Peter T Lesson writes that the trial by ordeal was "an effective test of guilt", contrary to its brutal suggestion of divine judgment. As unscientific as it seems to determine guilt by dunking someone's arm in boiling water, the threat of it is a cunning way to elicit truth in the absense of evidence—so long as the subject is confident God will protect them if they are innocent.
It's rather like modern lie detectors, generally inadmissible in court but used pervasively in interrogations.
Suppose you’re guilty: you know you stole your neighbour’s cat, and so does God. In this case, you expect that if you undergo the ordeal, God will let the boiling water burn you, evidencing your guilt. Thus, you’ll have to pay the large fine – and your hand will be boiled to rags to boot. In contrast, if you confess, you’ll save a bit of money, not to mention your hand. So, if you’re guilty, you’ll confess.
Now suppose you’re innocent: 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.
The trick is, of course, that the water was usually a safe temperature. The heat of the water is the priest's verdict, not his trier of fact.
It's fascinating and convincing, not least because it describes a complex ritual performance dependent on a stable, predictable social context. The sort of thing that becomes dangerous when the context changes.
On the occasion of the publication of Permanent Record, a memoir of Edward Snowden's journey from gung-ho would-be special forces sergeant to CIA and NSA spy to whistleblower -- a memoir that the US government is suing to repress -- Snowden has given an interview with CBS where he expresses his desire to return to […]
The Sackler family got richer than the Rockefellers through their role in creating and sustaining the opioid crisis, which took more American lives than the Vietnam war.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied Ohio State University’s trademark filing on the word “The.” The AP reports: OSU submitted the trademark application last month. The patent office cited the trademark appears to be used for “merely decorative manner” and as an “ornamental feature” that doesn’t appear to function as a trademark that would […]
If you’re part of the maker community, you know Make:. Though Make: magazine is off the shelves as of this year, the eBooks and resources put out by Maker Media are still a fantastic resource for the new generation of tinkerers, hackers, and robotics geeks. If you’re in that tribe, listen up: they’ve released a […]
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When it comes to data analytics or deep learning, there’s one language behind the apps and algorithms that power the biggest companies of today: Python. The best part about this tool is that as versatile as it is, it’s actually fairly easy to learn. But mastery? For that, you need more than just a beginners’ […]