Sweets to the Sweet


I love articles that try to change your mind on something you really shouldn’t – the value of torture, for example. Okay, the medieval trial by ordeal is a bit fringe, because you apparently had a choice then… Sort of.

The idea was to find out if you were guilty of something, so if you confessed, you would go straight to the sentencing and avoid whatever the ordeal was -often picking up a ring or something from a pail of boiling water, or carrying burning iron somewhere. If you opted for the ordeal and your hand was okay a few days later, you were innocent, if it was stewed, well…

Barbaric, right? Lose-lose as well…? Perhaps I got click-baited, by the online publication, Aeon,  but I have to say that the author, Peter T Leeson, a professor of economics and law at George Mason University in Virginia, makes an interesting case for why the practice may have had some validity: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-the-trial-by-ordeal-was-actually-an-effective-test-of-guilt

‘The only ones who know for sure whether a defendant is guilty or innocent are the defendant himself and God above. Asking the defendant to tell us the truth of the matter is usually useless’, and God, even in those benighted days, was not always forthcoming. Nonetheless, ‘Judicial ordeals were administrated and adjudged by priests, in churches, as part of special masses.’ So, if you were guilty of a crime that wasn’t too severe, and you wouldn’t be hanged or dungeoned if you admitted guilt, you would likely just confess, pay the fine, and avoid the ordeal -you outed yourself, in other words. The idea that God would respond to a priest’s request in this way reflected a popular medieval belief according to which ordeals were iudiciua Dei – ‘judgments of God’. Anyway, crime solved: the guilty party admitted it.

On the other hand, if you were innocent and on principle refused to confess to something you didn’t do, then what? Risk a mangled, subsequently useless hand? Me? I’d pay the fine, no matter what. But then why not just treat everybody as guilty in the first place? Why worry about justice?

In those distant times, people had more hopeful expectations of God and really believed a miracle would be performed if they were innocent. As Leeson points out, ‘…you know you didn’t steal your neighbour’s cat, and again so does God. In this case, you expect that if you undergo the ordeal, God will perform a miracle that prevents the boiling water from burning you, evidencing your innocence. Thus, you won’t have to pay any fine – and you’ll keep your hand intact. This is better than if you confess to stealing the cat, in which case you’d have to pay a fine for a theft you didn’t commit. So, if you’re innocent, you’ll undergo the ordeal.’ Like I say, they were different in those days…

Anyway, ‘Because of your belief in iudicium Dei, the spectre of the ordeal leads you to choose one way if you’re guilty – confess – and another way if you’re innocent – undergo the ordeal.’ However, ‘while only an innocent defendant will choose to undergo the ordeal, which allows the court to learn that he’s in fact innocent, when he sticks his hand in the boiling water, it burns him, declaring his guilt! To deliver justice, however, the court needs to do more than simply learn that an innocent defendant is innocent – it needs to find him so.’

But that sounds counterintuitive… unless, of course, the priest understood that the only reason the accused would choose the ordeal would be that she was actually innocent and so made sure that the water wasn’t actually boiling. ‘The ‘instruction manuals’ for administering ordeals that medieval European priests followed provided them ample opportunity to do just that. The fire used to heat the water was prepared by the priest in private, permitting him to cool the fire. The priest ‘sprinkled’ holy water over the water in the ordeal cauldron, permitting him to cool the water. The ordeal cauldron was removed from the fire at a point during the mass, and the defendant wasn’t tested until the priest was done praying, allowing him to cool the water some more by drawing out his prayers. And ordeal observers were placed at a respectable distance from the ordeal ‘stage’, enabling the priest to carry out his manipulations undetected.’ Anyway ‘it was the priest who adjudged the ordeal’s final outcome – whether the defendant’s hand had indeed been burned?’

The same with the hot iron as well: ‘in the early 13th century, 208 defendants in Várad in Hungary underwent hot-iron ordeals. Amazingly, nearly two-thirds of defendants were unscathed by the ‘red-hot’ irons they carried and hence exonerated.’ So, ‘either God really did intervene to reveal the defendants’ innocence, or the priests made sure that the iron they carried wasn’t hot.’

I love this kind of thing. I mean it’s an ingenious, albeit somewhat tortuous (sorry) way of getting at the truth without drawing and quartering, or the rack. Clever, actually: a method of ‘leverage[ing] criminal defendants’ incentives to correctly find fact.’ Of course, I fully recognize that I am saying this from a rather large temporal and no doubt philosophical distance from them. We see the world differently nowadays, and the current Zeitgeist only approves of waterboarding and the like. Also, I think they probably trusted priests more in those days.

Still, it all seems a bit hit and miss -especially if you were never a particularly popular peasant, or only showed up occasionally at church, and then just sat in the back row. I can only suspect that there were a lot of guilty pleas -I mean, just in case, eh?


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