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Did "Trial by Ordeal" Actually Work?

A man is accused of a crime. Is he guilty? Stick his hand in a pot of boiling water. If he is unharmed, God has proclaimed his innocence and protected him. If the suspect is burned, he's guilty and can be punished (further). This is the basic premise of the legal tradition of trial by ordeal, discredited since the Enlightenment. But was it an effective determinant of guilt? University of Chicago economist Peter T. Leeson says "yes":

How might these trials have worked, without divine intervention? 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.

The next thing to understand is that clerics administrated ordeals and adjudged their outcomes - and did so under elaborate sets of rules that gave them wide latitude to manipulate the process. Priests knew that only innocent defendants would be willing to plunge their hands in boiling water. So priests could simply rig trials to exonerate defendants who were willing to go through with the ordeal. The rituals around the ordeals gave them plenty of cover to ensure the water wasn’t boiling, or the iron wasn’t burning, and so on. If rigging failed, a priest could interpret the ordeal’s outcome to exculpate the defendant nonetheless (“His arm is healing well!”).


Link via Volokh Conspiracy | Journal Article | Photo: Sony Pictures

but because the priests are human and corruptible, they manipulate the trials at best to save those they consider innocent and punish those they consider guilty, and at worst, save vs punish based on coercion/politics/personal gain. since people are people and word spreads, plenty of innocent people would be unwilling to submit, and plenty of guilty people would be willing.
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The article's a bit vague, but that's not quite how the ordeal of hot water worked. The defendant's hand was plunged into "boiling" water, then wrapped with a bandage; but guilt wasn't assessed until three days later, when a priest would unwrap and examine the arm. The presumption was that God would heal the innocent person's arm in three days, not that the innocent person's arm would be unharmed.

For repeat offenses, the boiling water got deeper.
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Is this based on any research into history or just this guy's supposition about what may have happened? Innocent people were killed in Salem. Ninteen were hanged, one tortured to death, and as many as seventeen (four are confirmed) died in prison. I declare Mr. Leeson a witch, lucky for him we have a more enlightened judicial system today.
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Explain this to the women who were drowned as witches in Salem. The thought was, if she floats, she's a witch and we'll burn her. If she drowns, she was innocent, but she dies anyway.
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Andrea hit the nail on the head. Since this ritual, like all the rituals, were used for crimes that we know today are ridiculous, like witchcraft, and thousands of people were convicted, we know, with certainty, that the system did not work rationally.

Criminals today, and criminals hundreds of years ago, are notoriously stupid, and think they can beat "the system." And if the judges are mainpulating the outcome, make no mistake, people know, and will learn how to mainpulate the judges.

Nice theory, but useless in the real world.
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I declare Mr. Leeson a witch, lucky for him we have a more enlightened judicial system today.

Indeed. Therefore, let us try to build a bridge out of him, and we will know for sure.
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here's a more detailed summary.

and yes, the theory is based on a review of hte historical evidence: records of trials, their outcomes, the method of ordeal, etc.

very interesting. wouldn't work today, as it relies on a believing, religious population.

very open to corruption by the judges.

the witch hysterias were aided by the ease of corruption, and were politically motivated (though in some cases, like Salem, were likely actual cases of mass hysteria)
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knowing that innocent people would be willing to plunge their hands into boiling water presumes that the innocent person is a believer. So someone of a scientific or philosophical mind would NOT be willing to plunge their hand into the water, innocent or not. So the system fails.

Of course, in those eras, such people were probably guilty of heresy anyway, so it probably didn't bother the judges much
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But mightn't someone so convinced of their guilt that they're sweaty-handed with fear be slightly better off in heated-metal trials due to the Leidenfrost effect?

Gotta stop watching "Mythbusters" marathons...
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