Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Founded by Mark Kleiman (1951-2019)
Mythcarriage of justice?
In one trial by ordeal, people were found innocent if they sank in water. But were they in fact fished out before they died?
I served as a potential juror yesterday (and will do so again today because I wasn’t empaneled for a trialâ€”if that happens again today, I’m off the hook). While cooling our heels we were shown what I thought would be the usual cheesy video about how jury service is our civic duty. While I agree it’s a civic duty, such videosâ€”of which I’ve now seen many versions in three statesâ€”usually don’t convey much beyond that one-sentence sentiment.
But this video did something quirkier. To emphasize why jury service was important, it opened by dramatizing alternative, historically popular ways of separating the innocent from the guilty. More specifically, its first scene portrayed a medieval trial by ordeal. The accused was tightly bound and thrown into a lake: if he sank, he would be found innocent; if he floated, guilty.
That particular trial by ordeal is, as we all know, a hoary metaphor for perfect perversity. All trials by ordeal are absurd and arbitrary, but this version seems to guarantee not just that the innocent will be drowned (by the way, is that where Yeats got the line in “The Second Coming”?) but that those adjudged innocent by the trial procedure itself will be drowned. It’s always been hard for me to even imagine that people at the time could have thought this made sense.
Well, if the makers of this video got it right, these Middle Agers were smarter than we thought. As shown here, the judge waited about ten or fifteen seconds after the accused was thrown in. When he failed to float, the judge nodded to the spectators so that the guy’s friends and relatives could fish him out and revive him, sputtering but unharmed, while everyone cheered.
Two questions. First, for those with knowledge of legal history, is this right? Were those judged innocent in these trials quickly rescued? If so, the method was still ridiculous but for the opposite reason from what one would have thought: it guaranteed not that all innocent defendants, as well as the guilty, would die, but that almost all guilty defendants (except those with lots of air pockets in their clothes) would go free. Second, for everyone: am I right that almost everyone assumes the innocent who faced this kind of trial in fact drowned, or was it just me who thought that?
Author: Andrew Sabl
I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.
View all posts by Andrew Sabl
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