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Posted: 11 Jan 2010 Last revised: 24 Nov 2011

Peter T. Leeson

George Mason University - Department of Economics

Date Written: January 10, 2010


I argue that medieval judicial ordeals accurately assigned accused criminals' guilt and innocence. They did this by leveraging a medieval superstition called iudicium Dei. According to that superstition, God condemned the guilty and exonerated the innocent through clergy conducted physical tests. Medieval citizens' belief in iudicium Dei created a separating equilibrium in which only innocent defendants were willing to undergo ordeals. Conditional on observing a defendant's willingness to do so, the administering priest knew he was innocent and manipulated the ordeal to find this. My theory explains the peculiar puzzle of ordeals: trials of fire and water that should've condemned most persons who underwent them did the reverse. They exonerated these persons instead. Boiling water rarely boiled persons who plunged their arms in it. Burning iron rarely burned persons who carried it. Ordeal outcomes were miraculous. But they were miracles of mechanism design.

Suggested Citation

Leeson, Peter T., Ordeals (January 10, 2010). Journal of Law and Economics, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Peter T. Leeson (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States


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