Trial by Ordeal

‘Trial by ordeal’ was a system of justice used between the 9th and 13thcentury.  It was a system based on the medieval superstition ‘Iudicium Dei’ meaning ‘The Judgment of God’.  This system was used to prove a person’s innocence or guilt.

If a person committed acrime, even the smallest offence, most of the time they had to go through a ‘trial by ordeal’, very few people were ever executed straight away.

This system of justice was not very accurate or fair but some scholars believe it worked because the people of the day really believed in it, they believed the innocent would be saved and the guilty would be punished. The guilty believed that they would be punished so they confessed, so that they didn’t have to endure the ordeal, or they fled the town.  The innocent ones were confident that God would save them so they agreed to endured the ordeal, the authorities knew that only an innocent man would willingly undergo the ordeal, so they worked it in their favor, to ‘prove’ the innocence of that person. For example they could make
sure the iron wasn’t red hot.  It was actually quite effective, the guilty would confess or leave and the innocentwere ‘proved’ innocent.

It is suggested that the idea of this medieval practice of trial by ordeal could have been taken from the bible in the book of Numbers.  In Numbers  5:11-22, trial by ordeal was how the priest tested a wife’s faithfulness to her husband.

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.”‘ (NIV Numbers 5:11-22)

There were three main types of ordeals, Ordeal by Fire, Ordeal by Water and Ordeal by Combat.  The type of ‘ordeal’ you were put through depended on your status as well.  It was usually only noblemen who got the opportunity to be a part of the Ordeal by Combat which was the only ordeal where you could win by your own skill.

 Ordeal by Fire involved either putting your arm into a boiling cauldron of water or holding a red hot iron bar and walking three
paces. The wound was then bandaged and if it had started to heal after three days then you were innocent if it was clear that the wound was not healing you were guilty.

Ordeal by Water, if you endured ordeal by water you would have been strapped to a chair and thrown in a lake, if you sank you were proven innocent, if you floated you were believed to have been guilty and would have been executed soon after.

Ordeal by Combat if a noblemen was accused of a crime; he would have to fight his accuser. Whoever won the battle was thought to be right, the person that lost was wrong and they were usually dead at the end of the fight.

In 1215 the ordeals were replaced by juries and judges, this wasn’t popular among the people as their neighbors or people who had a grudge against them could use this opportunity to get back at them.  Not long after a law was passed that allowed a person to be tortured if they refused to go before a jury.  Depending on the crime, If they were found guilty, they would be punished accordingly.

Women who murdered would be strangled then burnt, thieves had their hands cut off, people who hunted illegally had their ears cut off and treason was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered. People were often tortured or killed because it cost too much money to let them go or put them in prison.



One Comment on “Trial by Ordeal”

  1. swoonie says:

    Excellent research, Georgia! I love your little figures in your diorama. Well done!