The King Solomon baby story is often touted as a pinnacle of wisdom.
And it is.
It’s an ingenious and clever in a way that uses incentives to get people to reveal the very thing they are trying to keep secret.
In short, two women claim to be a baby’s mother. King Solomon proposes cutting the baby in two so each can leave with half of the baby.
When one woman’s emotions gave way and
Read the entire story in 1 Kings 3:16-28.
But the crazy thing is – and I can’t believe that I am not the one pointing this out – this is fundamentally the same idea behind medieval ordeals
Let Peter Leeson explain:
To see what I have in mind, consider a medieval fellow named Frithogar. Suppose Frithogar’s neighbor, a farmer, accuses him of stealing. Frithogar denies it. The farmer has no witnesses but is well respected. Frithogar isn’t, so the court orders him to the hot water ordeal. Frithogar believes in
iudiciumDei—that priests, by performing the appropriate rituals, can get God to reveal the truth, performing a miracle that prevents the boiling water from burning him if he’s innocent, letting him burn if he’s not. What will Frithogar do? Put yourself in his shoes. Suppose Frithogar stole from the farmer. He knows he’s guilty, but nobody else does. In this case, if Frithogar undergoes the ordeal, he expects to burn. Moreover, he expects to suffer the legal punishment for theft upon being convicted—a large fine. Frithogar’s other option is to decline the ordeal, confessing his crime or settling with the farmer instead. Both of these alternatives punish Frithogar, but neither is as punishing as the fine for stealing and neither will burn him. Thus, if he’s guilty, Frithogar will choose to decline the ordeal. Now suppose that Frithogar didn’t steal from the farmer. He knows he’s innocent but nobody else does. In this case, if Frithogar undergoes the ordeal, he expects to pull his arm from the boiling water unburned. Moreover, he expects to avoid legal punishment upon being exonerated. If Frithogar declines the ordeal and confesses or settles instead, he suffers punishment for a crime he didn’t commit. Thus, if he’s innocent, Frithogar will choose to undergo the ordeal.
-Peter Leeson, WTF?! An Economic Tour Of The Weird
This, of course, hinges on faith.
He finishes the thought:
In other words, the specter of the ordeal sorts Frithogar by his guilt or innocence. Leveraging his belief in iudicium Dei incentivizes him to choose one way if he hasn’t stolen from the farmer, undergo the ordeal, and another way if he has, decline it, revealing his criminal status through how he chooses. This is similar to the way that King Solomon leveraged the specter of cutting the baby in half to incentivize the disputing women to reveal their maternal status.