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A 17th century engraving depicting an ordeal by water.

Trial by Ordeal: A Life or Death Method of Judgement

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In the modern judicial system, the innocence or guilt of an accused may be established based on the evidence brought against him or her. In ancient and medieval societies, however, a different way of determining a person’s innocence or guilt was used. This was called the ‘trial by ordeal’. This method involved having the accused do something dangerous or even life-threatening. If the accused survived the ordeal, he or she is (usually) proclaimed innocent. If guilty, the individual would perish.  

Judgment by God

The intention of the trial by ordeal is to leave the judgment of an accused in the hands of a higher force. In European societies during the Middle Ages, a concept known as the iudicium Dei (meaning ‘the judgment of God’) was the basis for the trial by ordeal. It was believed by societies during that time that God would intervene and protect an innocent person during a trial by ordeal, whilst punishing a guilty individual.

It has been argued that a trial by ordeal could have been much like a Medieval version of a polygraph test. Peter T Leeson provides an example of how it may work in the case of someone having been accused of stealing a neighbor’s cat, for example: “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.”

If the person is guilty, he/she would consider the cost of paying a fine after confessing less than the pain and cost of lying and undergoing the test. If the person is innocent he/she would opt for the test, believing that God would protect him/her and he/she would have nothing to pay or lose by completing the test of innocence.

However, it’s worth noting that trial by ordeal was more commonly used in important and difficult criminal cases where evidence was lacking. Maybe it would not have had the same kind of lie-detecting ability if the case had more severe punishments if someone was found guilty, such as death or exile, instead of paying a fine.

Although the trial by ordeal is most commonly associated with Medieval Europe, its use can be found in other societies in earlier periods of history.

Trial by Ordeal in the Old Testament

It is said that examples of trials by ordeals can be found in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, and the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament. In the latter, a trial by ordeal for women accused of adultery was prescribed by God to Moses. The instructions for such a trial are as follows:

“And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot:”

n the Old Testament, Moses issues a trial by ordeal to a woman accused of adultery.

In the Old Testament, Moses issues a trial by ordeal to a woman accused of adultery. Painting of Moses by Rembrandt (Wikipedia)

Babylonian ‘Justice’

Another form of trial by ordeal for a woman accused by adultery can be found in the earlier Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. According to this trial by ordeal,

“If the “finger is pointed” at a man’s wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.” 

This “jump into the river” is explained in an earlier part of the Code:

“If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river proves that the accused is not guilty, and he escapes unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.”

The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi (Wikipedia)

Trial by Water

This ‘trial by water’ is known also as the ‘swimming test’, and is most infamously known for being used to try witches during the 17th century. A person accused as a witch would be dragged to the nearest body of water, stripped to their undergarments, bound, and tossed into the water to see if she would sink or float. The ‘logic’ was that since witches spurned the sacrament of Baptism, the water would reject their body, causing them to float. On the other hand, if woman sank, then her innocence was proven. Though the accused would normally have a rope tied around their waist so that she could be pulled up if she sank, accidental drowning deaths did occur as well.

This ‘trial by water’ was one of the many forms of the trial by ordeal carried out during the Middle Ages. Other examples include the ‘trial by Host (the Holy Eucharist)’, ‘trial by hot iron’ and ‘trial by hot water’. The first is said to be reserved for priests accused of committing crimes or perjury. According to this trial, the accused would go before the altar and pray aloud that God would choke him if he lied. He would then take the Host. It was believed that if the priest was guilty, he would either choke or have difficulty swallowing.

Trial by water, 17th century engraving

Trial by water, 17 th century engraving (Wikipedia)

The End of Trials by Ordeal

In Europe, participation in trials by ordeal by the clergy was prohibited by Pope Innocent III during the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. Nevertheless, trials by ordeal continued in Europe for some time, eventually dying out centuries later. It may be hard to imagine the trial by ordeal taking place today. Still, in some parts of the world, these trials are still going on. In Liberia, for instance, the disruption of the court systems during the Liberian Civil War allowed trials by ordeal (known as ‘sassywood’ rituals’) to be regarded as legitimate alternatives to ‘Western justice’. The most common form of this ritual involves the ingestion of a concoction of the sassywood bark. If a person vomited the concoction back up, he/she was presumed innocent. If not, the accused was guilty, and the concoction, which was poisonous, would kill him/her. The use of the sassywood rituals today causes great concern amongst human rights organisations.  

 a similar process to the ‘sassywood ritual’, inhabitants of Madagascar gave the accused a poisonous tangena nut. In the 1820s,

In a similar process to the ‘sassywood ritual’, inhabitants of Madagascar gave the accused a poisonous tangena nut. In the 1820s, ingestion of the poisonous nut caused about 1,000 deaths annually. A 19th-century artist's depiction of the tangena ordeal in Madagascar (Wikipedia)

Featured image: A 17 th century engraving depicting an ordeal by water. Photo source: Wikimedia

By Ḏḥwty


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Leeson, P., 2010. Justice, medieval style. [Online]
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Primm, A., 2013. A History of "Trial By Ordeal". [Online]
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Wheeler, L. K., 2015. Medieval Trial by Ordeal. [Online]
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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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