Just wanted to echo Jonathan’s recommendation of Peter Leeson’s Boston Globe article about the surprising effectiveness trial by ordeal. [UPDATE: Here’s the full paper by Leeson, on which the Globe piece is based.] To be fair, the article’s thesis would apply to boiling water trials, and probably not trials by weighing against a duck.
Of course, Russian children know this from the Elephant’s Birthday Party (search for the post labeled “- Sunday, April 04, 2004 at 03:39:36 (MSD)”). In the story, one of the birthday guests eats all of the elephant’s birthday cake, and the question is who. The marmot offers the following plan:
Here, folks, is a magic pot….
Stick your paws into it …
Touch the bottom,
As soon as the thief touches the bottom,
The pot will scream.
After this is done, he has everyone show his paws, and nearly everyone says,
Look at our paws —
They are black as blackamoors!
But the cat’s paw is clean! Why? The marmot explains:
The pot, which I brought to you
Is not at all magical,
But entirely normal.
I did only one thing:
I poured some soot on the bottom.
You all touched the bottom
Because your conscience was clear —
All, except the cat.
By the way, if you’re curious about the “blackamoors” item, I take it that it’s there partly because “paws” (лапы) rhymes with арапы, which this dictionary translates as “blackamoors,” though I’m not sure that the term is quite as archaic sounding in Russian as the translation is in English.