Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the Boston Globe this weekend, the economist Peter Leeson argues that trial by ordeal—testing guilt by, say, forcing the hand of the accused into a vat of boiling water to see whether it burned—was a pretty effective way of judgment.

It’s a wild, and goofy, and interesting essay—but what struck me, on a first read, is how no religious intellectual these days would dare make that argument, even in a semi-facetious way. In fact, as Leeson notes, one of the main causes in the decline of the effectiveness of trial by ordeal was that the Church turned against it. But, still, the fear of the charge of medievalism is too great to allow any theologian to write the interesting thing that Leeson has produced.

I certainly wouldn’t have tried it—and I’m actually fascinated by similar questions about things like the effectiveness and social effect of trial by combat and code duello , or the arguments in favor election by lot that Cicero, as I recall, mounts.

But, then, I’ve internalized the Enlightenment critique and can’t shake free of it.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles