Just one long ordeal?

Very busy here at the moment, and little time to finish blog posts. I did at least write something over on Cliopatria, responding to a recent article in the Boston Globe about the supposed effectiveness of trial by ordeal in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t seem to have attracted much of an audience there: perhaps you’d like to go and read it?

13 responses to “Just one long ordeal?

  1. Ooh, excellent article, thanks for pointing it out.


  2. I fully agree that the justice ‘system’ was about peacemaking not truth. An observation I’ve been ruminating on regarding petitionary letters from the 13th century is that petitioners seem aware that the outcome of the legal process is conceptually different from ‘justice’: and what’s more they tend to equate ‘justice’ (sometimes explicitly) with ‘my preferred outcome’, rather than ‘truth’ strictly speaking.

    The very point of making a petition, as I see it, was to try and shift the balance of the process in one’s favour (e.g. by gathering a more impressive/politically stronger group of backers, or strengthening one’s written warrant/title). And this supports, albeit indirectly, your discussion of the process of judgement as a mechanism for balancing competing interests to determine where the concluding compromise should fall. Which, again indirectly, supports the idea that ordeals were probably *another* strategy for tipping the balance, but, as you observe, one only to be resorted to by the desperate, given the inherent risk and uncertainty.

    Thanks for some more food for thought.

    • Forgot to mention Paul Hyams’ ‘Rancor (sic) and Reconciliation’, which has some similar solid points to make about the use of violence (including combat ordeals) in conflict resolution from Anglo-Saxon times to Henry III. A recommended read!

    • Happy to help! I think you are quite right about the definition of the word ‘justice’, though I wish I could remember where I got this idea from, one or other of the texts I did in Political Thought all those years ago I guess: I think that our sense of the word ‘justice’ is better expressed in medieval language as æquitas, whereas for them justice was a lot more about whose right was, well, righteous rather than being fair. I think your analysis of petitions is spot on, but really we need Miss Kilpatrick over here rather than in the next thread down…

  3. Cullen Chandler

    I think Leeson does himself a bit of a disservice here. An economist friend of mine shared with me a couple of months ago a draft of Leeson’s piece that seemed destined for a peer-reviewed journal rather than a newspaper. That version included an entire second half, in which Leeson goes into some relatively complex quantitative reasoning, which I am not equipped to follow, about what if folks in the Middle Ages were not all superstitious rubes.

    As I told my economist friend when we discussed Leeson’s paper, it would be nice to see if he had more recourse to actual medieval source material to test his ideas. But, I find, that’s not how theoretical economists work. They have ideas, support them with logical reasoning and mathematic formulas, and say, “Well, that’s done!”

    So, two things: 1) Leeson’s real thinking is more nuanced than what he presented to the Boston Globe; and 2) even though it is, it’s still problematic. And I guess 3) This is the problem that happens when academics try to share their work with the “general” public by means of watered-down expositions. @#$%&* journalism-ized scholarship!

    • That’s really interesting, actually. Some of my students have come across a similar sort of piece applying economic choice theory to the decision to go on Crusade (by a chap called Alan Heston). Of course, it winds up essentially repeating Riley-Smith vs. the world. Sometimes at least these things have the merit of allowing us to confirm what we were only halfway sure of. But I don’t know that this is one of those.

      • Cullen Chandler

        Leeson’s piece at least has the redeeming quality (whatever you think of his methodology) that it tries to undo the stereotype of the superstitious Dark Ages. He is in fact arguing that ordeals worked, that people used them because they believed that they worked, and so on, that medieval people were not steeped in ignorance. So I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and discuss the *idea* with others (like us?) who know the actual evidence better than he.

        • No, I’m not sure I agree. His thesis of why the ritual worked positively requires the people to be steeped in ignorance, or at least, as I say in my comment, really stupid while being rational. I’d rather think in terms of them being quite clever and operating in terms that we think are irrational.

          Because we’re on this awkward junction between rationality and ritual here, two categories that modern approaches tend to oppose. Leeson is trying to rationalise ritual, fair enough; but I wonder if we wouldn’t be better thinking here about the effect of ritualising rationality. Okay, that’s maybe a bit too glib, but I don’t think Leeson’s really allowed for the world-view we’re looking at, in which the supernatural is real for most purposes. He’s using religion as a constant against which rationality can kick, and that’s fair enough as far as it goes, but his terms of assessment are still twentieth-century; he hasn’t paused (as the Globe displays him anyway) to think what that initial preconception does to all the rest of the thinking. And he ultimately doesn’t allow for that, for people (except the sinister intellectual ruling class with their false dogmas by which they subject the credulous peasantry) thinking,and that does annoy me.

          • Cullen Chandler

            Fair enough, but remember he’s not been trained to think like that.

            My issue along these lines is how compartmentalized we’ve become, and how it leads to turf wars. “How dare some economist parachute into medieval history and think about OUR stuff! He’ll only get it wrong!”

            At some level, don’t we want, or even need, non-specialists to pay attention to us? What are we doing otherwise? Might we not benefit from someone intruding every now and then? Or might we not want to educate that someone, or a broader audience, about what we have to say? I think one of the benefits, for non-medievalists, of studying this stuff is precisely that it requries you to move beyond your own context. That’s why we shouldn’t be axed when money is tight.

            So rather than blast this guy for “getting it wrong” when he never was equipped the same way as you and I for “getting it right”, maybe we should use the opportunity to get a conversation going. He might just be interested in getting it right according to our measures as well as his peers’. Hopefully he would welcome the discussion.

            • Well, this is a matter of tone, isn’t it? I don’t think my Cliopatria piece was a blasting, though yes, it was a firm disagreement. Somewhere on the line that leads to and through welcoming and conciliation is just being patronising without claiming authority: “That’s a really interesting thesis, though there are some ways you could think about refining it…” Is the second really any better than the first?

              As to the conversation, well, various people have raised issues in the story’s comments but no answers have come. How do you propose starting a conversation like this other than standing up and saying something?

    • Long long afterwards, I should now add that I have found the peer-reviewed version of Leeson’s piece: it is Peter Leeson, “Ordeals” in Journal of Law and Economics 55 (Chicago 2012), pp. 691-714, DOI: 10.1086/664010, and he helpfully has it online as a PDF here. He cites, additionally, Margaret H. Kerr, Richard D. Forsyth, and Michael J. Plyley, “Cold Water and Hot Iron: Trial by Ordeal in England” in Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 22 (Boston MA 1992), pp. 573-595, DOI: 10.2307/205237. Neither of these articles were written with the help of a historian, though the latter was at least presumably peer-reviewed by some. It just defeats my imagination. I wouldn’t start publishing about cell biology without openly and clearly collaborating with a cell biologist, because I would expect reviewers quite rightly to assume that I didn’t know the field and to have this confirmed by my many mistakes and misunderstandings. So how does this stuff which does the same the other way round keep getting out in peer-reviewed print?

  4. Pingback: Inventing the Visgothic legal ordeal in Catalonia | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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