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Medieval Trial by Ordeal

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Where did the medieval idea of trial by ordeal originate? Some components probably originated in the pagan practices of Germanic tribes--though surviving records are sparse. One kernal for this medieval idea, however, comes from the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible's book of Numbers 5:11-22, trial by ordeal was the prescribed method for testing a wife's fidelity to her husband. The following excerpt comes from the NIV translation:

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over the husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure--or even if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure--then he is to take his wife to the priest. . . .

The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, "If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband"--here the priest is to put the woman under this curse of the oath--"may the Lord cause your people to curse and denounce you when he causes your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away."' (Numbers 5:11-22)

In the presence of the temple priests, the woman would be required to drink water mixed with the dirt from the tabernacle floor after calling upon God to strike her with sickness if she were guilty of adultery. If she grew ill from drinking this contaminant, and her womb swelled or she later lost muscle tissue in her thigh, this was considered clear evidence of her guilt, and she would then be stoned to death. (No similar method existed for testing adulterous husbands in Old Testament accounts, however, though in the proto-Evangelium of James, both Joseph and Mary under a similar test when Mary is pregnant out of wedlock.*)

Given this sanction in scripture, many medieval courts developed a number of similar methods for invoking supernatural aid in determining an individual's guilt. These techniques--which often endangered the lives of participants--are called "trials by ordeal" as opposed to other methods such as trial by combat or compurgation. P. J. Helm describes some of these techniques common to the Christianized Anglo-Saxons in the biography, Alfred the Great (London: Robert Hale Limited, 1965), but much more elaborate accounts can be found in the now dated book, Superstition and Force, compiled by Henry Charles Lee in 1870.

The accused would normally be required to fast, then confess to a priest and prepare to have the Mass. The priest or judge would solemnly charge him by the Trinity, by his faith, by the cross, by the Gospel, and by whatever relics were stored in the church where the trial took place, that he should not take the Sacrament if he were guilty. The plaintiff could choose one of three possible trials by ordeal for a lay defendant:

(1) Trial by Cold Water. The defendant would take a sip of holy water and then be thrown into a pool of water. If the water "accepted" her as pure (i.e., if she sank to the bottom), she was considered innocent of the charges. If she floated to the surface, she was considered guilty. (This technique has lead to the modern myth about if the defendant drowned she was considered innocent--but the surviving records suggest that court officials did not normally allow those who sank actually to drown.)

(2) Trial by Hot Iron. The defendant would be required to pick up and carry a measure of iron weighing one pound after it had been heated over a fire. He would have to carry this nine feet, as measured by the length of his own foot. (Thus, short adolescents would have to carry the heated metal less distance than a long-legged adult, and so on.) If the case involved a serious crime such as murder or betrayal of one's lord, the weight of the iron would be three pounds rather than one.

(3) Trial by Hot Water. Court officials would heat a laundry cauldron to the boiling point, then throw a stone into the bottom. The plaintiff must pluck out the stone to prove his innocence. In serious cases, she must plunge in her arm up to the elbow.

If the defendant was a priest, however, he faced a special category of trial by ordeal--"Trial by the Host."

(4) Trial by the Host. A priest could prove his innocence by going before the altar and praying aloud that God would choke him if he were not telling the truth. He would then take a piece of the host and swallow it. If he swallowed it easily with no visible sign of discomfort, this was felt to be supernatural proof of his innocence. However, if he choked or had difficulty swallowing, this was thought to be supernatural proof of his guilt or deceit. P. J. Helm has speculated that this techinque might be more effective than modern readers would initially think. He proposed that a psychosomatic component might actually cause a guilt-plagued priest to choke--though to most modern thinkers the method seems like a dubious one.

*Special thanks to Mary Grace Weir for pointing out for pointing out the New Testament contrast.

 

 

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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2014. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated September 3, 2014. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.