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On the Cauldron System of Justice: Who Needs a Courtroom, Anyway?

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  • On the Cauldron System of Justice: Who Needs a Courtroom, Anyway?

    For about a millennium, a Boston Globe article from over the weekend tells us, Europe relied on a method of determining guilt that seems ripped from a Monty Python sketch. Namely, this one, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
    Villager #1: If… she.. weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood.

    Bedemir: And therefore–?

    Villager #1: A witch!

    Crowd: A witch!

    Actually, the methods described by the Globe article, were quite a bit less humorous. Writes Chicago economics professor Peter Leeson, the article’s author:
    When judges were uncertain about an accused criminal’s guilt, they ordered a cauldron of water to be boiled, a ring to be thrown in, and the defendant to plunge in his naked hand and pluck the object out. The defendant’s hand was wrapped in bandages and revisited three days later. If it survived the bubbling cauldron unharmed, the defendant was declared innocent. If it didn’t, he was convicted.

    Leeson tells us that such trials were called “ordeals,” and that they reached their popularity between the 9th and 13th centuries.

    By our standards, such trials seem brutal and arbitrary, a complete perversion of justice. But, writes Leeson:
    The ordeal system worked surprisingly well. It accurately determined who was guilty and who was innocent, sorting genuine criminals from those who had been wrongly accused

    Interesting stuff, eh? So how might such trials have been effective?
    The key insight is that ordeals weren’t just widely practiced. They were widely believed in. It’s this belief - literally, the fear of God - that could have allowed the ordeals to function effectively.

    First, consider the reasoning of the defendants. Guilty believers expected God to reveal their guilt by harming them in the ordeal. They anticipated being boiled and convicted. Innocent believers, meanwhile, expected God to protect them in the ordeal. They anticipated escaping unscathed, and being exonerated.

    The only defendants who would have been willing to go through with the ordeal were therefore the innocent ones. Guilty defendants would have preferred to avoid the ordeal - by confessing their crimes, settling with their accusers, or fleeing the realm.

    Okay, you’re now wondering. This is interesting. But what does it have with contemporary means of dispensing justice?

    Leeson writes that ordeals are inferior to modern trial methods because modern defendants don’t believe in divine intervention, “not because trial by jury is inherently superior.” If modern citizens did have the superstitious belief required for ordeals to work, it might make sense to bring back the cauldrons of boiling water.

    Concludes Leeson:
    Consider the savings society would enjoy if citizens firmly believed that an invisible, omniscient, and omnipotent being would severely punish them and their families, not just in an afterlife, but in this one as well, for cheating, stealing, and dishonesty. In the superstitious society, “irrational” beliefs do part of the work that government institutions of law and order do in the nonsuperstitious one.

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