Medieval Justice – By Rachel Vass

`What is the ‘Trial by Ordeal’?

The Trial by Ordeal was two punishments for when a person committed a crime. One is when you are tied to a ‘ducking stool’ which is hung above a deep lake or pond. You are then slowly lowered down into the lake, and held in there for an amount of time. If you’re innocent, you’ll drown. If you’re guilty, you’ll float to the top of the water, and if you’re not already dead you’ll be killed by the executioner.

The other is also when you commit a crime, but instead you have to place your hand into a bucket of boiling water or hold a red hot poker (enough to give third degree burns.) If you were innocent, people believed that God would heal you of your blistered skin and burns after three days. But if you were guilty, your wounds would not heal, then you were thought to have been a witch – and be put to death (burnt at the steak)

The Beginnings of the Common Law

The common law has been developed after many years of historical English law. Common law involves judges making decisions on cases. Common Law can be overruled by legislation which is past and enacted by state or federal parliament. But once Judges make decisions based on state or federal legislation, these decisions form part of common law. Also, all Law is subject to state and federal constitution. The place of common law works according to the following:

Federal Constitution and Supreme Court

State Constitution

State Legislatures

State Common Law







Medieval Justice by Kirralee Forbes

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Question1-Who introduced the common law and what were the new ideas of the common law that were initiated?

Who introduced the common law?

In 1154 King of England, Henry II introduced the common law. The common law is what we use today in our courts and magistrates. The common law is where a judge makes a decision, based on a case similar to the one present and he/she goes back to the document about that case and then chooses then what will happen according to the document so the court can’t be manipulated.

What were the new ideas of the common law that were initiated?

Trial by jury was introduced when the common law came in. Trial by jury is when a group of 12 or more people have heard the person being tried and give facts and evidence of the trial and make a decision that will help the judge’s final say. Before the common law is was ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and when the common law came it changed to ‘innocent until proven guilty’ which gives the accused person a chance to prove their innocence.

Question2-What is the difference between brutal justice and the common law?

Brutal justice is where there is trial by ordeal and trial by combat. Trial by combat is where the accused person pays a good fighter/warrior to fight against another fighter/warrior to prove their innocence. If you’re really poor and can’t afford to pay a fighter/warrior then you would just have to be tried by trial by ordeal. Trial by ordeal is when you are either tried by water or fire. When you are tried by water you are held under water for a while and if you drown you are innocent and if you float you are guilty and you are tortured to your death. Being tried by fire can be done two ways, one of them is having your hand put in boiling water and after 3 days if your hand has healed your innocent and if not you would most likely be tortured to your death and the other way is the same but you have to hold a burning red hot poker in your hand. One of the differences between trial by ordeal and the common law is trial by ordeal was ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and they couldn’t prove their own innocence whereas today we have a chance to prove our innocence so it is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. One of the other differences between them is today we aren’t tried by being tortured, both sides of the case are herd in court and the judge or a jury decides what is the outcome for the case.

Question3- Describe how the early Parliament is structured and compares that to today’s parliament?

Legislative assembly of Britain and of other governments modelled the early parliament. The monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons make up the early British Parliament which traces its roots to the union (1300) of the Great Council and the King’s Court, two bodies that treated with and advised the king. Parliament was split into two houses in the 14th century, with the lords spiritual and temporal debating in one and the knights and burgesses in the other. Parliament also began to present petitions (bills) to the king in the 14th century, which after he agreed to it, it would become law.

In today’s parliament there is a green room and a red room. The green room is the House of Representatives and the red room is for the Senate Chamber. One of the things that they both have in common is that they are split into two houses an upper and lower with one person mainly in charge. One of the differences is that in the early parliament the king had the final say for a bill to become a law and now the majority of the house to agree for it to become a law.

Medieval Justice

How were people tried before the common law was introduced?

Before the common law was introduced people were tried by an ordeal by ducking, an ordeal by burning and an ordeal by cake. The ordeal by ducking is when they tie your hands and feet together and throw you in a river, if you float your guilty and they cut off your hands and feet but if your innocent you will sink, and die. Ordeal by burning is when you have to grip a white hot iron and take three paces then cover up the wound for three days, if it heals within that time you’re innocent but if it doesn’t then you are guilty and they cut off your hands and feet. Lastly, the ordeal by cake is simple and mostly chosen but many are found guilty from it. When you chose ordeal by cake you have to eat a piece of cake and if you choke you are guilty, and you die but if you don’t choke you are innocent and are set free.


What is Magna Carta and who was involved in the signing of the Magna Carta?

The Magna Carta is a document that outlines what the specific roles and what the specific rights of individual citizens are. Even the King has to follow these rights, and if he doesn’t allow people to have these different rights, then the nobbles can actually come in and take his power, by force if necessary, and claim all his castles. So all King John has to do is sign this document. If he does not sign it, he won’t have the support of the nobbles, which he needs. Later on, King John ended up abandoning the Magna Carta, starting a war that went on until he eventually died in 1225. Several more versions of the Magna Carta were created, until the final version was released by King Edward I in 1297.


How were people tried for witchcraft?

In medieval times a lot of people blamed witches for their mistakes. For example, if they had a disease or hurt themselves they would just blame witches, and most of them were just old innocent ladies. If they had a black cat they would be called a witch. If someone confessed to being a witch, they would be burned at the stake. If they did not confess to being a witch, they would be tortured till they confessed, then would be burned. Not all ‘witches’ were burned. Other punishments included: force fasting, exile, hanging, beheading, stoning, and gouging.