ordeal.Hist. A primitive form of trial in which an accused person was subjected to a usu. dangerous or painful physical test, the result being considered a divine revelation of the person’s guilt or innocence. • The participants believed that God would reveal a person’s culpability by protecting an innocent person from some or all consequences of the ordeal. The ordeal was commonly used in Europe until the 13th century, but only sporadically after 1215, when the Fourth Lateran Council forbade the clergy from participating in ordeals. — Also termed trial by ordeal; judicium Dei (“judgment of God”); vulgaris purgatio. Cf. CANFARA.
“Ordeals involved an appeal to God to reveal the truth in human disputes, and they required priestly participation to achieve this rapport with the Deity. Several forms of ordeal were recognised by the early Christian Church, but in England they usually took the form of fire or water. In the former, a piece of iron was put into a fire and then in the party’s hand; the hand was bound, and inspected a few days later: if the burn had festered, God was taken to have decided against the party. The ordeal of cold water required the party to be trussed and lowered into a pond;
if he sank, the water was deemed to have ‘received him’ with God’s blessing, and so he was quickly fished out…. In 1215, the Lateran Council … took the decisive step of forbidding clergy to participate any more in ordeals. This led in England to the introduction of the criminal trial jury.” J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History 5–6 (3d ed. 1990).
bread-and-cheese ordeal.See ordeal of the morsel.
ordeal by fire.An ordeal in which the accused person was forced to hold a piece of hot metal or to walk barefoot across a hot surface, the judgment of guilt or innocence depending on how quickly and cleanly the person’s hands or feet healed. • Typically the person’s hand was bandaged and, upon the bandage’s removal three days later, was examined for festers (indicating guilt). — Also termed fire ordeal; ordeal by hot iron; ordeal of fire.
“Such evidence as we have seems to show that the ordeal of hot iron was so arranged as to give the accused a considerable chance of escape.” 2 Frederick Pollock & Frederic William Maitland, History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I 599 (2d ed. 1899).
ordeal by hot iron.See ordeal by fire.
ordeal by water. 1. An ordeal in which guilt or innocence depended on whether the accused person floated or sank after being submerged in cold water. • A priest would first consecrate the pool of water, adjuring it to receive the innocent but reject the guilty. An accused who sank was declared innocent; one who floated was adjudged guilty because floating revealed the water’s (and therefore God’s) rejection of the person. This type of ordeal was used esp. in witchcraft trials. — Also termed ordeal by cold water; cold-water ordeal; ordeal of cold water; (in ecclesiastical law) aquae frigidae judicium. 2. An ordeal in which guilt or innocence was determined by how quickly the accused person’s arm healed after being placed in boiling water. • Often the person was forced to retrieve a stone from the bottom of a pot of boiling water. The person’s hand and arm were then bandaged and, upon the bandage’s removal three days later, were examined for festers (indicating guilt). — Also termed (in sense 2) ordeal by hot water; hot-water ordeal; ordeal of hot water; (in both senses) water ordeal; ordeal of water; (in ecclesiastical law) aquae ferventis judicium; aenum.
“The ordeal of water was a very singular institution. Sinking was the sign of innocence, floating the sign of guilt. As any one would sink unless he understood how to float, and intentionally did so, it is difficult to see how any one could ever be convicted by this means. Is it possible that this ordeal may have been an honourable form of suicide, like the Japanese happy despatch? In nearly every case the accused would sink. This would prove his innocence, indeed, but there would be no need to take him out. He would thus die honourably. If by any accident he floated, he would be put to death disgracefully.” 1 James Fitzjames Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England 73 (1883).
ordeal of the morsel.An ordeal in which the person who was to make the proof was given a one-ounce piece of bread or cheese that a priest had solemnly charged to stick in the throat of the guilty. • A person who choked was declared guilty; a person who did not was declared innocent. — Also termed corsnaed; corsned; trial by corsnaed; judicial morsel; morsel of execration.
single ordeal.An ordeal prescribed for someone accused of a less serious crime and involving
less risk or torture than a triple ordeal. • For example, a single ordeal by fire required the accused to pick up a red-hot piece of iron weighing one pound, while a triple ordeal involved a piece of iron weighing three pounds.
triple ordeal.An ordeal prescribed for someone accused of a more serious crime and involving more risk or torture than a single ordeal. • For example, a triple ordeal by water required the accused to submerge an arm into boiling water up to the elbow, while a single ordeal required the arm to be submerged only to the wrist. — Also termed threefold ordeal.
[Blacks Law 8th]