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‘God Damn’: The Law and Economics of Monastic Malediction

‘God Damn’: The Law and Economics of Monastic Malediction


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“God Damn”: The Law and Economics of Monastic Malediction

By Peter T. Leeson

The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Vol.30:1 (2012)

Abstract: Today monks are known for turning the other cheek, honoring saints, and blessing humanity with brotherly love. But for centuries they were known equally for fulminating their foes, humiliating saints, and casting calamitous curses at persons who crossed them. Clerics called these curses “maledictions.” This article argues that medieval communities of monks and canons used maledictions to protect their property against predators where government and physical self-help were unavailable to them. To explain how they did this I develop a theory of cursing with rational agents. I show that curses capable of improving property protection when cursors and their targets are rational must satisfy three conditions. They must be grounded in targets’ existing beliefs, monopolized by cursors, and unfalsifiable. Malediction satisfied these conditions, making it an effective institutional substitute for conventional institutions of clerical property protection.

Introduction: Whoever wishes to know what the malediction is really like should read … divine law and find out for certain how terrible and horrible and frightening that malediction is. ~ Council of Aachen to Pepin of Aquitaine, 837 AD

Today monks are known for turning the other cheek, honoring saints, and blessing humanity with brotherly love. Clerics called these curses “maledictions.”

This article investigates malediction. To do so it uses the theory of rational choice. I argue that medieval communities of monks and canons used maledictions—liturgical curses, clamors, excommunication and anathema, and contract cursing—to protect their property against predators where government and physical self-help were unavailable to them. To explain how they did this I develop a theory of cursing with rational agents.


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