AUDIO: “Summer (Four Seasons)” from Classical Works by De Wolfe Commercial Breaks Library. Composer: Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

In the 1970s, the NBC comedy series Saturday Night Live featured skits by the comedian and author Steve Martin, whose recurring roles as Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber and Medieval Judge, tapped into the tacit knowledge of moral progress since the Middle Ages—assumed to be held by even late night viewers. Martin played a barber surgeon who employed bloodletting and other barbaric practices to cure any and all illnesses; as he explained to the mother of one of his patients: “You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago they thought a disease like your daughter’s was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach.” The mother didn’t buy it and blasted him for his still-barbaric bloodletting ways until Theodoric had a moment of scientific enlightenment…almost:

Wait a minute. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps I’ve been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a “scientific method.” Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance…Nah!

As the Medieval Judge, Theodoric of York had a similar near-awakening after passing judgment on an accused witch based on the classic trial by ordeal—specifically, in this instance, the ordeal by water. This particular test involved tying up the accused and then dunking her into a body of water. If the accused sank (and drowned) that meant she was innocent; but if she managed to float she was obviously guilty—either because the pure element of water naturally expels evil, or because, in the words of an observer at the time, “the witch, having made a compact with the devil, hath renounced her baptism, hence the antipathy between her and water,” or because only by employing her demonic powers could she overcome the weight of the stones with which some of the hapless accused were unfairly burdened. In the case of the accused in Theodoric’s court, the woman proves to be innocent, and thus sinks to her death. The mother, naturally, is furious, proclaiming “You call this justice!? An innocent girl dead?” Theodoric ponders the mother’s protestations, thinking to himself:

Wait a minute—perhaps she’s right. Maybe the King doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth. Maybe he should be judged by his peers. Oh! A jury! A jury of his peers…everyone should be tried by a jury of their peers and be equal before the law. And perhaps, every person should be free from cruel and unusual punishment…Nah!