So if she weighs the same as a duck…

She does look very calm about it. From yesterday’s Boston Globe, here’s an article by economist Peter Leeson arguing that medieval trial by ordeal was really not so bad. The article is notable for its complete lack of anything resembling evidence, but there is a little—very little, but more than none—in Leeson’s academic paper here. I think the most interesting bit of that is the contention that men and women were treated differently: men, typically with lower body fat and hence more likely to sink when tossed in a pond, were more likely than women to be given an ordeal by cold water, in which sinking was interpreted innocence.

The basic theory (tarted up with equations in the paper) is that (i) people who actually believed in the efficacy of ordeals would submit to them only if they were indeed innocent, confessing or settling or running away if they were guilty, and that (ii) the priests who ran the ordeal process would rig the results in favor of the innocent accused. I’m not sure the first point would apply to capital cases, much more common then than now, given that a guilty person, presumably already condemned in God’s eyes, would have little reason not take his chances on the ordeal. And as for the second point, well, I am not convinced that medieval priests were universally known even then for their honesty and incorruptibility.

A couple of years ago Leeson wrote a book about economics and pirate democracy that I keep meaning to read. I hope it’s a bit more convincing than this…

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