judgment by ordeal -- 9/18/15

Today's selection -- from The Edge of the World by Michael Pye. In Europe, centuries ago in the era before jury trials and lawyers became more widely established in the thirteenth century, a person's guilt or innocence was established by "ordeal." For example, a man accused of murder or sorcery was lowered into holy water. If he sank, he was innocent, and if he floated he was guilty. Or he was forced to plunge his hand into boiling water to grab a piece of red-hot metal. Yet even after the widespread adoption of trial by jury, trial by ordeal persisted since it was dramatic and decisive:

"The 'ordeal' survived the coming of the lawyers, even when the experts made it seem blasphemous or an empty superstition. The ordeal was theatre, after all; it expressed the conflict between accuser and accused and then the moment of decision, it made an audience wait for the verdict. It was decisive where law was all too often conditional. It was also very public, with the community looking on, with all its layers of privilege and standing, just like in life, while the law put justice away in a closed room, to be handled carefully by outsiders.


"There were dozens of local rules for the rite. A free man, not subject to a feudal lord, usually had to pull a stone out of boiling water or else grab red-hot metal, often ploughshares, from a fire and carry the glowing metal at least nine paces ('measured nine feet by the feet of the man who undergoes the ordeal'; justice was tailored). The hot iron was cooked red in a fire that could not be stoked once the consecration started, and then it had to lie on the embers until the last prayer had been read. The ploughshares were 'on fire to discover the truth'.

"The water had to boil, and it had to be checked by two men for the accused and two men for the accuser; everyone had to see the tests and know. The accused plunged his hand up to the wrist for a single offence, or up to the elbow for three charges;" and then his hands and arms were bound up and sealed with wax. The test was how he healed. In three days he ought to be almost mended, or else he was guilty; and again, everyone could see.

"A man who was not free, who belonged to a feudal lord, was trussed up and thrown naked into cold water because bare skin stopped the possibility of trickery. The verdict was immediate, as though there was no point wasting three whole days on a man who wasn't free; he either sank or he floated. That wasn't torture, because the pain had nothing to do with the result, although it might well lead to a confession. Pain was reserved, enthusiastically, for punishment. ...

"Women usually had to carry hot iron because the ordeal by water was not modest enough; there was criticism of 'priests who peer eagerly with shameless eyes at the women who have been stripped before they enter the water'. Even so, women might choose ordeals to prove their virtue; a woman charged with adultery had no other way to establish her innocence. It might be hard to find two credible eyewitnesses to an affair and a carefully closed door or a muffling curtain could spoil the whole case, but that would not save a woman's honour. When the legendary Isolde was accused of adultery with Tristan, her husband, the king, made her prove her innocence with hot iron. She carried the glowing metal, had her hands bound up and sealed with holy wax, and after three days the bandages were opened to see if the wound had healed the way an innocent person's should. ...

"The ordeal also stopped trouble by making a decision Godly and therefore final; or so even emperors hoped. When Charlemagne divided up his kingdom in his will, he specified that 'if there is any dispute over the limits and boundaries of the kingdom that the testimony of men cannot clarify or resolve, then we want the question put to the judgement of the Cross'. That meant his rival heirs standing in church during Mass, arms stretched out like crucified men, until one collapsed and the other won. The Emperor was trying to keep the peace in territory with enemies all around; he wanted a verdict everyone could accept so that at least within the empire there should be 'no combat of any kind'. ...

"There was none of the law's impersonal, almost mechanical process. The ordeal was full of time for accuser or accused to think again.


Michael Pye


The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe


Pegasus Books LLC


Copyright 2014 by Michael Pye


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