics, has posted Ordeals. 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 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.