Ordeals, or Ordeal-trials
Ordeals, Or Ordeal-Trials
otherwise termed "judgments of God," a pretended mode of appeal to God's judgment, formerly permitted in criminal cases in the most civilized society of Europe. Ordeal is generally traced to the Anglo-Saxon ordoel. Spelman derives this word from or, "magnum," and doel, "judicium," which is also the derivation given by Ducange. Lye and Bosworth derive it from or, privative, "without," and doel, "difference," an indifferent or impartial judgment, a judgment without distinction of persons. The German word urtheil, a judgment, is intimately related to it.
The earliest trace of any custom resembling the ordeals afterwards so largely-used among the northern tribes of Europe may be found in the waters of jealousy, which the Hebrew women, suspected of adultery, were compelled to drink as a test of innocence (Numbers 5). The alleged intention of it was to vindicate the truth when it could not in any other way be discovered, and to make way for the execution of law. A similar trial for incontinence is in use among the natives of the Gold Coast of Africa. SEE ADULTERY. Blackstone (Comm. on the Laws of England, 4, ch. 27, "Of Trial and Conviction") says: "The several methods of trial and conviction of offenders established by. the laws of England were formerly more numerous than at present, through the superstition of our Saxon ancestors; who, like other northern nations, were extremely addicted to divination, a character which Tacitus observes of the ancient Germans (De Mor. Germ. x). They therefore invented a considerable number of methods of purgation, or trial, to preserve innocence from the danger of false witnesses, and in consequence of a notion that God would always interpose miraculously to vindicate the guiltless." Throughout Europe in the dark ages the ordeal existed under the sanction of law and of the clergy. The four chief ordeals of the Middle Ages, to which our Saxon ancestors resorted in common with the rest of Europe, were:
a. That of hot iron, which was generally applied to persons of quality and to ecclesiastics, the latter being prohibited from claiming the judicial combat (or duel) in person, and yet wishing to avoid the ordeals by water, which were considered ignoble, and reserved for peasants. If impeached for a single crime, a piece of iron was to weigh one pound; if prosecuted on several charges, the weight of the iron was increased in proportion. The person accused was to hold the burning ball of iron in his hand. and move with it to a certain distance, or to walk barefoot on red-hot plowshares, placed about a yard from each other. If after this trial his hands and feet were uninjured, and he gave no indication of pain, he was discharged; otherwise he was considered guilty. In the Romish Church the accused was brought in after three days of fasting and prayer the priest appeared in his canonicals, taking up the iron which lay before the altar, and, repeating the hymn of the three Hebrews, put it into the fire. He then proceeded to some forms of benediction over the fire and iron; after this he sprinkled the iron with holy water, and made the sign of the cross in the name of the blessed Trinity, upon which the test was applied. Ordinarily, the accused was to carry the hot iron over a space of nine feet. After this his hand was to be sealed up, and not inspected till the third night was passed; then, if it was clean, he was deemed innocent; but if it appeared festered on the mark of the iron, he was to be esteemed guilty. That species of the hot-iron ordeal which consisted in treading, blindfold and barefooted, over a certain number of red-hot plowshares laid lengthwise, at unequal distances, was no uncommon test of female chastity. Among the Greeks compurgation of accused persons by fire was practiced, as is manifest from Sophocles's Antigone. We are informed that there were but few escapes from this judicial system among the ancients, but that in the dark ages the clergy frequently connived with the friends of the accused, and thus secured acquittal. An instance generally quoted is that of queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, who, when suspected of a criminal intrigue with Alwyn, bishop of Winchester, is said to have triumphantly vindicated her character by walking unhurt over red-hot plowshares (Rudborne, Hist. Maj. Winton, lib. 4, ch. 1). In this connection we may state the scientific fact that a person may with impunity handle red-hot or even molten iron, if careful; the vapor actually preventing immediate contact for a few moments.
b. Water-ordeal was performed either by plunging the bare arm up to the elbow in boiling water, and escaping unhurt thereby, or by casting the person suspected into a river or pond of cold water, and if he floated therein without any action of swimming, it was deemed an evidence of his guilt, but if he sank he was acquitted. In this trial by water, after the three days' fast and other preliminaries, the accused drank a portion of holy water, the priest pronouncing an imprecation against him in case he were guilty; then the water into which he was to be thrown was exorcised in the following manner: By the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and by the Christianity whose name thou bearest, and by the baptism in which thou wert born again, and by all the blessed relics of the saints of God that are preserved in this church. I conjure thee come not unto this altar, nor eat of this body of Christ, if thou beest guilty in the things that are laid to thy charge; but if thou beest innocent therein, come, brother, and come freely." After the exorcism the accused was undressed, ordered to kiss the Gospels and the cross, and sprinkled with holy water, and then, all persons present fasting, the accused underwent the trial. At the close of the adjuration holy water was tasted by all present, and the chamber sprinkled with it.
c. The corsned, or morsel of execration: this was a piece of bread or cheese, about an ounce in weight, which was consecrated in a peculiar form, in which the Almighty was called upon, and it was prayed that the bread might cause convulsions and paleness, and find no passage, if the man were really guilty, but might turn to health and nourishment if he were innocent. The corsned was then given to the suspected person, who received the holy sacrament at the same time: if indeed, as some have suspected, the corsned was not the sacramental bread itself. It is said that Godwin, earl of Kent, in the reign of king Edward the Confessor, on taking his oath that he had not caused the death of the king's brother, appealed to his corsned, "per buccellam deglutiendam abjuravit" (Ingulphus), which stuck in his throat and killed him.
Other kinds of ordeal were practiced in particular circumstances in different parts of Europe. In the ordeal of the bier, a supposed murderer was required to touch the body of the murdered person, and pronounced guilty if the blood flowed from his wounds. The ordeal of the Eucharist (Judiciun, Eucharistice, or Purgatio per Euchaistiam) especially was in use among the clergy: the accused party took the sacrament in attestation of innocence, it being believed that, if guilty, he would be immediately visited with divine punishment for the sacrilege by its choking him: it was a variety of the corsned. The trial of the cross (Examen s. Experimenturn s. Judicium crucis) consisted in the accused being made to hold up his arms horizontally in the form of a cross. In cases of difficulty, the one who held out longest was deemed to be in the right. The form of trial is thus described by Dr. Mackay in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions: "When a person accused of any crime had declared his innocence upon oath, and appealed to the cross for its judgment in his favor, he was brought into the church before the altar. The priests previously prepared two sticks exactly like one another, upon one of which was carved a figure of the cross. They were both wrapped up, with great care and many ceremonies, in a quantity of fine wool, and laid upon the altar or on the relics of the saints. A solemn prayer was then offered up to God that he would be pleased to discover, by the judgment of his holy cross, whether the accused person were innocent or guilty. A priest then approached the altar and took up one of the sticks, and the assistants unswathed it reverently. If it was marked with the cross, the accused person was innocent; if unmarked, he was guilty. It would be unjust to assert that the judgments thus delivered were, in all cases, erroneous; and it would be absurd to believe that they were left altogether to chance. Many true judgments were doubtless given, and, in all probability, most Wittingly, for we cannot, but believe that the priests endeavored beforehand to convince themselves, by secret inquiry and a strict examination of the circumstances, whether the appellant were innocent or guilty, and that they took up the crossed or uncrossed stick accordingly. Although to all other observers the sticks, as enfolded in the wool, might appear exactly similar, those who unwrapped them could, without any difficulty, tell the one from the other." This ordeal was abolished by Louis le Ddbonnaire in A.D. 816, on the ground that it betrayed irreverence towards the mystery of the cross. Another very common ordeal was that by lot, dependent on the throw of a pair of dice, one marked with a cross, the other plain. Another very frequent ordeal was that of single combats or duels. It is unlike any other ordeal practiced, for the result depended altogether on the personal strength or courage of the accused.
The ordeals of water and iron are first mentioned in the 77th law of Ina (Wilkins, Leg. Anglo-Sax. p. 27). See also the laws of Athelstan, Edward the Confessor, and the Conqueror (ibid. p. 198, 229). In the Domesday Survey the readiness of claimants to prove their title to land by ordeal or in battle occurs in a great variety of instances, as among the lands belonging to the monastery of Ely, at a place then called Photestorp, in Norfolk: "Hanc terram calumpuiatur esse liberam Vichetel homo Hermeri quocunque mode judicetur, vel bello vel juditio" (Domesd. tom. ii, fol. 212; see other instances, ibid. fol. 110 b, 137, 162,166, 172 b, 193, 208; 277 b, 332). The ordeal of hot iron is the only ordeal of the Donzesday Survey. The reason for this is given by Glanville (Tract. de Leg. et Consuet. Regni Anglice, lib. 14, ch. 1): "In such a case the accused is bound to clear himself by the judgment of God, namely, by hot iron, or by water, according to the difference of rank-that is, by hot iron if he should be a free man, and by water if he should be a villain" (si fuerit rusticus). Eadmer (Hist. Novor. p. 48) speaks of no fewer than fifty persons of Saxon origin who, in the reign of William Rufus, being accused of killing the king's stags, were at one time sentenced to the fire ordeal. It is probable that the trial by ordeal was not discontinued in England by any positive law or ordinance, although Sir E. Coke (9 Rep. 32), and after him Blackstone (4 Comm. p. 345), have expressed an opinion that it was finally abolished by an act of Parliament, or rather an order of the king in council, in the 3d Henry III (1219). This order is to be found in Rymer, Federa, 1:228; Spelman, Glossary, s.v. "Judicium Dei;" and in Selden, Notes to Eadmesr. Spelman, however, thinks that it was merely a temporary law, without any general or permanent operation, and that the trial by ordeal continued to a later period. This opinion seems confirmed by a reference in the Cal. Rot. Pat. p. 15, to another order in council in the 14th Henry III, "Dejustitia facienda loco ignis et aquae." As however it is only mentioned as a former custom, and not as an existing institution, by Bracton (lib. 3; ch 16), who wrote at the end of the reign of Henry III or the beginning of that of Edward I, it is probable that, in consequence of the judgments of the councils and the interference of the clergy, the trial by ordeal fell into disuse about the: middle of the 13th century; but this was long after it had disappeared from the judicial systems of most other European nations.
Efforts for the suppression of trial by ordeal were made as early as the beginning of the 11th century by influential members of the clergy, but: the custom, deeply rooted in antiquity, was not to be subverted at a blow. Conspicuous in this movement was in the zealous Agobard of Lyons, in his treatise Contra Judicium Dei. Pope Stephen VI (cir. 886) condemned both fire and water ordeals. He adds, "Spontanea enim confessione vel testium approbatione publicata delicta. commissa sunt regimini nostro judicare: occulta vero et incognita illi sunt relinquenda, qui solus novit corda filiorum hominum". (Mansi, 18:25). On the other hand, the judicium aqua frigidae et calidae was defended even by Hincmar of Rheims (Opp. 2:667). In Scotland, in 1180, we find David I enacting, in one of the assemblies of the frank tenantry of the kingdom, which were the germ of parliaments, that no one was to hold an ordinary court of justice, or a court of ordeal, whether of battle, iron, or water, except in presence of the sheriff. or one of his sergeants; though if that official failed to attend after being duly summoned, the court might be held in his absence. The first step towards: the abolition of this form of trial in Saxon and Celtic countries seems to have been the substitution of compurgation by witnesses for compurgation by ordeal. The near relatives of an accused party were expected to come forward to swear to his innocence. The number of compurgators varied, according to the importance of the case; and judgment went against the party whose kin refused to come forward, or who failed to obtain the necessary number of compurgators. To repel an accusation, it was often held necessary to have double the number of compurgators who supported it, till at length the most numerous body of compurgators carried the day. It is remarkable that "proof by duel," which was abolished in Scandinavia by the introduction of Christianity, maintained its ground in England for centuries (Worsae, p. 167). It was also called the wager of battle, and was a natural accompaniment of a state of society which allowed men to take the law into their own hands. The challenger faced the west, the challenged person the east; the defeated party, if he craved his life, was allowed to live as a "recreant;" that is, on retracting the perjury which he had sworn to. The Council of Valence (855) strongly denounced it, under pain of excommunication (can. xii), which incapacitated the subject of it for performing any civil function. Yet, down to the very days of the Reformation, all through Europe, instances of trial by ordeal are encountered. Thus as late as 1498 we find the truth of Savonarola's doctrine put to the test by a challenge, between one of his disciples and a Franciscan friar, to walk through a burning pile.
Heathen Ordeals. — Among modern heathen nations we find the ordeal not unfrequently in practice. Thus in Siam, besides the usual methods of fire and water ordeal, both parties are sometimes exposed to the fury of a tiger set upon them; and if the beast spares either, that person is accounted innocent; if neither, both are held to be guilty; but if he spares both, the trial is incomplete, and they proceed to a more certain criterion (Mod. Univ. Hist. 7:266). The Asiatic Researches (1:389-404 [Caldutta, 1788, 4to]) contain a memoir on the trials by ordeal among the Hindus, by Ali Ibrahim Khan chief magistrate of Benares, communicated by Warren Hastings, Esq., nine in number: l, by the balance; 2, by fire; 3, by water; 4, by two sorts of poison; 5, by Gosha, in which the accused drinks of water in which the images of the sun and other deities have been washed; 6, by chewing rice; 7, by hot oil; 8, by hot iron; 9, by Dharmach, in which an image named Dharma, or the genius of justice, made of silver, and another of an antagonist genius, Adharma, made of clay or iron, or those figures painted respectively on white and black cloth, are thrown into a large jar, from which the accused is instructed to draw at hazard. The trial by ordeal seems to be prevalent throughout Africa too. "When a man says Dr. Livingstone, "suspects that any of his wives have bewitched him, he sends for the witch-doctor,' and all the wives go forth into the field, and remain fasting till that: person has made an infusion of the plant called 'goho.' They all drink it, each one holding up her hand to heaven in attestation of her innocency. Those who vomit it are considered innocent, while those whom it purges are pronounced guilty, and are put to death by burning. The innocent return to their homes, and slaughter a cock as a thank-offering to their guardian spirits. The practice of ordeal is common among all the negro nations north of the Zambesi." The women themselves eagerly desire the test on the slightest provocation; each is conscious of her own innocence, and has the fullest faith in the muavi (the ordeal) clearing all but the guilty. There are varieties of procedure among the different tribes. The Barotse pour the medicine down the throat of a cock or dog, and judge of the innocence or guilt of the person accused by the vomiting or purging of the animal.
Among the natives of Northern Guinea this species of ordeal is in use for the detection of witchcraft. It goes by the name of the red-water ordeal, the red-water used for this purpose being a decoction made from the inner bark of a large forest tree of the mimosa family. The mode in which this ordeal is practiced is thus described by Mr. Wilson: "A good deal of ceremony is used in connection with the administration of the ordeal; the people who assemble to see it administered form themselves into a circle, and the pots containing the liquid are placed in the center of the enclosed space. The accused then comes forward, having the scantiest apparel, but with a cord of palm-leaves bound around his waist, and seats himself in the center of the circle. After his accusation is announced, he makes a formal acknowledgment of all the evil deeds of his past life then invokes the name of God three times, and imprecates his wrath in case he is guilty of the particular crime laid to his charge. He then steps forward and drinks freely of the red-water. If it nauseates and causes him to vomit freely, he suffers no serious injury, and is at once pronounced innocent. If, on the other hand, it causes vertigo, and he loses his self-control, it is regarded as evidence of his guilt, and then all sorts of indignities and cruelties are practiced upon him. A general howl of indignation rises from the spectators. Children and others are encouraged to hoot at him, pelt him with stones, spit upon him, and in many instances he is seized by the heels and dragged through the bushes and over rocky places until his body is shamefully lacerated and life becomes extinct. Even his own kindred are required to take part in these cruel indignities, and no outward manifestation of grief is allowed in behalf of a man who has been guilty of so odious a crime. On the other hand, if he escapes without injury, his character is thoroughly purified, and he stands on a better footing in society than he did before lie submitted to the ordeal. After a few days, he is decked out in his best robes, and, accompanied by a large train of friends, he enjoys a sort of triumphal procession through the town where he lives, receives the congratulations of his friends and the community in general, and not unfrequently presents are sent to him by friends from neighboring villages. After all this is over, he assembles the principal men of the town, and arraigns his accusers before them, who, in their turn, must submit to the same ordeal, or pay a large fine to the man whom they attempted to injure." A similar process is followed in Southern Guinea for the detection of witchcraft. At the Gabun the root used is called nkazya. See Grimm, Deutsche Rechts-Alterthumer; Pierer, Universal-Encyklop. art. Gottesurtheil; Penny Cyclop. s.v.; Farrar, Eccles. Dict. s.v.; Eadie, Eccles. Cyclop. s.v.; Hardwick, Middle Ages; Lea, Studies in Church.Hist. p. 164; and his Superstition (see Index); Eclectic Magazine, July, 1876, art. vii, by E. B. Tyler.