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Free «Divine Ordeals in Medieval Society» Essay Sample

If to take a good look into the medieval society, it becomes clear at once why this period was called the Dark Ages. People seem to have been not only poorly educated but also drowning in the world of cruel piety and unjustified accusations. The acuteness of the situation is especially well understood if to make a good research on the widespread practicing of divine ordeals that were used as a sort of punishment for everyone who was considered by church to possess some inhuman powers or just when it appeared effective to torture someone for all others to get scared and unquestioningly recognize the unspeakable power of the church and government which was mostly influenced the former.

A divine ordeal, or Judicium Dei, is one of the most tragic and contradictory symbols of the medieval society. It served the means of determining guilt or innocence in Germanic law by appealing to God through nature. A divine ordeal is defined as “an ancient test of guilt or innocence by subjection of the accused to severe pain, survival of which was taken as a divine proof of innocence.” The word “ordeal” comes from old English “ordâl”, which means “judgment” and is related to the German “urteilen” - “share out”, “deal with” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.). Thus, the word “ordeal” means “dealing with judgment” in its initial sense which was gradually lost, turning more into a cruel massacre of often innocent individuals in many countries.



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The concept of ordeal included the idea of divine intervention. It was believed that miraculous forces would protect and not hurt the innocents, allowing them to overcome the ordeal unharmed. This meant that the person accused of a crime was subjected to an unsafe and extremely painful test to prove his or her innocence. Divine ordeals were used as the last resort when there were no credible witnesses; however, the practice shows that with time they were applied in any situation that was considered suspicious to the clergy. Being referred to the period from the 9th to 13th centuries, divine ordeals were a widespread legal procedure in medieval Europe (Leeson, n.d.). In case, if the sufferer survived through the ordeal but then succumbed to the health problems caused by the process, he or she was still considered guilty. If the wound healed, then he was recognized innocent.

Major Types of Ordeals

Divine ordeals had two major forms: hot and cold. The hot ones were divided into hot water (boiling water) and hot iron (glowing iron) ordeals. The cold form incorporated a cold-water ordeal. Being widely discussed and condemned, an ordeal of the cross stood apart. Trials by ordeals proscribed religious ceremonies with a dominating participation of clergy in them.  Being under the profound impact of the church, criminal cases were investigated in quite an odd way. Thus, for example, when the necessary proof was unavailable, the judges “ ordered a cauldron of water to be boiled, a ring to be thrown and the defendant to plunge in his naked hand and plucked the object out” (Leeson, 2010).

Ordeal of Boiling Water

An ordeal of boiling water is a form of hot ordeals, determining guilt or innocence of the accused by subjecting his or her arm into a boiling liquid. The procedure of this terrifying test was described in the authentic literature of the 12th-13th centuries. Thus, according to the instructions, the priest responsible for administration of the ordeal entered the church. Prosecutors and an accused person followed him/her. The priest appealed:

I command thee, N., in the presence of all, by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, by the tremendous day of judgment  … if thou art guilty of this matter charged against thee , … , thou enter not into the church nor mingle in the company of Christians unless thou wilt confess and admit thy guilt before thou are examined in public judgment (Formula, 12th or 13th century).

After performing the appropriate rituals, catechizing congregation and addressing the individual who was to undergo the ordeal, the priest sprinkled the cauldron and the spot around it with holy water, made a fire and celebrated the ordeal mass. The clergyman addressed the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, invoking God to reveal the truth. Then, the benediction of the water came: “I bless thee, O creature of water, boiling above the fire, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost… Through Him whom hidden things do not escape… Amen” (Formula, 12th or 13th century). After the prayer over the cauldron, the person under the ordeal was to plunge his or her arm into the boiling water or, sometimes, boiling oil swearing his or her oath. Finally, the hand would be bandaged and examined in three days. If the injury was healing, the defendant was declared innocent.

Ordeal of Hot Iron (or Fire)

Ordeal of hot iron is a form of hot ordeals, requiring that the defendant carries a piece of burning iron nine paces or walks barefoot a predetermined distance (commonly, nine feet) upon heated ploughshares. This cruel test was supposed to be undergone by noble people, for instance, by queens accused of adultery, as it was mentioned in the famous legend about descent passing of the test by the Queen Emma.

Sometimes, however quite rarely, innocence was justified by a complete lack of any injury. Oftener, the wound was bandaged and then re-examined a couple of days later (usually three due to the biblical motifs) by a clergyman, who would announce that God had decided to prevent the harm to the accused and the wound is healing, or that it was getting worse – in this case the accused would be executed or, in a better situation, exiled . One well-known story about the ordeal of fire concerned Emma of Normandy, Edward the Confessor's mother. According to the legend, Queen Emma was accused of committing adultery with Elfwine of Winchester, but acquitted after she walked barefoot unharmed a good distance over burning ploughshares (Henderson, 1910).

One of the most common forms of the ordeal presupposed that an accused had to remove a stone from a vessel with boiling oil, water, or lead. Then followed the similar procedure of acquittal or condemnation due to the way the injury healed or festered. Clearly, that the consequences depended highly on which material was used because in case of lead the ability for the burnt skin to heal was much lower than in case of water. However, this important nuance was not taken into consideration by the clergy of the time.

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 Gregory of Tours outlined a non-judicial example of this test in the 7th century. He described how Hyacinth, a Catholic saint, defeated an Arian rival by taking out a stone from a cauldron with boiling liquid. Gregory recognized that Hyacinth needed about one hour to finish the task (because the water was bubbling so intensely), but he was very delighted to note that when the heretic attempted (the Arians did not accept Christianity by the time), his skin got boiled off till the elbow.

During the well-known First Crusade in the 11th century, Peter Bartholomew undertook the ordeal by fire on his own free will in order to refute an accusation that his claimed finding of the Holy Lance was falsified. He died soon after the ordeal from incurable at that time injuries (Henderson, 1910).

Cold Ordeals

The concept of cold ordeals, and the ordeal of cold water particularly, was based on the belief that holy water would reject a liar. The person under the ordeal was bound hand and foot and thrown into a pool of holy water. If the defendant sank, he or she was declared innocent. If the person floated, he or she was convicted. The priest appealed:

May omnipotent God, who did order baptism to be made by water, …, If, namely, thou art guilty in that matter, may the water which received thee in baptism not receive thee now; if however, thou art innocent, may the water which received thee in baptism receive thee now. Through Christ our Lord (Henderson, 1910).

The cold water ordeal was preceded by two other codes: The Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu, which presupposed that a man accused of sorcery had to be submerged in a flow and acquitted only in case of survival. The process was also practiced in Frankish law but was cancelled in 829 by Louis the Pious[7]. It reappeared in the second half of the Middle Ages: in the area of Maingau in 1338, a person who was accused of poaching[9] was submerged in a large barrel three times and considered guilty in case of sinking to the bottom which happened practically always because the person was tied and could not move and there was not enough water in the barrel to hold the weight of the adult person.

In the sixth century, Gregory of Tours noted the people’s expectation that with a millstone being put round the neck, the accused would definitely sink:

 “The cruel pagans cast him 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”.

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Ordeal by water is often associated nowadays with the witch-hunts during the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, the outcome of this process was frequently quite different from the examples set above: a person under accusation who sank was regarded as completely innocent, whereas floating on the surface indicated the worst witchcraft possible. Demonologists presented many ingenious theories to decide how it really worked.

The ordeal would commonly be performed with a rope holding the accused and being connected to assistants who would sit in a boat or similar object, allowing in such a way to pull the tested for witchcraft in if he or she did not float. According to these demonologists, it appears to be an erroneous belief that the ordeal was totally planned out as a punishment without any possibility of actual acquittal when the person would stay alive, even if the result meant ‘innocent', is an exaggeration of modern democrats and liberals who cannot look clearly and without stereotyped thoughts at those horrible, but still sometimes justified (however difficult it may seem to percept) situations.

Many controversial theories shroud the Dark Ages – no wonder, the name of the period presupposes the same. Some theorists prove that witches could float because they had rejected baptism when agreeing to serve the Devil. For example, Jacob Rickius stated that the witches were supernaturally light and advised weighing them as an equivalent to submerging them into the water. King James VI of Scotland wrote in his “Daemonologie” that “water was so pure an element that it repelled the guilty”. In as late as 1728, a witch trial with such an ordeal was performed in Szeged, Hungary.

Ordeal of the Cross

The ordeal of the cross stands apart from other divine tests. It did not require performing a miracle and was simply a trial of physical strength.  The accused and the accuser stood aside the cross, stretching out their hands.  The individual who lowered his or her arms first was proclaimed guilty. The ordeal of the cross was first performed in the beginning of the Middle Ages by the church who tried hard to stop judicial duels which were common at that time among the Germanic peoples. An interesting fact that the accuser had to undertake the ordeal as well as the accused with judicial duels which was not practiced in any other ordeal system. The ordeal by cross was introduced by Charlemagne[15] in 779, then stopped being performed for a while, and again appeared in 806. Louis the Pious’ capitulary of 819 and Lothar I’s decree of 876 finally abolished the ordeal by cross in order to avoid the possible mockery of Christ (Henderson, 1910).

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Ordeal of Poison

Some non-Germanic cultures, for example, the Efik Uburutu people of today’s Nigeria, would apply the poisonous calabar bean in order to detect a guilty person. An accused who vomits the bean is considered to be innocent. The one who dies or becomes ill is recognized guilty. Christianity, during the witch-hunting, applied the same method: The ordeal of tangena which was an extremely popular detecting method in Madagascar, and is responsible for killing over two percent of the island’s population, was routinely used across the whole Europe. During the 1820s, intake of the poisonous nut led to over 1,000 deaths per year. Between 1828 and 186, the number of deaths increased greatly up to 3,000 people per year (Douglas et al, 1981).  

Ordeals of Ingestion

The law has also prescribed that a person under suspicion of committing a crime was to be given cheese and dry bread blessed by a priest. If the accused choked on this food, he or she was immediately considered guilty. Later on, this practice was transformed into the real ordeal of the Eucharist as mentioned by Regino of Prüm about 900: the guilty person had to swallow the Eucharist after giving a solemn oath which proved his innocence. People believed that the accused would die during the same year, in case of giving a false oath. According to another version:

"The priest wrote the Lord's Prayer on a piece of bread, of which he then weighed out ten pennyweights, and so likewise with the cheese. Under the right foot of the accused, he set a cross of poplar wood, and holding another cross of the same material over the man's head, threw over his head the theft written on a tablet. He placed the bread and cheese at the same moment in the mouth of the accused, and, on doing so, recited the conjuration: 'I exorcize thee, most unclean dragon, ancient serpent, dark night, by the word of truth, and the sign of light, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the immaculate Lamb generated by the Most High, that bread and cheese may not pass thy gullet and throat, but that thou mayest tremble like and thou mayest tremble like an aspen-leaf, Amen; and not have rest, O man, until thou dost vomit it forth with blood, if thou hast committed aught in the matter of the aforesaid theft.'"

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Numbers 5:12–27of the law stated that if a woman suspected of adultery, she should swallow "the bitter water that causeth the curse" in order to figure out whether she is guilty or not. The accused woman would be sentenced only if 'her belly shall swell and her thigh shall rot'. This practice was well-known as the Sotah. Recently, one writer has even argued that the method was quite rational as the punishment was carried out only in case of a proof of venereal disease (a rotting thigh) or pregnancy (a swelling belly). It seems to be quite absurd to hear such words from the people of nowadays as even if the practice could be justified at least in some way, the disrespect and maltreatment were still to be highly condemned due to the extremely high level of discrimination (Henderson, 1910).

Scientific Approaches to Divine Ordeals

Providing useful insights into the divine ordeals, Peter Leeson investigates and discusses major views on the impact of Judgment of God on the medieval society. Leeson marks that many historians, including Robertson, Gibson, Plucknett, Baldwin, and Caenegem, disapprove trials by ordeal due to their extreme cruelty and irrationality. The adherents of the second approach to the issue, such as Colman, Brown, and Hyam, emphasize their positive role in facilitating “community consensus and unity” (Leeson, 2010). According to the Lea and Hyams, ordeals were criminal penalty. The representatives of the opposite approach (Kerr, Forsyth, and Plyley), suggest that trials by ordeals were “a tool of mercy”, exonerating innocents worldwide (Leeson, 2010).

Analyzing these diverse theories, Leeson (2010) focuses on the lack of serious scientific consideration of the original purpose of the ordeals, which is determination of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. The author emphasizes that superstition’s persistence or relationship to the law demand a closer examination. His view on this point coincides with Fudenberg and Levine’s theory, who analyze “how certain superstitions can persist even when individuals are patient, rational learners” (Leeson, 2010). Leeson’s approach suggests that superstitions profit society by providing successful and cheap achievement of aims. The author’s idea coincides with Posner’s arguments declaring that some of the irrational beliefs of the primitive society have promoted their prosperity.

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 As an example, Leeson (2010) gives the rational reasons. The author highlights that intrusting their fate to divine forces, defendants hoped that God would protect them and prove their innocence in a miraculous way. Being guilty, individuals believed in revealing their offence by the divine forces. They expected being harmed and convicted and tried to escape the trial by settling the case.

Finally, Peter Leeson (2010) notes that “many societies weren’t, and in some cases still aren’t, wealthy enough to create strong, effective, and more expensive state-made institutions of order”. In such societies superstition, and particularly a divine ordeal, replaces expensive means of establishing facts.


Providing a focus for debate, it is worth examining the peculiarities of historical background of the ordeals, the reasons for adopting and formalizing of the ordeals by the Christian Church, the ability of ordeals to assign defendants’ guilt and innocence, and the impact of the ordeals on the medieval and contemporary judicial systems. Being highly discriminating and mostly unjustified as well as highly inhumane, the ordeal practices cannot be even associated with the modern world where attempts are made to promote the democratic and liberal rights for all people.

Historical Background of the Ordeals

For a better understanding of the nature of divine ordeals, they should be regarded in the context of the medieval history. Ordeals originated from the ancient German people that had migrated from the northern Scandinavia. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around the 5th century, the new civilization appeared in Europe. Having conquered the fertile lands, the Germanic tribes brought the peculiar customs and traditions. Ordeals were among them.

The next peculiarity of the issue is that the Germanic law shed a new light on the problem of crime and penalties. Comparing the Roman and Germanic systems, the following aspects are observed.  First, Germanic legal practices were oral and very personal. A crime committed by one individual to another was punished through blood feud in such forms of revenge as hacking off hands and feet, gouging out eyes for etc.

In the Roman judicial system, a court handled such cases in other way.  Due to the increasing need for a special procedure, revealing whether a defendant was guilty, the system of trials emerged. According to the German customary law, ordeals were most suitable for this purpose. The guilt or innocence of the accused person was estimated based on the outcomes of these ordeals.

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According to Gregory of Tours, an ancient historian, heathen leaders adopted Christianity under impressive circumstances. In the 6th century, many Germanic kingdoms were created on the territory of the ruined Western Roman Empire. Nevertheless, only the Frankish kingdom existed for a long time. It was founded and headed by Clovis, who was first to be converted into the new religion – Christianity. This event gave the ruler profit in supporting of the powerful Roman Catholic Church.  By that time, the Christian church played an extremely significant part in the European world.

In the second part of the twelfth century, Henry II started significant reforms of the English law. He issued his famous legislative act “The Assize of Clarendon,” proclaiming that “anyone who shall be found on the oath of aforesaid to be accused or notoriously suspect of having been a robber or murderer or thief or a receiver of them … be taken and put to the ordeal of water” (Douglas & Greenaway, 1981). Thus, this law fostered an increasing number of divine ordeals.

Adopting and Formalizing of the Ordeals by the Christian Church

Being fit for the new political and religious situation, ordeals were adopted and formalized by the Christian church. It did not oppose the trials, but even facilitated their increase.  The priests actively participated in dispute cases. With the developing and spreading of the Christianity, various interpretations of top religious doctrines appeared.  The clergy took an active participation in different types of ordeals, changing the original and adding the new ones, such as the ordeal of the cross. St. Bernard accepted ordeals by water for the conviction of heretics.

Due to the support of the Church, trials by ordeal achieved their heyday between the 9th and 13th centuries. They became a means of enhancing power of the Church. In the 13th century, they were abolished. The abolition of the ordeal was the outcome of the separation between the Church and the secular power. A new method of deciding criminal cases was required that spread as fast as a lightning.

At those times, this method was the most effective method as it both kept people in constant fear for their lives or the lives of their family making them perform each whim of the greedy clergy who still preached the ascetic and modest way of life among the citizens, and gave the church immeasurable power (often larger than the government had) which multiplied its assets.

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On the other hand, these trials were often unjustified, and many innocent people were killed whereas many criminals were acquitted which could not but cause a lot of tumult among people. The church was starting to lose its influence with time as the protests of people were becoming oftener and more serious threatening the real revolution which actually came just a little bit later. Thus, the trial by jury emerged in England, where ordeal experiences were widely used, especially in trial by inquisition.

Impact of Divine Ordeals

It cannot be denied that the divine ordeals were the proper reflection of beliefs, superstitions and reality of the medieval society. Many historians argued that the ordeals were cruel and irrational. They showed the ignorance of the Dark Ages. However, the strong argument in favor of the divine ordeals is that they were the only means of exonerating innocent defendants.  They improved criminal justice. Due to the abolition of the ordeals in the 13th century, new legal procedures such as compurgation, jury, and torture emerged across the whole Europe. However, it can be not an outcome from the cancelation of the ordeals, but as well the pure reaction to its abolition as the clergy saw what a powerful tool of keeping people under control they were losing.

Of course, it is not reasonable to say that these ordeals were not the act of the pure torture, however, they were mostly performed only in the case of the real, valid suspicion against the individual. The problem is that those suspicions arose too often and often without solid evidence, but just due to the spread of envy or avenge among people who cast a veil of guiltiness over their neighbors or co-citizens.

It also led to the emergence of trials by jury in England and the heyday of inquisition in Europe. The impact of ordeals can be traced even in the contemporary law as, according to the major principle of the ordeals, an individual is considered innocent until his or her guilt is proved. The only difference lies in methods which are applied to prove these difference, and nowadays, no democratic country is allowed to use any kind of the methods that were applied in the Middle Ages.


Ordeals, associated with medieval Europe and England were the symbol of the Dark Ages (as many historians called that epoch).  It was the heyday of superstition and ignorance, when for revealing the truth and determining guilt or innocence of the accused individual, the water in cauldron was boiled, the iron was heated or the defendant was bound and thrown into the pool with holy water. Instead of finding the rational of evidence to the case, divine forces were evoked and relied on. Although the ordeals are generally viewed in a negative way, the contemporary historians offer new ideas on this issue. For example, Leeson (2010) noted that superstition was beneficial to the medieval society.

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The first strong argument in favor of ordeals is that they were the means of exonerating from indecent severe punishment.  Innocent defendants relied on the divine intervention and willingly underwent the test. Leeson (2010) argues that priests administrating ordeals understood the beliefs of participants and often manipulated the procedure to get those outcomes which they considered the most appropriate from their subjective points of view without really caring who is guilty and who is innocent.

The second advantage of ordeals is that they allowed main social institutes to function effectively and in a cheap way.  Being accused, guilty individuals tried to escape divine punishment and settled the cases. In a society where people sincerely believe in miraculous and divine intervention, it is very easy to impose myths and beliefs and manipulate the conception of guilt and innocence.

However, despite all of the possible advantage, the ordeals cannot be justified in the modern world, or even during the Dark Ages, as the effective rule can always be found without falling to such extremes as using intimidation and suffering to keep people under control.


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