How Trial By Ordeal Might Actually Have Worked

This is a head fugger – a look at an epoch where jurisprudence relied on Divine intervention to decide legal cases. We’re acquainted with this by the torture of alleged witches – where guilt or innocence was determined by trial by ordeal i.e. if you can hold a red hot poker without being burned you’re innocent and if it burns you, you’re guilty. Seems like a totally rigged game, yes? But this article claims, ’twere not so! Here’s some excerpts:

“Judicial ordeals took several forms, from dunking the defendant in a pool of holy water to walking him barefoot across burning plowshares. Among the most popular, however, was the ordeal of boiling water and the ordeal of burning iron. In the former, the defendant plunged his hand into a cauldron of boiling water and fished out a ring. In the latter, he carried a piece of burning iron several paces. A few days later, the defendant’s hand was inspected: if it was burned, he was guilty; if not, he was innocent…

“Getting God to judge the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants is a pretty nifty trick if you could pull it off. But how could medieval European courts accomplish this?

“Rather easily, it turns out. Suppose you’re a medieval European who’s been accused of stealing your neighbour’s cat. The court thinks you might have committed the theft, but it’s not sure, so it orders you to undergo the ordeal of boiling water. Like other medieval Europeans, you believe in iudicium Dei – that a priest, through the appropriate rituals, can call on God to reveal the truth by performing a miracle that prevents the water from burning you if you’re innocent, letting you burn if you’re not…

“How could an ordeal-administering priest make boiling water innocuous to an innocent defendant’s flesh? By making sure that it wasn’t actually boiling.

“The ‘instruction manuals’ for administering ordeals that medieval European priests followed provided them ample opportunity to do just that…”

Read the whole durned thing here:

Makes you wonder if all the torture of supposed witches during judicial procedures in the Americas happened as the Protestant judges dug the stated concept but weren’t hip to the gimmicks Catholic priests were well versed in. OOPS!

Thanks to Soror Amy for the tip.


Frater Lux Ad Mundi

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