WTF?! Economics (with Peter T. Leeson)

Peter T. Leeson joins us to talk about his new book WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird.

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Peter T. Leeson joins us to talk about his new book WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird. Peter T. Leeson is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. We discuss some of the world’s strangest customs and behaviors; everything from convicting insects of crimes in a court of law to wife sales. How can this be rational economic behavior?

Further Readings/References:

WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird by Peter T. Leeson

More work by Peter T. Leeson


Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Peter T. Leeson. He’s the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University. He’s the author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, Anarchy Unbound, which was the subject of a previous Free Thoughts episode. His new book is WTF: An Economic Tour of the Weird. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Pete.

Peter T. Leeson: Thanks for [00:00:30] having me.

Trevor Burrus: So what is so WTF about WTF?

Peter T. Leeson: Well, I think a lot of things, actually. I guess first and foremost, the substantive subject matter of the book is I guess what I kind of call bizarre or unusual, kind of shocking social practices that humans have engaged in throughout history and including today, that kind of evoke what I call WTF moments. That’s the [00:01:00] sort of typical reaction upon learning about them.
That’s the first way in which it’s WTF. And then the second way is actually the organization of this book itself, or the kind of way that it’s set up. I had this idea, when I started working on this stuff, that it would be fun to, when writing the book, to set it up as a kind of museum of social oddities. So if you’ve seen Ripley’s Believe or Not, or if you’ve maybe ever gone through maybe a museum of medical oddities, that’s sort of the [00:01:30] theme that I had in mind. So each chapter of the book is set up as a stop on a literal tour through this museum, and then the book is narrated by the tour guide, which is me.
And the tour, and thus the book, is populated by a number of quasi-fictional characters who I interact with throughout the tour and it’s those interactions that kind of propel the narrative and allow the reason behind these practices to unfold.

Trevor Burrus: But as you [00:02:00] said, you’re not just talking about weird things that people did in history, ‘cause there’s a lot of weird things people did in history. You’re trying to explain why weird things may not be so weird.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, yeah, the entire premise of the book, so I’s approaching it from my economic perspective, which is that things that don’t seem to make sense on the surface actually do make sense, and economics is what allows us to understand them. And so the idea is to sort of view these practices, or view things that [00:02:30] would evoke a WTF in you, again, past or present, with an economic approach. And by doing so, to make sneeze of them.

Aaron Powell: Then what’s the first stop on our tour? If we’re heading into your museum of weird stuff.

Peter T. Leeson: The very first stop, before the actual stop, it’s sort of waiting in the lobby idea of the museum is a bit of discussion about what economics is, the sort or economic approach [00:03:00] that the tour is going to apply. And I should say again, in case it’s not obvious, the book is written to be enjoyed by and totally accessible to somebody who has no economic background and probably maybe even isn’t interested in economics in the first place.
So that the sort of very first preliminary piece. And then the first actual stop of the tour examines a couple of different practices, but the foundation [00:03:30] of them is medieval judicial ordeals.

Trevor Burrus: And the ordeals are, it’s pretty much a “She’s a witch,” Monty Python, very small rocks, weigh her against a duck kind of thing. I mean, it’s along those lines, correct?

Peter T. Leeson: Well, that’s one of the most famous examples that actually I point to in the book. The Monty Python example. Historical ordeals didn’t involve any comparisons to ducks and in fact, they were used prior to the witch craze, which came much later. So [00:04:00] medieval judicial ordeals are sort of 9th through 13th century things, so about 400 years, used throughout Europe.
And actually, the witch craze in Europe didn’t happen until the 16th century. So these ordeals had a different nature and they weren’t used to prosecute claims of witchcraft, ‘cause that really wasn’t popular yet. In fact, this is a bit of an aside, but during this period, the Catholic Church denied that witchcraft was real. So that wasn’t really an important crime.
Instead, they were used to [00:04:30] try ordinary crimes. Things that we today would consider crimes, like arson or murder or theft.

Aaron Powell: Did they believe that there was a meaningful relation between how one did on the ordeal and one’s actual guilt of the underlying crime?

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, the whole premise for them was grounded in this, what we would consider a superstition, called Judicium Dei, which is Latin for ‘Judgment of God’. And the idea was basically that if priests performed [00:05:00] the appropriate rituals, they could call upon God to reveal the guilt or innocence of an accused criminal whose guilt or innocence was in doubt to the court, and God would show that to the court by virtue of how the defendant reacted physically in the ordeal test.

Aaron Powell: So does this mean that when a team loses, like the Super Bowl, they’re all a bunch of criminals? This counts as evidence of that?

Trevor Burrus: Because God did not intervene in their victory?

Peter T. Leeson: Yes, actually something like that. [00:05:30] They were a little bit more ominous, well, I guess it depends on your perspective, than losing a game of football, but you know, the basic idea is the same, yeah.

Trevor Burrus: So let’s set the stage. It’s a dusty, dirty medieval town-

Aaron Powell: And Trevor has killed someone’s cattle.

Trevor Burrus: Or I’ve been accused of killing someone’s cattle-

Aaron Powell: Oh, you’re probably guilty, but you were just confirming it.

Trevor Burrus: I’m probably guilty. So I know whether or not I killed the cattle. There’s no good evidence on display, [00:06:00] so he says I killed them, I say I didn’t kill them, and so then they decide to have an ordeal. The priest says, “Okay, it’s time to reach into this boiling pot of water and grab the stone at the bottom.” And then what happens next?

Peter T. Leeson: Well, what happens next depends upon whether or not you committed the crime or not, is essentially what I argue. So the first thing, going back to the set up, to recognize is that medieval judicial systems, they weren’t insane, they only used this ordeal [00:06:30] system when there wasn’t ordinary evidence that you’d committed the crime or not.
So if you’ve been accused of having stolen or killed the cow and somebody says, “You know what? He was with me that day,” and a whole bunch of people in the town observed it, then they would exonerate you and that would be the end of it. It was only if they considered the accusation plausible in the first case and they weren’t sure, which is again, what you would expect a sensible judicial system to do.
And so in this case, in the example you gave, they order you to undergo the [00:07:00] hot water ordeal and in that ordeal, if the water burns you, that was considered evidence God was letting the water burn you to evidence to the court that you had committed the crime. And if you were innocent, the idea was that God would perform a miracle that prevented the water from burning you, and as a result, you would be unscathed which would evidence to the court that you had not committed the crime. In consequence, you would be exonerated.
And going back to the logic underlying this thing, the idea is that if you imagine that you believed in the superstition [00:07:30] that I just described, Judicium Dei, then your incentive to either undergo the ordeal or to decline it, which is in fact another option. You could decline it, for example, simply by the most obvious way would be just confess to the crime. And if you confess to the crime, you’re probably going to have a slightly reduced punishment, compared to what you would have if you underwent the ordeal and failed it.
The idea is that your incentive is different depending upon whether or not you choose to under … Influences whether or not you will undergo the ordeal or not. And in consequence, your [00:08:00] choice about whether to undergo or not will reveal to the court essentially whether or not you’re guilty or not. It accesses that private information that Trevor would have about his guilt or innocence to the legal system.

Aaron Powell: Did they ever wonder, so this example of plunging your hand into boiling water, did they ever wonder why everyone who underwent the ordeal was guilty? I mean, because-

Trevor Burrus: ‘Cause water burns.

Aaron Powell: … everyone who plunges their hands into boiling water is going to burn. I can’t imagine there was even one instance where someone was not burned by the boiling water.

Peter T. Leeson: Okay, [00:08:30] so we have to back up a step. The first step is to think about what the incentives actually are, right? So if you’re innocent, if Trevor didn’t do it, he expects that God will perform a miracle that will prevent him from getting burned, and that’s better than if he does the alternative, which would be to say, confess, to decline the ordeal.
So if he’s innocent, he’ll undergo the ordeal. We’ll come back to that in moment. If he’s guilty, on the other hand, he would rather confess than undergo the ordeal because if he undergoes, he thinks that God’s going to out him. So he has his arm boiled to rags, plus he has [00:09:00] to faced whatever the state-stipulated punishment is for having committed this crime. Whereas, if he confesses, at a minimum, he saves his arm from being boiled, plus he probably gets a slightly reduced state fine.
So if he’s guilty, he’s going to decline the ordeal. So as you suggest, this implies that only the innocent guys will undergo it, which means Trevor only undergoes it if in fact he didn’t commit the crime. But then we have the little problem of the fact that boiling water in fact, burns people arms, even if they’re innocent. Which requires, therefore, that the person that [00:09:30] was conducting the ordeal, which were clerics, it was priests, needs to somehow manipulate in order that it doesn’t burn Trevor’s arm.
And if you look to, essentially, ordeal instructions that medieval priests were to follow when administering these things, what you find is that they basically consist of instructions that more or less directed the priests to manipulate the water’s temperature, in this particular case, for instance. Such that it wouldn’t in fact burn Trevor’s arm.

Trevor Burrus: So they put fewer logs on the fire, or could they also, [00:10:00] were the ones inspecting the arm, too, right? So they could also manipulate the after plunging your arm in the water test.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, yeah, the ultimate thing is that exactly. Let’s say that they fail to lower the temperature of the fire. In the end, you’re exactly right, they can declare your arm having been unburned either way, because they’re the ones that have ultimate decision. But that would look pretty fishy to people. You know, if your arm comes out of the water and it’s clearly all burned up, people are probably going to think that you’re just saying [00:10:30] that his arm didn’t burn.
So it was kind of important for them to make sure that the water didn’t burn Trevor’s arm and in that case, what they did was things like allowing the water to cool. So there’s a whole bunch of different tricks that they had, but one important piece of this is that, you know, you can make fires to be different temperatures. Anybody who’s made a fire knows that, or who was in Boy Scouts remembers that. Priests prepared the ordeal fire, that would either heat the water in this case, or sometimes they used [00:11:00] a piece of iron that they were heating. They made it in private, and that allowed them to engage in a lot of tampering and fire cooling.
The ordeal instructions, for example, directed priests to pour holy water into the cauldron. These were part of elaborate masses, so these were all sort of religious rituals. That would of course cool the temperature of the water. The defendant didn’t actually plunge his hand into the water until the mass was over, okay? And the mass could be as long as the priest wanted, often appears to have been many hours [00:11:30] long. So by drawing out his prayers, essentially, because what the instructions directed was that the defendant doesn’t stick his arm in the water until the priest says “That’s my last prayer.”
The priest could draw the prayers out for as long as he wanted, allowing the water to cool more and more. So by the time that the defendant actually sticks his arm in there, it’s probably lukewarm. So if he fails in those things, the priest that is, then he can sort of resort to this ultimate thing of declaring it unburned anyway, but probably most of the time he didn’t need to do that.

Aaron Powell: [00:12:00] So mostly out of just a sense of morbid curiosity, what are some of the other kinds of ordeals that were common besides just plunging your hand into boiling water?

Peter T. Leeson: The chief other hot ordeal is the one that I eluded to a minute ago, which is the hot iron ordeal. The logic was the same. Burn equals you were guilt, not burns is equal to you’re innocent. But instead of putting your arm in boiling water, you carried a piece of burning iron a certain number of paces.
And then the sort of primary cold ordeal was the ordeal [00:12:30] of cold water. And in that one, a priest plunked you into a pool of holy water and the idea was that if you sank, God was allowing your guiltless body into his blessed pool, evidencing your innocence. And if you were guilty, God would make you float. The holy water would reject your guilty soul and your floating would evidence your guilt to the court.

Trevor Burrus: Now that one seems hard to manipulate.

Peter T. Leeson: It is because you know, essentially, you have to alter water’s specific gravity [00:13:00] in order to ensure that people will sink through manipulation. But it turns out that, unlike in the hot ordeals, in the cold water ordeal, you could essentially ensure that you got the outcome that you wanted to exonerate the defendants to them, because certain type of people reliably sink in water without any trickery at all. And those people are lean males, so lean males have like an 80% chance of sinking in water.

Trevor Burrus: Aaron’s dad, [00:13:30] that’s good, okay.

Aaron Powell: That’s the one I’d pick. Were all of them, I guess, guilt-biased? Like so-

Trevor Burrus: The priests, you mean?

Aaron Powell: No, no, the ordeals. So that the thing that we would expect to happen in the circumstance, like you’re getting burned by holding the things, or you’re likely to float-

Trevor Burrus: Or sink, you mean. I mean, the guilty have the worst outcome, right?

Aaron Powell: Right, right. No, but that the most common outcome, which would be being burned or floating [00:14:00] when set in the water is the thing that correlates with guilt, as opposed to the thing that correlates with innocence.

Peter T. Leeson: Well, no, not necessarily because in the cold ordeal, whether or not you sink depends upon whether or not you’re male or female. So the average lean male, as I was saying, has an 80% chance of sinking. In contrast, the average lean female has only a 40% chance of sinking, because women have a higher percentage of body fat than men, they are much more likely to float.
So if you sent women to the cold ordeal, under the same [00:14:30] rule, they would tend to be found guilty rather than innocent, which is the opposite of what you were describing, I think.

Trevor Burrus: So this is fascinating, but it also seems that you’re an economist and the evidence, you like to run different trials and studies and have a control and stuff and get some good statistics about this. What evidence do we have, other than the descriptions you’ve read that there was something weird going on here?

Peter T. Leeson: Well, the strongest evidence that’s predicted by this kind of logic is [00:15:00] that most people who plunge their hands into boiling or carried red hot, burning iron would in fact be miraculously unscathed and thus exonerated by the ordeal. And that’s fortunately the primary sort of evidence that’s available. Having said that, the number of observations here is very small because we’re dealing with 9th through 13th century, effectively, judicial records, which are more or less clerical records at the period.
But there is this one pretty cool case that [00:15:30] we have of this Basilica in Hungary in the very early part of the 13th century, which is the end of the period in which ordeals are being used, where we have recorded cases of people who underwent the ordeal of hot iron, and we know the outcomes for them. For a couple hundred of these guys or gals.
And 2/3 of them show that the red hot iron miraculously did not burn the defendant, who was therefore exonerated. So there’s [00:16:00] only a couple of possibilities here as I see it. The first is that, consistent with the logic that I’ve described, priests were deliberately manipulating the ordeal to exonerate the defendants precisely because they knew that only innocent defendants would be willing to hazard the chance of carrying the hot iron in the first place. Or, priests don’t understand how to heat iron, which seems far less likely to me.

Aaron Powell: Or that everyone in that town was a medieval David Blaine.

Peter T. Leeson: There’s a third.

Trevor Burrus: But [00:16:30] you can’t discount that weird Black Swan event. So I mean, aside from the superstition element, which is a theme of the book, how much your personal belief matters to this, but what caused ordeals to go away and then I guess the second question is, you point out, is there anything like this today?

Peter T. Leeson: With respect to the first question, what caused them to go away. This is again a kind of prediction of the logic, so the logic says people’s belief in this thing actually [00:17:00] being divine, that God is conducting the ordeal effectively, rather than the priests manipulating them, is required in order for this system to function. If people don’t believe that, if the belief goes away, then the different incentives that Trevor would face, depending on whether he’s guilty or innocent, to undergo or to decline the ordeal would go away, and so the whole thing would fall apart.
So the logic says that when that belief is removed or erodes that the ordeal will cease to be effective, so we should [00:17:30] expect it to basically disappear. And that’s exactly what we find. So at the Fourth Lateran Council in the early 13th century, 1215-

Trevor Burrus: I was about to say, 1215, I remember that one from trivia question. Continue, 1215, yes.

Peter T. Leeson: Nailed it, exactly. And Pope Innocent III, did you remember that one?

Trevor Burrus: Uh-huh (affirmative) yup.

Peter T. Leeson: So he basically declares, up until this period, the church’s position was, “Yes, of course ordeals are divine,” and there was some internal debate, however, among Ecclesiastics [00:18:00] about whether or not they were canonical. You know, some Ecclesiastics basically said, “Yup, we’ve got strong Biblical support for these, let’s keep on trucking.” And some others said, “You know what? I think there’s not really any Biblical support for this. In fact, if anything, I think it might contradict what the Bible says.”
And so there’s this sort of internal debate that’s raging among Ecclesiastics over this issue and the latter camp won out. So in the 100 years preceding, leading up to 1215, they’re basic [00:18:30] argument had been gaining steam within the church, and that’s what led to the Fourth Lateran Council where the Pope says, “Okay, ordeals. You know how we’ve been saying those are legit? Actually, we were wrong about that. They’re not Scriptural, God isn’t part of them, He doesn’t want us to be engaged in these things. All priests are now barred from administering or participating in ordeals.”
So when the church does that, it basically pulls the rug out from underneath the belief, the remaining belief at least, throughout medieval Europe that’s supporting [00:19:00] the effective use of ordeals. And in consequence, ordeals quickly vanish. Incidentally, it’s the disappearance of ordeals in the early 13th century directly that gives rise to, shortly thereafter, trial by jury in England and the Inquisitorial procedure on the continent.
Everybody was using trial by ordeal up until that point, and when they went away, people were sort of looking around and saying, “Well, how the hell are we going to adjudicate criminal cases now?” And those were essentially the two forms that emerged [00:19:30] to fill that void.

Trevor Burrus: But now today we have something else. You point out really interestingly, the polygraph.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, there’s a bunch of different examples of it, but I think the polygraph is the most telling case. A lot of Americans, like smart, well-educated Americans, and people outside of the United States believe that poly, so-called lie detector tests, believe that they’re real. That’s it’s possibly to physiologically measure or determine whether or not someone is lying or telling the truth.
Of course, the scientific [00:20:00] consensus is that that’s horseshit. There’s about as much validity to that idea as there is in the idea that God is intervening in our judicial affairs to determine the outcomes. You know, it’s a pseudoscience. But it doesn’t matter that it’s a pseudoscience, because conditional on people believing it as many, as I said, do, that’s it’s true, administering polygraphs or lie detectors has the same incentive properties that administering medieval judicial ordeals did.
They leverage the exact same logic. It’s [00:20:30] just that they use a different superstition in order to make them effective.

Aaron Powell: Well, let’s move on to the thing that I’m sure a lot of us married men have thought about at one time or another-

Trevor Burrus: I was going to say the same thing. Aaron’s favorite topic. Wife-selling.

Aaron Powell: … is wife-selling.

Trevor Burrus: So when there was a hey-day of wife-selling, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Peter T. Leeson: No, it was Industrial Revolution era. So you find some before and after this, but you can think of it as the period between 1750 and 1880 or [00:21:00] so.

Trevor Burrus: And why was that particularly robust time for wife-selling?

Peter T. Leeson: Well, you gotta read the book to find out all the details. A lot of things are sort of like … We’re giving it, which is natural in this context, a sort of superficial gloss, but the stories are much more complex, right? And this one I think is kind of especially so. But anyway, the basic [00:21:30] idea here is that during this period, men from lower classes, so it’s typically impoverished people, couples who are engaging in this thing, would sell their wives at public auctions.
The same public auctions at which livestock were sold. It was a town market, effectively. They would trot them out there just like livestock, any potential bidders would basically get a look at her, they’d put her on the block and an auctioneer would you know, [00:22:00] extol her virtues and vices and then the bidding would commence. And, and this is a crucial part, conditional on the wife agreeing to be sold to a new husband, to a new male who would become her new husband, the sale was transacted and the existing marriage was essentially dissolved and a new one was formed.
That’s the gist of the practice. Which on the surface, I think-

Trevor Burrus: Patriarchal capitalism. Yeah, that sounds like the horrors of patriarchal capitalism.

Peter T. Leeson: [00:22:30] Exactly. It sounds like pretty much the worst thing you can imagine. And I don’t mean to say that it was a glorious thing, right. So my claim is not, same thing with medieval judicial ordeals, my claim is not that, “Look how wonderful it is to have a system where you plunge your arm in boiling water or where people are selling off spouses.” That’s not the claim.
The claim throughout the book is that in order to understand these things, and to give them their due, I think in a sense, rather than writing them off as barbaric, you have to [00:23:00] understand the constraints and the incentives that they involved and that they reflected.
And in the context of Industrial Revolution era wife selling, the important constraints were effectively that it was really, really hard, there was a couple of them, but it was really, really hard to get a legal divorce. I mean, legal divorces didn’t exist essentially. But there were various forms of de facto marital dissolution, and under the law, [00:23:30] those de facto means of marital dissolution were very easy for unhappy men who wanted to exit their marriage to appeal to, but they were very difficult for women to appeal to.
Now there’s this thing, right, called the Coase theorem which says, “Well, it doesn’t really matter because if in fact it’s efficient for a marriage to dissolve, then regardless of whether or not the law says that one party has the right to exit and the other doesn’t or not, [00:24:00] there will be an exchange, in this case, the wife could just pay the husband to basically buy the property right to let her out of the marriage, even though the law doesn’t allow it.”
So it’s a sort of trade as a workaround to the law. The difficulty, and this comes to the second piece of the law that’s critical in the case of wife sales here, is that the martial property law during this period deprived wives of property rights. So a single woman in the Industrial Revolution [00:24:30] era England enjoyed property rights just like a man did. But upon getting married, her legal status converted such that all of the property that she had when she entered the marriage, and all that would come into her possession throughout the marriage, was no longer hers. Instead, it devolved exclusively to her husband.

Trevor Burrus: So she had no bargaining position?

Peter T. Leeson: Exactly. How can you buy the right to exit marriage from your husband if all the things you would use to buy from him, all the money, the land, whatever [00:25:00] you might have, is already his?

Trevor Burrus: But you can get someone else to buy your position. Now I’m seeing it.

Peter T. Leeson: Exactly, and that’s why this auctioning procedure with wife sales happened. So if the couple, if the husband and the wife could identify a third party who was male who valued the wife more than her current husband did, and who she valued as a husband more than she valued her current husband as a husband, then that man could essentially allow for indirect Coasian trade.
He could pay the husband [00:25:30] for the right to have her, making all three of them better off, because he has property that the husband doesn’t have, unlike the wife.

Aaron Powell: Then were most of these transactions the result of unhappy marriages of the kinds that we’re describing, where the partners, the wife wanted out and the husband agreed in exchange for someone else’s money? Because I can imagine that there might also have been cases where this was due to financial hardship. Like maybe neither the husband nor wife wanted [00:26:00] this, but they were poor, they had mouths to feed and this was just a way to make money.

Peter T. Leeson: Well, even if it were the latter, note that that would still be actually a subset of the former case that you described. It would be a workaround as a way for them to basically all be made better of as a result of the trade. It’s just that the reason that it would be making them better off would be, as you described it, financial hardship, as opposed to say the husband [00:26:30] and wife just not getting along, or one of them cheating on the other or something like that.
The evidence, that we have anyway, suggests that it was the first type of case that you described. Which is the couples were unhappy in their marital situation, not because of economic hardship, but rather because one of them was cheating on the other. And so typically, actually, the wife having an affair. Which suggests a couple of things. One, she [00:27:00] values not being in the marriage very highly and two, now her husband probably doesn’t value being married to her very much either, or at least his evaluation of that is lowered.

Trevor Burrus: Now they have a willing buyer possibly, if she had an affair.

Peter T. Leeson: Exactly, and he would often be the guy at the wife sale who would make the highest bid and so she would go to him. But regardless of the precise reasons, so in that typical case it seems, or even if it were, as you put it, a money-making scheme, which again it is in a sense [00:27:30] no matter how you think about. Somebody needs a financial incentive, basically, to do the thing that’s happening here.
But in either case, the critical part, back to the capitalist patriarchy here, is that all of the parties are made better off. Most importantly, at least from my perspective in it’s context, the wives, without these sales, these unhappy wives have no other way of getting out of their unhappy marriages. Since they have to consent to be sold, [00:28:00] and since we just discussed, typically they were being sold to their lovers, they were made better off as a consequence of the trade, rather than worse off.
So this practice that looks like slavery or something like it at the outset, in fact, I think, was a welfare improvement for women. A significant one at the time, given the constraints, going back to that, of Industrial Revolution property and marital law.

Trevor Burrus: I assumed as those changed, [00:28:30] that would probably say that the practice would change itself, if women are no longer property.

Peter T. Leeson: Precisely. And that’s again exactly what we find. So towards the latter part of the 19th century, from about the 1840s to like the 1880s, maybe even up to 1890, you have a series in England of new legislation that Parliament passes that basically, step by step, give married women [00:29:00] more and more property rights. Making them consonant to the property rights that they basically had as single women.
And once that happens, you don’t need to resort to wife sales if you’re an unhappy wife to get out of your marriage, because even if it’s really difficult for you to get out of the marriage under the law without your husband’s permission, now you actually have property that’s yours that isn’t his that you can use as a bargaining chip, that you can use to pay him to bribe your way out of the bad marriage, and that’s what we see happens.

Trevor Burrus: [00:29:30] Now, your book has many interesting chapters. We don’t have time to get to all of them, of course. I definitely suggest listeners to read it. My favorite ones, I want to go to my personal favorite ones, so just to get some more ideas of what the WTF is. Maledictions. In a chapter called ‘God Damn’ the presence and use of maledictions. What is a malediction?

Peter T. Leeson: A malediction is the opposite of a benediction. So [00:30:00] for your Catholic audience, I grew up in the Catholic church, I still consider myself Catholic in some ways, I guess. But in any event, so a benediction, you know, at mass the priest will basically offering blessings, and sometimes they’ll point to specific people. Not necessarily in the parish, although sometimes. But they have special blessings to thank people or to ask God to do special things and brotherly love and all of that stuff.
A malediction, [00:30:30] they’re not around anymore, but church would be far more entertaining if they were, I think. The priest did the exact opposite. He would call out specific people and basically ask God to damn them in a variety of really-

Trevor Burrus: Disturbing ways, yeah.

Peter T. Leeson: … hedonistic, graphic ways.

Aaron Powell: So this is basically a faculty staff meeting.

Peter T. Leeson: Yes, I suppose so.

Trevor Burrus: It was ornate too, ‘cause they went through different physical [00:31:00] procedures. Not just saying, “May your wife and your fields and your days and your nights be cursed,” they also did a bunch of weird things. I just keep picturing this in my mind and I’m like, “Wow, this is bizarre.”

Peter T. Leeson: Oh yeah, yeah. They would specifically say, like, “May your eyes rot in your skull. May you intestines be torn out and eaten by ravenous wolves. May your … ” I mean some of the stuff, when you imagine that it’s priests that are saying this at Mass, it’s pretty crazy. You know, “May your [00:31:30] wife or your daughter be raped.” I mean, just over the top.

Trevor Burrus: And they’d lie down on the ground and do other weird things.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, yeah, so that was a call to clamor. One of the things that they could do was to be take holy relics, in particular, and put them on the floor and then lay themselves prostrate on the floor. And the idea was that they would basically be humiliating the saints that these relics reflected. And so [00:32:00] the thought was if you piss off the saints, basically you’re working them up and getting them really angry so that the curses will be especially bad when they’re launched at whoever the target is.

Aaron Powell: How does one end up on this list of people to be cursed by the local priest?

Peter T. Leeson: Well, so well the maledictions that I study are in 9th and 10th century Francia, which isn’t really equivalent to modern France, but we can sort of think about it, it’s in that area. And [00:32:30] what you did in that period to basically to get on the shit list was to steal from the church, to steal from the priests or the monks. A lot of times these were monastic curses, so it was the monks property. And that seems kind of weird maybe from a contemporary perspective, but well, maybe not so weird, but especially during this period, the church has tremendous wealth, they have tons of land, [00:33:00] they’ve got lots of physical goods that are valuable.
And what they don’t have is the physical means of self-protection, however. When you took up the cloth, you basically laid down your arms and made a vow to live the monastic/priestly life and so that meant you didn’t have weapons, and so they kind of resorted to these spiritual weapons to basically cope with their property depredators instead.

Trevor Burrus: So just like the ordeal, this would require the [00:33:30] cursed to believe that there was some power to what the monks were doing, so maybe that’s one reason for the ceremony, other than just saying it, laying down on the ground and putting the relics on the ground and stuff, so it depends on their belief.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, again, you’re absolutely right. It’s critical. It only works, if you are threatening to take something from me and I say, “God’s going to smite you now and in the afterlife,” that only might stop you from stealing from me if you actually believe [00:34:00] in God, for instance. And in particular, if not only do you have to believe in God, but you have to believe that God will in fact, curse people who do things like stealing from somebody and that priests, in particular, have the power to call on God to ask him to do that favor in that case.
And the medieval priests were really luck in this regard, because you know, if you take a read of the Bible, it’s basically littered with these divine curses [00:34:30] and pretty much all of the exact, graphic, nasty curses, these maledictions that clerics in this period were launching at people who were plundering them were the same curses that you find in the Bible. And the Bible was something in which, in this place in Christendom, many people believed, which is precisely what gave them their power to be effective.

Aaron Powell: That then seems to [00:35:00] play at odds with, I guess, the specific nature of these curses. Because it’s one thing if the priest says, “God is going to make something bad happen to you,” because this was a time when bad things happened to people all the time. But the really specific nature, like “Your eyes are going to rot out,” or some other thing, that the likelihood of that actually happening seems rather low.

Peter T. Leeson: It does, which is why if you used [00:35:30] a very specific one, a lot of them sound really specific, but if you look close, they’re not. Here’s an example, if you’re going to use something like your eyes rotting out of your head, you want to actually couple it with a whole bunch of other things that some of which might be specific, and some of which might be extremely vague, all sort of using sort and or or clauses.
So, “May your eyes rot out of your head, or you be miserable for the rest of your life or you [00:36:00] lose your property to a fire or you suffer illnesses when you are in the north,” they would use directions, or in the south or in the west. And if you look at these things, one of the patterns that shows up is that, again, just having this veneer specificity. In fact, they’re extremely general and broad, sort of catch-all curses. So they kind of ultimately account for all possible states of affairs in which you might be and in the end say that something bad [00:36:30] will happen to you.
In fact, maybe not just happen to you now, but alternatively, they might happen to you in the afterlife. So-

Trevor Burrus: Unfalsifiable.

Peter T. Leeson: What’s that?

Trevor Burrus: That’s non-falsifiable then.

Peter T. Leeson: Exactly, yeah, precisely. There’s no way to falsify the thing because one, you can never observe what happens to a person in the afterlife, so if nothing comes true in their life, there’s always that possibility. But moreover, the stuff that’s in your life is also encompassing. It’s almost certain that at some point, something bad is going to happen [00:37:00] to you, and if you make the malediction broad enough, it’s going to encompass that thing. So there’s no way to know, when it happens, if it happened because of the curse or it was bound to happen anyway.

Trevor Burrus: So the constraints here were the relative predation on property of the church during this one 9th and 10th century Francia Carolingian period and so kind of like the other situations, presumably when that changed, and some of that is for better state power, then the curses sort [00:37:30] of went away, the maledictions.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, exactly. This period’s interesting because basically leading up to the period in which curses were used, the state existed and it was the force that was protecting the monk’s and priest’s property rights, so it wasn’t a big deal that the monks and priests didn’t have their own weapons, effectively. Then there this period of state, basically erosion occurs for a century or two, the priests [00:38:00] now don’t have that external enforcement of their property rights, so they resort to maledictions.
But what’s neat that happens is that at the end of this period, the state actually reemerges and it’s power to protect the monk’s and priest’s property rights consequently reemerges and that’s exactly what they do and right when that happens, lo and behold, the priests and monks put their malediction formulas away and we don’t ever hear about them again.
So it seems pretty clear to me that is was that [00:38:30] this was a means of private property enforcement that was a second best solution. It wasn’t the monk’s or priest’s preferred way of doing thing, otherwise they would’ve done it even when the state was there. They only use it in that intermediary period where basically they don’t enjoy that protection.

Trevor Burrus: So as a Libertarian podcast, I know we’re looking at this economically, and states and other institutions do different things to protect property rights, but that seems like an endorsement of the state to [00:39:00] come in and change at least this bizarre way of cursing people to protect property rights. It’s probably better to rely on … Maybe that’s the thing. The state, it relies on force, not belief. That you don’t need people to believe in the superstition or something, you just need people to believe in the force of the state, so it’s a little bit more scalable, and it’s a little bit more manageable.

Peter T. Leeson: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, to me, it doesn’t have an implication for Libertarianism one way or the other. [00:39:30] My perspective as a Libertarian does not take the following position that government can never do anything that private actors can’t do. It can. Right? It certainly can do those things. To me, the Libertarian point is that in general, on net, the costs that come with that exceed the benefits, but not that in any particular case there isn’t something that it couldn’t do that would provide a benefit that private actors couldn’t do.
And I think this is an example of that. So, you know, [00:40:00] the state did presumably have a strong interest in protecting the monk’s property rights, and that’s why it was more effective than these curses, which as you say, required belief and therefore in a sense, they’re more fragile. But that doesn’t mean that in general, state enforcement of property rights even is superior because we’re focusing just on it’s implications for monastic communities. What was it’s implications for broader society?
Just because the state was willing to do better on protecting monk’s property rights doesn’t mean that it was protecting other people’s property rights better. [00:40:30] Or doesn’t mean that it was engaging in activities more generally that promoted economic progress. I’m not saying that it didn’t either, but simply we can infer from … I feel like sometimes Libertarians have this tendency to be unwilling to acknowledge that government could do something that might have some isolated effect that they would consider positive, and I think that that’s a wrong attitude to have because it’s clearly wrong.

Trevor Burrus: Agreed. Now, the last one I’d like you to talk about, but I’d like you to not tell the answer to our listeners, so they can read [00:41:00] your book, ‘cause I think it’s the weirdest thing in the book, which is trials of animals. So what was the situation for trials of animals?

Peter T. Leeson: During the Renaissance in France, Italy and Switzerland, Ecclesiastic courts, which were the primary courts of the period, Ecclesiastic courts criminally prosecuted insects and rodents for property crimes and trespass. So you know, we’re dealing with primarily [00:41:30] farmers here, so if you have say an infestation of locusts or some rats eat your barley crop or something, what you could and citizens often did, would be to bring a formal complaint to the equivalent of what we would call a modern day District Attorney in their community, who would then formally lodge the complaint with the court and the court would consider whether or not to hear the case, which would involve prosecuting the critters.
And the [00:42:00] court cases, the trials of these animals and insects proceeded and had the exact form as they do for people. They treated them just like they were people, so the crickets or the locusts or the rats or whatever would be given a court appointed defense attorney and the trials could and often did, drag on for months with legal wrangling on both sides. And then the court would in the end issue it’s [00:42:30] verdict and if the insects or rodents were convicted, the punishment is just as weird as the fact that they were doing this in the first place.

Trevor Burrus: I don’t know what the weirdest part is.

Peter T. Leeson: With malediction and anathema.

Trevor Burrus: Banish the locusts.

Peter T. Leeson: Excuse me, I’m sorry, excommunication and anathema.

Trevor Burrus: Oh, okay, okay.

Peter T. Leeson: Which isn’t that different, but I mean, it’s a weird thing to do to not only insects and vermin, but you know, presumably they were never communicated [00:43:00] in the first place. They weren’t part of the church, and they don’t have souls to be able to be damned to hell. Nevertheless, that was the punishment.

Trevor Burrus: And they got summons, and you mention that there’s one eight-month trial for weevils with very serious defenses mounted against the weevils, including one of them being they’re not people.

Peter T. Leeson: Yes, yes. It’s insane. Or seems insane. As you mentioned, there were summons, they, the defendants, would be granted [00:43:30] continuances on the grounds that you know, some rats, for example, were granted repeated continuances on the grounds that some cats had prevented them from making it to trial. Because they were supposed to actually appear with their counselor in front of the court. So one of the ways to convict them was basically if they didn’t show up enough times, then the prosecuting attorney would say, “Look, you know, we gotta find them in default, they’re not even showing up.”
So [00:44:00] the defense attorneys would have to basically make up all these things about why they weren’t there, or ultimately plead, “Look, they’re crickets, so they’re not that bright. It’s hard to get them to come along, so why don’t you just let us defend them in their absence?” That sort of thing.

Aaron Powell: So as intriguing as all this is, as I think about my wife’s cat, do you think that the people involved in this were in on the joke? Did they really take this seriously?

Peter T. Leeson: [00:44:30] In general, with all of these things, I think that the relevant population, so the defendants, say, in trial by ordeal and the farmers who were initiating these legal cases against the vermin, I believe that they reposed some positive level of belief in the thing, yes. That is not equivalent to saying they were not skeptical. You can assign a positive probability to [00:45:00] something being true, but it be a very low probability, right? And thus be predominately skeptical.
As long as, in the case of ordeals, this example and others throughout the book, the argument is as long as people have some greater than zero belief, the logic goes through. There are different implications depending on their level of belief, which I talk about in the book, but the key thing is that you can be super skeptical, you just can’t be so skeptical that you immediately rule it out of hand.
And in the case of vermin [00:45:30] trials, for instance, it’s important to note that it might seem crazy to think that farmers would do something like this, but you have to remember that if you look at like basically the equivalent of sort of farmer’s manuals, pesticide manuals of the period, the non-Ecclesiastic remedies for these, the non-legal remedies for dealing with them consistent of things that we would consider absurd more generally.
And so, you know, [00:46:00] during the period of vermin trials, you gotta remember that this was the period during which elites, now we’re in the witch trial era, by the way, and this is a period in which elites thought that witches were real and that they stole men’s genitals in their sleep and all kinds of crazy stuff. So once you recognize that people believed things like that, the idea that a simple farmer might think that he could get a court to basically deal with his infestation problem doesn’t [00:46:30] seem that outrageous.

Aaron Powell: Then say there’s a new addition of your book that comes out 500 years from now. I mean, you mentioned polygraph, but what besides polygraph do you think we do now and do very earnestly that would make a chapter in the book?

Peter T. Leeson: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. You know, something that I think about a lot, and I don’t know [00:47:00] that I have a specific answer. I have maybe a couple suggestions in a second, but the general point, I think, or what your question gets at to me, is a critical thing, it’s a point that I’m constantly making when I talk about this and is a message that I’m trying to get through also with the book. Which is that people basically A) shouldn’t take themselves so seriously, and B) think that they, they meaning their societies, their culture, is [00:47:30] so sophisticated and clever.
Because both what you find is this incredible degree of cleverness in things that seem preposterous and absurd in the past and furthermore, you also see these believes that we regard today as absurd that have existed throughout the ages, which should give any critical thinking person pause to raise exactly the question that you raised, which is even if we don’t know, even if we can’t put our finger which specific things will be tomorrow’s absurdities precisely [00:48:00] because we’re steeped in it. Just like the farmers in the vermin trials, we’re steeped in that belief. To them, it wasn’t absurd.
When you are thinking in those terms, you can’t tell what’s absurd, right? But what you do know is that it is certain that much of what we do now will be regarded as absurdity.

Trevor Burrus: Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes [00:48:30] and if you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at