Ordeal of water

Trial by ordeal was an ancient judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused was determined by subjecting them to an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience. Classically, the test was one of life or death and the proof of innocence was survival. In some cases, the accused was considered innocent if they escaped injury or if their injuries healed (or sometimes the reverse: see below, "Ordeal of cold water").

In medieval Europe, like trial by combat, trial by ordeal 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 as far back as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu, and also 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, Old English ordǣl, has the meaning of "judgment, verdict" (German Urteil, Dutch oordeel), from Proto-Germanic *uzdailjam "that which is dealt out".

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, later by inquisition.[1] Trials by ordeal became rarer over the Late Middle Ages, but the practice was discontinued only in the 16th century.

Ordeal of fire

Ordeal of fire typically required that the accused walk a certain distance, usually nine feet (about 3 metres), 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 re-examined 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 story about the ordeal of ploughshares concerns Edward the Confessor's mother, Emma of Normandy. According to legend, she was accused of adultery with Bishop Ælfwine of Winchester, but proved her innocence by walking barefoot unharmed over burning ploughshares.

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 of one, followed a similar procedure to that described above. An early (non-judicial) example of the test was described by Gregory of Tours in the late 6th century. He describes how a Catholic saint, Hyacinth, bested an Arian rival by plucking a stone from a boiling cauldron. Gregory said 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.

During the First Crusade, the mystic Peter Bartholomew went through the ordeal by fire in 1099 by his own choice to disprove a charge that his claimed discovery of the Holy Lance was fraudulent. He died as a result of his injuries.

In 1498 Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, the leader of a reform movement in Florence who claimed apocalyptic prophetic visions, attempted to prove the divine sanction of his mission by undergoing a trial by fire. The first of its kind for over 400 years, the trial was a fiasco for Savonarola, since a sudden rain doused the flames, canceling the event, and was taken by onlookers as a sign from God against him. The Holy Inquisition arrested him shortly thereafter, with Savonarola convicted of heresy and hanged to death at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

Ordeal of fire (Persian:ور ) was also being in use for judiciary in ancient Iran. Persons accused of cheating in contracts or lying might be asked to prove their innocence by ordeal of fire as an ultimate test .As an example of such ordeal, the accused had to pass through fire, or molten metal was poured on his chest . There were about 30 kinds of fiery tests in all. If the accused died, he was held to have been guilty; if survived, he was innocent, having been protected by Mithra and the other gods. The most simple form of such ordeals required the accused to take an oath, and after that he had drink a potion of sulphur (Avestan language saokant, Middle Persian sōgand, Modern Persian sowgand). They thought fire has an association with truth, and hence with asha.[2]

Ordeal of water

English common law

In the Assize of Clarendon, enacted in 1166 and the first great legislative act in the reign of the Angevin King Henry II of England, the law of the land required that: "anyone, who shall be found, on the oath of the aforesaid [jury], to be accused or notoriously suspect of having been a robber or murderer or thief, or a receiver of them ... be taken and put to the ordeal of water."[3]

Ordeal of boiling 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 and retrieve a stone.

King Athelstan made a law concerning the ordeal. The water had to be about boiling, and the depth from which the stone had to be retrieved was up to the wrist for one accusation and up to the elbow for three. The ordeal would take place in the church, with several in attendance, purified and praying God to reveal the truth. Afterwards, the hand was bound and examined after three days to see whether it was healing or festering.[4]

This was still a practice of 12th century Catholic churches. A suspect would place his hand in the boiling water. If after three days God had not healed his wounds, the suspect was guilty of the crime.[5]

Ordeal of cold water

The ordeal of cold water has a precedent in the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Code of Hammurabi, under which a man accused of sorcery was to be submerged in a stream and acquitted if he survived. The practice was also set out in Frankish law but was abolished by Louis the Pious in 829. The practice reappeared in the Late Middle Ages: in the Dreieicher Wildbann of 1338, a man accused of poaching was to be submerged in a barrel three times and to be considered innocent if he sank, and guilty if he floated.

Gregory of Tours recorded in the 6th century the common expectation that with a millstone round the 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."[6]


Ordeal by water was later associated with the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, although in this scenario the outcome was reversed from the examples above: an accused who sank was considered innocent, while floating indicated witchcraft. Demonologists developed inventive new theories about how it worked. The ordeal would normally be conducted with a rope holding the subject connected to assistants sitting in a boat or the like, so that the person being tested could be pulled in if he/she did not float; the notion that the ordeal was flatly devised as a situation without any possibility of live acquittal, even if the outcome was 'innocent', is a modern exaggeration. 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.[7] King James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) claimed in his Daemonologie that water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty. A witch trial including this ordeal took place in Szeged, Hungary as late as 1728.[8]

The ordeal of water is also contemplated by the Vishnu Smrti,[9] which is one of the texts of the Dharmaśāstra.[10]

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 with judicial duels, and unlike most other ordeals, the accuser had to undergo the ordeal together with the accused. They stood on either side of a cross and stretched out their hands horizontally. The one to first lower his arms lost. This ordeal was prescribed by Charlemagne in 779 and again in 806. A capitulary of Louis the Pious in 819[11] and a decree of Lothar I, recorded in 876, abolished the ordeal so as to avoid the mockery of Christ.

Ordeal of ingestion

Main article: Corsned

Franconian law prescribed that an accused was to be given dry bread and cheese blessed by a priest. If he choked 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.

Both versions are essentially the opposite of ordeals, as they rely on the guilty parties' self-incrimination, while providing what amounts to a presumption of innocence. They are designed to be physiologically harmless and safe rudimentary lie-detection rituals, calling on divine intervention not to save the innocent (who aren't subjected to any real risk at all), but merely to mark the guilty, and using the power of suggestion to force the guilty party to reveal itself, via preemptive confession or self-fulfilling expectation of choking. They are intended to exert great psychological pressure solely on those accused who believe themselves guilty, and furthermore either initially believe in the premise, or are impressionable or superstitious enough to be swayed by the pomp and formality of the administration of said rituals. As with a modern lie detector, they rely on the guilty party inadvertently giving themselves away by reaction, and are furthermore far less likely to give false positives as compared to any contraption, since the design evokes a confession or bizarrely unlikely reaction from a knowingly guilty party only, while reassuring the innocent of their absolute safety throughout (since it calls for divine intervention to wreak an unlikely outcome - choking on a token quantity of food - on the guilty oathbreaker, the opposite of most ordeals' expectation of divine intervention saving the righteous and innocent from near-certain injury or death). They operate on a sort of placebo effect, placing great strain to confess and a self-fulfilling expectation of choking on the guilty in the Franconian variant, and greater yet incentive to forgo perjury in the ordeal of the Eucharist, whose secondary built-in failsafe is to drive successfully passing guilty defendants to literally "worry themselves to sickness" for the next year.

Both ordeals are unusually safe and merciful, as they subject innocent believers and all non-believers to no real personal risk whatsoever, and are furthermore designed to subject innocent believers to no psychological strain whatsoever and grant them great (and reasonable) expectation of impending vindication. With the exception of the low risk of generic, everyday accidental choking, the only undue burden and possible injustice of the ordeals is to the legacy and estate of a defendant, who has the misfortune of dying of unrelated causes soon enough afterwards, as to be deemed a death by divine retribution for perjury. One of their few drawbacks is that they are both easily manipulated and passed by a composed and rational non-believer, no matter how blatantly guilty.

Another version states: "The priest wrote the Lord's Prayer on a piece of bread, of which he then weighed out ten pennyweights, and so likewise with the cheese. Under the right foot of the accused, he set a cross of poplar wood, and holding another cross of the same material over the man's head, threw over his head the theft written on a tablet. He placed the bread and cheese at the same moment in the mouth of the accused, and, on doing so, recited the conjuration: 'I exorcize thee, most unclean dragon, ancient serpent, dark night, by the word of truth, and the sign of light, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the immaculate Lamb generated by the Most High, that bread and cheese may not pass thy gullet and throat, but that thou mayest tremble like an aspen-leaf, Amen; and not have rest, O man, until thou dost vomit it forth with blood, if thou hast committed aught in the matter of the aforesaid theft.'"

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 is known as the Sotah. 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).[12]

Ordeal of poison

Some cultures, such as the Efik Uburutu people of present-day Nigeria, would administer the poisonous calabar bean (known as "esere" in Efik) in an attempt to detect guilt. A defendant who vomits up the bean is innocent. A defendant who becomes ill or dies is considered guilty.[13]

Residents of Madagascar could accuse one another of various crimes, including theft, Christianity, and especially witchcraft, for which the ordeal of tangena was routinely obligatory. In the 1820s, ingestion of the poisonous nut caused about 1,000 deaths annually. This average rose to around 3,000 annual deaths between 1828 and 1861.[14]

Ordeal of boiling oil

Trial by boiling oil has been practiced in villages in India[15] and in certain parts of West Africa, such as Togo.[16] There are two main alternatives of this trial. In one version, the accused parties are ordered to retrieve an item from a container of boiling oil, with those who refuse the task being found guilty.[15] In the other version of the trial, both the accused and the accuser have to retrieve an item from boiling oil, with the person or persons whose hand remains unscathed being declared innocent.[16]

Other ordeal methods

An Icelandic ordeal tradition involves the accused walking under a piece of turf. If the turf falls on the accused's head, the accused person is pronounced guilty.[17]

Theoretical approaches

According to a theory put forward by economics professor Peter Leeson, trial by ordeal may have been effective at sorting the guilty from the innocent.[18] On the assumption that defendants were believers in divine intervention for the innocent, then only the truly innocent would choose to endure a trial; guilty defendants would confess or settle cases instead. Therefore, the theory goes, church and judicial authorities could routinely rig ordeals so that the participants—presumably innocent—could pass them.[19] Of course, the authorities could rig ordeals for all sorts of other reasons, without regard for guilt or innocence, which they themselves may not know.

See also



  • 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). http://iancpilarczyk.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/BetweenARock.pdf
  • Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal, New York: Clarendon Press, 1986.
  • William Ian Miller, “Ordeal in Iceland,” Scandinavian Studies 60 (1988): 189-218.

External links

  • Encyclopædia Britannica Online "Ordeal"
  • http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/ordeals1.html
  • http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/water-ordeal.html
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