Detecting, Medieval-Style: Part 1, The Ordeal

The Middle Ages were big on trials, legal precedent, and crime-solving. They don’t get nearly the credit that they should on this point. Between Justinian’s law code and Gratian’s compilations, the Middle Ages were full of rules and regulations.

It was also full of ways to figure out who had contravened those rules and regulations. One of those ways was trial by ordeal. I plan on tackling Medieval law stuff in a couple posts, but let us stick with one idea at a time.

Why The Ordeal?

Our ancestors were nothing if not logical, and they reasoned that the best answer to the question of someone’s guilt was God’s answer.

I mean mostly our European ancestors from the Middle Ages, but trial by ordeal was used almost everywhere since ancient times.

How did you know if someone was a thief? A supernatural, powerful, and wise entity that controlled, say, water, rejected their body when it was tossed in a river.

Or maybe the supernatural entity caused (because the entity can cause anything) the wounds on a thief to fester, but the wounds on an innocent person to heal.

It’s perfectly logical, provided you accept that a busybody supernatural entity can be forced, through prayers and whatnot, to reveal what He/She/It knows.

How The Ordeal Worked: The Process

It kind of didn’t.

Ok, that is a snarky, incomplete answer which you, dear readers, didn’t deserve.

The complete answer is that it had many guises, and all of them had different ways of working.

If you were a priest and accused of something, you could be given a slice of barley bread and told to chew and swallow it after praying to God that the bread would choke you if you were guilty. If you coughed and gagged, you faced punishment.

A lay person accused of anything from stealing to witchcraft could be trussed and then dunked in a body of water. If you floated, you were guilty.

Often, people went through the hot water ordeal. Water was heated to boiling and then an iron ring or stone was dropped into the boiling water. The accused had to fetch the ring out and then a priest bandaged the hand. If the hand was healing after two days, the accused was innocent.

There were other methods, but they all involved a priest blessing the act and judging the final results.

I include cruentation here even though people thought that was less an act of God and more of the victim getting their own back.

People laid the murder victim out and had the suspects approach the corpse one by one. Whoever was there when the corpse started to bleed was the culprit.

These ordeals all sound like death sentences, but as far as historians can tell, 2/3 of everyone who was tried in this way was found innocent. This has called into question the intent of these trials, but that’s a different question for a different day.

How The Ordeal Worked: Deciding Who To Try

No one went straight to dunking or boiling their hands. There were rules.

If you were of high status and had a good reputation, you were unlikely to go through an ordeal. The laws of Canute and Athelred in England declared that people deemed trustworthy could simply swear that they didn’t do whatever it was.

If you were deemed untrustworthy, you could avoid the ordeal by getting character witnesses, called compurgators.

If you were in England, and it was a civil case, you wouldn’t worry about the ordeal. If you were in England and it was a criminal case, the English used a jury, called a jury of presentiment, to decide if there was enough evidence to put you through an ordeal.

Peter Cantor and the Switch

People realized there was a problem with these types of trials early on. In particular, there was a cantor at Notre Dame named Peter who held that they were a bad idea.

He said that it was a sin to compel God to cough up the name of the guilty, and that God could decide to rig a trial by ordeal for His own greater ends, condemning innocent mortals because he felt like it.

But mostly, Peter noted that, since priests always officiated at these ordeals, questioning an outcome meant questioning the honesty of priests. This was a problem because he knew of many cases where the outcome was definitely wrong.

The most famous case he cited was of two men who went on pilgrimage together. One came back without his companion, and the townsfolk got it into their heads that the man who returned must have murdered the guy who hadn’t come back. They swam the accused in a river and he floated, so they hanged him.

And then the guy he was supposed to have murdered moseyed into town, clearly alive and well.

God is fickle sometimes.

The End of the Ordeal

Peter Cantor had a lot of influence, so in 1215 Pope Innocent III declared that priests were no longer allowed to preside over ordeals. Emperor Frederick II (or as like to call him, Evil Nerd Emperor) made similar noises.

After that, trial by ordeal was slowly phased out. In Sweden, it was outlawed by Birger Jarl. England transitioned into what was called the inquisitio process by simply using their old juries of presentiment in the ordeals’ place, essentially giving us our modern trial by jury.

The transition was patchy in Germany. Places that were directly under the emperor’s control dropped trials by ordeal, and places where his vassals held sway chose whether to keep ordeals or not. Eventually, they became less common as judicial branches got stronger.

This isn’t all good. For one thing, it made torture more common because people wanted to make sure witnesses were being honest. They figured you would tell the truth if you were having hot pincers applied to your skin even if you were a known miscreant.

Trial by Ordeal also lasted longer in places with weak judiciaries and weak central governments. There are places that still use ordeals to determine guilt or innocence, just not in Europe.

So, to recap:

Trials by Ordeal made sense to the pre-modern mind on religious grounds. They were painful but frequently acquitted people. Then a cantor pointed out that they were unreliable on both religious and practical grounds, and authorities slowly removed them from their legal codes.

Never say the Middle Ages was a lawless time.

Sources: Trial by ordeal — Wikipedia,

The Constant — How To Solve A Murder (Part 1)

A General Survey of Events, Sources, Movements in Continental Legal History by various European Authors, and the Medieval Podcast- I swear I got some information from there, but I can’t find the exact episode and article.



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