In the presence of the temple
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
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
invoking supernatural aid in determining an individual's
guilt. These techniques--which often endangered the lives
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
the method seems like a dubious one.
*Special thanks to Mary Grace Weir for pointing out for pointing out the New Testament contrast.