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Trial by combat, in the eyes of modern observers, is nothing more than a barbarous anachronism of the dark ages. In his paper, Trial By Battle (2011), Peter Leeson details the economic advantages of the judicial practice in medieval England. The two concluding paragraphs of Leeson make some profound observations regarding the societal pivot away from a violent form of legal auctions. One counteractive realization Leeson comes to suggests that we do not abandon trial by combat for moral reasons, but rather this was due to a reduction in the transaction costs of land disputes. No, we did not suddenly become enlightened.

“…Finally, trial by battle didn’t die because England became less barbaric. It died because England became a lower transaction cost economy. Just as trial by battle substituted for the Coase theorem in a world of sticky property rights, the Coase theorem substituted for trial by battle in a world with significantly more fluid property rights. In that world lower transaction costs of trade permitted markets to allocate land to higher-valuing users. It became less critical for the legal system to ensure that disputed rights’ initial allocation was efficient. Because of late twelfth-century legal reforms that unstuck land rights, the late twelfth century the judicial system could afford to move away from trial by battle and toward more ‘‘enlightened’’ trial methods, namely trial by jury. When judicial combat became an unnecessary cost, England abandoned it. 

This has important implications for how we understand the process of legal systems’ evolution. It suggests that legal systems’ evolution is less about a process whose course follows the trajectory of enlightened thinking and more about a process whose course follows the trajectory of the transaction cost of trade. When this cost rises, the relative price of relying on ‘‘sophisticated’’ judicial institutions rises too. Legal institutions become more ‘‘primitive’’ in the sense that we tolerate more costly (and less seemly) judicial procedures for identifying and allocating property to higher-valuing users. When the transaction cost of trade falls, so does the relative price of relying on ‘‘sophisticated’’ judicial institutions. The reverse happens: legal institutions become less primitive. Society acts enlightened because it has become cheaper to do so….”

As Leeson demonstrates, how the system of feudalism complicated the allocation of land rights; therefore, the institution of public combat trials helped distribute the land to the higher-valuing users. Those who spend more on champions to represent them in the contest must value the parcel of land more. How many traditions and institutions do we now consider archaic and outmoded by more efficient alternatives? Historians claim that such practices stopped due to an enlightened shift in social norms. Prima facie does seem more likely that social progress has been generated more by economic efficiency than lofty and abstract moral ideals. Who is to say that trial by combat was even uncivilized? Under certain conditions, it could be a feasible form of private dispute resolution analogous to dueling.

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