- Types of Ordeal
- Red-Hot Iron Ordeal
- Ordeal by the Balance
- Ordeal by Rice Chewing
- Ordeal of the Red Water
- Trial by Combat
- Trial by Torture
- Ordeal by Heat and Fire
- Ordeal by Boiling Oil or Water
- Cold Water Ordeal
- Ordeal of the Tiger
- Ordeal of the Cross
- Ordeal by Blessed Bread
- Test of the Eucharist
- Ordeal of the Bier
- Ordeal of the Needle
- Trial of the Waxen Shirt
- Hereditary Sieve Method
- Donkey’s Tail Ordeal
Today, a number of techniques, including the polygraph machine, are used by law enforcement and similar agencies in order to attempt to detect deception when interrogating subjects. In older times, they had a different set of methods.
Simply put, an ordeal is a difficult or painful experience. In the context of our course, an ordeal refers to a medieval form of judicial trial that puts the accused through arduous physical trials that are supposed to assess a person’s character. Generally, these ordeals are impossible in nature and resulted in the deaths of many accused, regardless of their actual guilt.
The basic principle of this type of judgment is “Dei Indicum” – miracle decision. This decision is interpreted as a judgement by God to the person under trial – “Judicium Dei,” judgment of God. This was done under the assumption that God would protect the innocent by performing miracles on their behalf during their judgment. Otherwise, God is showing guilt.
This type of judgment has actually been used earlier, all the way back to the days of the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu. In those days, the judgment was not interpreted to have come from the one God we commonly acknowledge today, but from the many gods that they worshipped.
Essentially, ordeals were the first tests of truthfulness recorded in history.
Types of Ordeal
Red-Hot Iron Ordeal
In this ordeal, the accused is instructed to walk a certain distance, nine feet among the Anglo-Saxons, while holding a bar of iron in his hands. Then, the hand is bandaged. After a couple of days, the wound is inspected. If the wound was healing well, the accused is pronounced innocent. If it was infected, the accused is pronounced guilty.
This was practiced in Vishnu, India. In this ordeal, the accused – generally women, minors, and the elderly who are on trial for accusations involving the supernatural – are weighed twice. If they weighed less or lighter during the second weighing, then they are pronounced innocent. Otherwise, they are considered guilty.
Another ordeal used in ancient India, suspects are forced to chew on rice grains and spit them out. The state of the grain is used to assess whether a person is guilty or innocent of a crime. If blood is present in the spit, the corner of the mouth swells, or the limbs of the defendant trembles, then the person is declared a liar and found guilty.
This ordeal is detailed in the Naradasmrti, which is a part of the Dharmashastra – the law of the land of the Hindus in India during the British colonial era.
According to this document, the ordeal by rice chewing was to be used on cases of robbery and not for other forms of crime. Furthermore, the rice that is to be used must be white rice grains, called sathee, prepared with various incantations by a judge who must have cleansed himself. Afterwards, the rice is placed in an earthen vessel in front of an image of the sun god, left overnight to bathe in this image, and given to the defendant to chew on the next day. The defendant is also expected to bathe before taking the ordeal. The defendant must then face the east, proclaim the charge, chew on the rice, then spit it on the leaf of a sacred fig or bodhi tree. A birch leaf can be used as a substitute if the aforementioned is not available.
The accused is given a small amount of rice and dark colored water to drink. The water is actually an emetic. The defendant is then made to fast for 12 hours. After which, they are immersed in a dark liquid. The suspect is presumed innocent if the rice is ejected. Otherwise, the accused is declared guilty.
This was used to settle conflicts between two parties, usually two individuals or an entity and a government or other organization. As the name implies, this trial involves the duel of the two parties involved or, commonly, designated champions fighting on behalf of the involved parties. The loser is found guilty or in the wrong.
In this form of ordeal, the accused is made to undergo a dangerous physical trial. The accused would be deemed innocent if he can survive said torture.
One way of doing this type of ordeal is the abovementioned Red-Hot Iron Ordeal. Another method of doing this is by making the accused walk a certain distance, usually 9 feet or 2.7 meters, over red-hot ploughshares. If the accused was not injured, this would often establish innocence. They might also bandage the wound first and examine it later as in the aforementioned ordeal.
The specific method used would vary by location. In Iran, people were made to walk over flames or having molten iron poured on their chest. If the accused died, they are considered guilty. Otherwise, they are pronounced innocent as this means that the god Mithra intervened to save them.
In other places, this might involve having the accused swear an oath then drink a sulphur potion.
In India, this trial is known as the agnipariksha. A pyre is installed at the site of the trial, a priest invokes Agni, the fire god, and the accused is asked to sit on it. If the accused is innocent, Agni will preserve him. Otherwise, he will be burnt to ashes.
This type of ordeal was commonly used in villages in West Africa, including Togo. In one version of the trial, the accused is tasked to retrieve an object from a tub of boiling oil. Anyone who refuses is declared guilty. In another version, both the accused and the accuser are made to recover an object from the tub. Anyone who remains unharmed is proclaimed innocent.
Cold Water Ordeal
This was a common type of ordeal in areas where which hunts were practiced. In this ordeal, the accused, specifically, one who is accused of being a witch, is tied up and then thrown into a body of cold water. If they sink, they are judged innocent of witchcraft. If they float, then they are guilty of being a witch.
In this ordeal, the accuser and the accused were placed in a cage, then a hungry tiger is set loose upon them. Whoever survives the tiger is declared innocent. If both are spared, further elimination follows.
This was reportedly used in the Early Middle Ages to prevent duels among the Germanic peoples. In this ordeal, both the accused and the accuser were made to stand with their arms crossed upon their chests. Whoever endures longer is deemed to be truthful.
Ordeal by Blessed Bread
The test is conducted by a priest who puts hallowed bread into an accused’s mouth. If they are able to swallow it, then they are considered innocent.
Test of the Eucharist
This test was made for priests and monks. They believed that a sinner who takes the host will be punished with sickness or death. In other parts, an accused will secretly be given a poisoned drink. They believed that, if the accused is innocent, the Angel Gabriel will descend from heaven and keep them from drinking the poison.
Ordeal of the Bier
It was once believed that, should a murderer approach the body of their victim, the wounds of the victim will open up and bleed. They said that this was the victim calling out their murderer.
Ordeal of the Needle
In this ordeal, the lower lip of the accused will is pricked with a red hot needle. If it bleeds, then they are judged guilty. Otherwise, they are considered innocent.
Trial of the Waxen Shirt
During this ordeal, an accused is made to walk barefoot over hot coals while wearing a wax-coated linen. If they are unharmed and the wax remains solid, they are declared innocent.
Hereditary Sieve Method
In this ordeal, a suspect is made to toss beans into a sieve. If the beans remain in the sieve, the suspect is judged guilty.
Donkey’s Tail Ordeal
In this ordeal, a donkey is left alone in a room with the suspect. If the donkey cries, the suspect is declared guilty as the cries of the donkey are considered the cries of the guilty conscience of the suspect.