Trial by ordeal is a judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to a painful task. If either the task is completed without injury, or the injuries sustained are healed quickly, the accused is considered innocent. Like trial by combat, it was a judicium Dei: a procedure based on the premise that God would help the innocent.
In Europe, the ordeal was often by fire (using hot metal) or boiling water; its exact nature varied considerably, however.
Ordeal of fire
In one instance, the accused would walk nine paces with a red-hot iron bar held in both hands. Depending on the custom of the time, innocence would be shown by a complete lack of injury from the ordeal or the wounds would be bound and regularly examined for healing or festering. An English version had nine red-hot ploughshares placed on the floor; the accused was blindfolded and if they successfully crossed the floor without injury they were judged innocent.
Ordeal of water
Gregory of Tours (died 695) recorded the common expectation that with a millstone round his or her 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." (Historia Francorum i.35)
A variant on the ordeal by water was the requirement to remove a stone from a pot of boiling water, the injury sustained indicating guilt as in the trial by fire; sometimes the liquid medium used could be oil or molten lead. Some cases of trial by water tested the accused's ability to consume bitter water without harm — this is present in the Torah as a test for a woman who allegedly committed adultery and is called the Sotah procedure in Judaism; however, it is the reverse of the normal case as the physically harmless water is seen to be transformed into a deadly potion if the accused is guilty.
Another variant was similar to the dunking of witches. The accused would be bound and thrown into water; if innocent they would sink, while a guilty person would float. The innocent person would then be rescued — not left to drown, as is sometimes portrayed — though the rescue was not always successful. Witches were imagined to float supernaturally above water because they had renounced baptism when entering the Devil's service. Some researchers theorise that specific diet was used to cause witches to float by increasing the amount of gas within their intestines. By other theories of the time, an innocent person would float with God's aid, while a guilty person would sink. In either case, the accused had little chance of surviving the ordeal.
In England, trial by ordeal was in use in Saxon and Norman times. Ordeal by fire was restricted to upper-class defendants. A deputy could be nominated in certain circumstances. The cooperation of priests was forbidden by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which was the reason it appeared less. In addition, it became superfluous with the rise of the Inquisition, in which the Church and the people found a suitable alternative.
Other ordeal methods
- In Hindu law, a husband may require his wife to pass through fire, proving her fidelity by having no traces of being burnt.
- A Burmese ordeal tradition involves the two accused persons to light a candle, with the winner being the owner of the candle that outlasts the other's.
- If the loser is alive after a duel, burning or hanging might ensue to assure that victory belongs to the "judgment of God" (since the victor was believed to have won only due to the aid of divination).
- In medieval times, a Trial by Sacrament was sometimes provided to nobles or other people who could pay for it. The criminal would be forced to swallow bread quickly without chewing. If the accused criminal choked, it was believed that God was not on their side and they were killed. If they were successful, then God had protected them and they escaped punishment.
- some cultures administer the poisonous calabar bean to attempt to detect guilt.