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Trial by ordeal

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Trial by ordeal is a judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to a painful task. If either the task is completed without injury, or the injuries sustained are healed quickly, the accused is considered innocent. In medieval Europe, like trial by combat, it was considered a judicium Dei: a procedure based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle on their behalf. The practice has much earlier roots however, being attested in polytheistic cultures as far back as the Code of Hammurabi, and in animist tribal societies, such as the trial by ingestion of "red water" (calabar bean) in Sierra Leone, where the intended effect is magical rather than invocation of a deity's justice.

In pre-modern society, the ordeal typically ranked along with the oath and witness accounts as the central means by which to reach a judicial verdict. Indeed, the term ordeal itself, Old English ordel, has the meaning of "judgement, verdict" (German Urteil, Dutch oordeel), from Proto-Germanic *uzdailjam "that which is dealt out".

In Europe, ordeals commonly required an accused person to test himself or herself against fire or water, though the precise nature of the proof varied considerably at different times and places. In England, ordeals were common under both the Saxons and the Normans. Fire was the element typically used to test noble defendants, while water was more commonly used by lesser folk.

Priestly cooperation in trials by fire and water was forbidden by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and replaced by compurgation.[1] Its effect was slow and piecemeal, and certain superstitions would linger for centuries.

Ordeal of fire

This test typically required that the accused walk a certain distance, usually nine feet, over red-hot ploughshares or holding a red-hot iron. Innocence was sometimes established by a complete lack of injury, but it was more common for the wound to be bandaged and reexamined three days later by a priest, who would pronounce that God had intervened to heal it, or that it was merely festering - in which case the suspect would be exiled or executed. One famous instance of the ordeal of ploughshares concerned Emma of Normandy, accused of adultery with the Bishop of Winchester in the mid-eleventh century. If church chroniclers are to believed, she was so manifestly innocent that she had already walked over the blades when she asked if her trial would soon begin.

Another form of the ordeal required that an accused remove a stone from a pot of boiling water, oil, or lead. The assessment of the injury, and the consequences of a miracle or lack thereof, followed a similar procedure to that described in the preceding paragraph. An early (non-judicial) example of the test was described by Gregory of Tours in the seventh century AD. He tells how a Catholic saint (Saint Hyacinth) bested an Arian rival by plucking a stone from a boiling cauldron. Gregory accepted that it took Hyacinth about an hour to complete the task (because the waters were bubbling so ferociously), but he was pleased to record that when the heretic tried, he had the skin boiled off up to his elbow.


  • Giovanni da Pian del Carpine narrates that when he visited the Mongol Batu Khan, he was made pass between two fires[2] to remove possible witchcraft or poisons.

Ordeal of water

Ordeal of hot water

First mentioned in the 6th century Lex Salica, the ordeal of hot water requires the accused to dip his hand in a kettle of boiling water. A similar practice was known in India, described in the law code of Narada.

Ordeal of cold water

This ordeal has a precedent in the code of Hammurabi, where a man accused of sorcery is to be submerged in a stream and acquitted if he survives. The practice is in Frankish law and was abolished by Louis the Pious in 829. The practice did re-appear in the Late Middle Ages, however. In the Dreieicher Wildbann of 1338, a man accused of poaching is to be submerged in a barrel three times, and to be considered guilty if he sinks to the bottom.

This ordeal became also associated with the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, and demonologists would develop inventive new theories about how it worked. Some argued that witches floated because they had renounced baptism when entering the Devil's service. Jacob Rickius claimed that they were supernaturally light, and recommended weighing them as an alternative to dunking them. King James I (and VI of Scotland) claimed in his Daemonologie that water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty. A late witch process to include this ordeal took place in Szegedin, Hungary in 1728 (Böhmer, ius eccles. 5.608).

Gregory of Tours (died 594) recorded the common expectation that with a millstone round his or her neck, the guilty would sink: "The cruel pagans cast him [Quirinus, bishop of the church of Sissek] into a river with a millstone tied to his neck, and when he had fallen into the waters he was long supported on the surface by a divine miracle, and the waters did not suck him down since the weight of crime did not press upon him." (Historia Francorum i.35)

The ordeal of water is also proscribed by the Vishnu Smrti (Sacred Books of the East, vol. 7, tr. Julius Jolly), chapter 12, which is one of the texts of the Dharmaśāstra. [1]

Ordeal of the cross

The ordeal of the cross was apparently introduced in the Early Middle Ages by the church in an attempt to discourage judicial duels among the Germanic peoples. As in the case of such duels, and unlike the case of most other ordeals, the accuser has to undergo the ordeal together with the accused. They stand on either side of a cross and stretch out their hands horizontally. The one to first lower his arms loses. This ordeal was proscribed by Charlemagne in 779 and again in 806. A decree of Lothar I recorded in 876 on the other hand rules its abolition so as to avoid mockery of Christ.

Ordeal of ingestion

  • Franconian law prescribed that an accused was to be given dry bread and cheese blessed by a priest. If he would choke on the food, he was considered guilty. This was transformed into the ordeal of the eucharist (trial by sacrament), mentioned by Regino of Prüm ca. 900: the accused was to take the eucharist after a solemn oath professing his innocence. It was believed that if the oath had been false, the criminal would die within the same year.
  • Numbers 5:12–27 prescribes that a woman suspected of adultery should be made to swallow "the bitter water that causeth the curse" by the priest in order to determine her guilt. The accused would be condemned only if 'her belly shall swell and her thigh shall rot'. It can be found in the Torah (where it is known as the Sotah) and the Old Testament (Numbers 5:12-31). One writer has recently argued that the procedure has a rational basis, envisioning punishment only upon clear proof of pregnancy (a swelling belly) or venereal disease (a rotting thigh). [3], but a more likely origin is the connection of ascites with oath-breakers in the Ancient Orient (see Hittite military oath).
  • Some cultures administer the poisonous calabar bean to attempt to detect guilt. If the defendant throws up and their stomach rejects the bean, he or she is proclaimed innocent. If the defendant dies or becomes ill, he is considered guilty.

Other ordeal methods

  • A Burmese ordeal tradition involves the two accused persons to light a candle, with the winner being the owner of the candle that outlasts the other's.


  1. ^ Vold, George B., Thomas J. Bernard, Jeffrey B. Snipes (2001). Theoretical Criminology. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Liber Tatarorum, chapter 7 for the general Mongol custom and chapter 22 for Pian's personal passing.
  3. ^ Sadakat Kadri, The Trial: Four Thousand Years of Courtroom Drama (Random House, 2006), p.25.


  • H. Glitsch, Mittelalterliche Gottesurteile, Leipzig (1913).
  • Kaegi, Alter und Herkunft des germanischen Gottesurteils (1887).
  • Henry C. Lea Superstition and Force (Greenwood, 1968; reprint of 1870 edition.)
  • Sadakat Kadri The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson (Random House, 2006).
  • Ian C. Pilarczyk, "Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Issues of Subjectivity and Rationality in the Medieval Ordeal by Hot Iron", 25 Anglo-American Law Rev. 87-112 (1996).

See also

  • Oath

External links

  • Encyclopædia Britannica Online "Ordeal"
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