Not just a pirate economist anymore

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 fi…sh 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; fl‡oating 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.

That is Peter Leeson, pirate economist, explaining the history and economics of ordeals.

Yes, Leeson argues that ordeals accurately determined guilt and innocence. I should probably leave you in suspense (Leeson’s intro does) but I will spoil the fun: the priests fix it. No believer would ever fish out the ring if guilty; the confession would come first. So those who insist must be innocent. ‘Miraculously’, most are unharmed by the ordeal and exonerated.

If you need another reason to read the paper: Leeson is a model of economic prose. This is how papers should be written.

Hat tip to MR.