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Trial By Ordeal
-- the author's note from Lord of Midnight

(To read more about this book click here.)
which starts with an ordeal by battle.

The medieval mind was firm about justice. To them, God's plan was for a peaceful world free of sin, and it was the duty of all God's people to make it so. Wrong-doing required both reparation and punishment. Reparation was usually a payment of money to victims and their families, or to the king. Punishment was often designed to deter others, but to leave the sinner alive and able to repent. Hence the tendency to chop off hands, feet, and/or genitals.

In a time when everyone knew everybody around them, catching criminals wasn't a high art except in the rare case when a crime was committed by an outsider. For this reason, strangers were regarded with deep suspicion, and crimes of stealth, no matter who committed them, were punished most severely. "Murder" was reserved for a crime of stealth, and was punished more severely than a mere killing in a fight or feud.

However, sometimes guilt wasn't clear, and in these cases ordeal was used to settle the matter. Ordeal was by means of hot iron, cold water, or battle, and was a strict ritual administered by the Church. In fact, it almost became a sacrament along with baptism, marriage, and extreme unction.

In ordeal by hot iron, the accused person had to grasp a red-hot rod and carry it a fixed distance. The burn was then bound and inspected in three days. If it was healing, God had shown that the person was innocent. If it had begun to fester, then they were guilty.

Rather preferable, perhaps, was ordeal by cold water. The accused was tied up and lowered into the water on a rope. If he sank, he was innocent. (No, he wasn't left to drown, but hauled out still able to celebrate.) If he floated, he was guilty and dragged off for punishment.

Ordeal by battle was much rarer, but it wasn't reserved for nobles and knights. It was most often used when two people accused each other of crimes, or as a kind of civil prosecution when the law wasn't clear. (This lingered as the duel, and in fact was still a possible judicial solution until 1819.)

In ordeal by battle, or a court battle, the men fought to the death, no holds barred. The weapon was usually a stick, and it soon became a wrestling, gouging, stomping brawl. However, there are instances of more knightly duels with swords, and that is what I have shown in this book.

As with the Brave Child Sebastian, there were stories of duels between children and mighty warriors, and actual cases where a weak man defeated a strong. It was even possible for a woman to challenge a man, in which case the man was buried up to his waist in the ground as a handicap.

I recently attended a lecture on the risks of ordeal, and I'd like to share some of the points with you because I found them fascinating. Margaret Kerr, a barrister, has studied records of ordeals and found that remarkably few went against the accused. She speculates that ordeal was often used by the Church as a way of providing mercy in harsh times.

Certainly William Rufus -- the king before Henry Beauclerk -- was not at all pleased when 50 men accused of breaking the Forest Laws were put to the ordeal of hot iron and all passed. In fact, his reaction to this was to decide that God was too easily persuaded to mercy by prayer. Since a king was much tougher minded, in future he would decided who was guilty and who was innocent.

Perhaps this was another reason for that wayward arrow in the New Forest!

The low rate of conviction led Ms. Kerr to investigate the techniques of hot iron and cold water. (Ordeal by battle doesn't enter into this, because one of the two must lose.)

She found that today, severe burns often don't fester by three days, and can even look healed. The accused would only fail this test if the iron was too cool and gave only a second degree burn.

Ordeal by cold water is even more interesting. You may have noticed that above, I referred to people being tested by cold water as male. That's because this test was never done on women until the much later witch-hunting period. Men generally have a much lower ratio of body fat than women and in modern studies it has been shown that a bound man rarely floats in cold water unless he's notably fat.

(Want to bet that those witch-hunters had this all figured out? Let's talk about the persecution of women sometime.)

A guilt factor can enter in, of course. With hot iron, moisture on the skin might make a difference, so a guilty person's clammy hands might be disastrous. With water, a fit man can float if he has a lot of air in his lungs. Guilt might lead to panic, which might lead to sucking in extra air. In one case, an abbot was implicated in a crime and set to undergo the ordeal by cold water. He repeatedly checked himself out in a big tub of water to be sure he would sink. Every time, he did.

Come the day, however, he floated. Presumably, panic caused him to suck in breath. Was his panic caused by guilt, and by his belief that God knew his secrets? We'll never know.

His panic is understandable, however, because he chose the ordeal. Anyone always had the option of confession, and the civil powers preferred this. The Church also approved, since it was the step to repentance and salvation. Therefore, the penalties for those who underwent an ordeal and failed were harsher than for those who confessed.

There are a few interesting records of ordeal by cold water that describe the accused being trussed up with their knees to their chest. At first glance, this might seem harsher, but in fact it's a sign that someone really wanted them to get off. It's much more difficult to float like that, and almost impossible to take a deep breath of air.

So how does this finagling mesh with the medieval interest in justice?

Then as now, there was a sense of right and wrong that overrode the actual laws. If people didn't see the crimes as wrong -- as with violations of the Forest Laws -- ordeal could get around the king's laws.

It addition, however, ordeal was doubtless often used in an honest sense -- requesting God to clarify an uncertain case so that reparation and punishment could wipe the evil from the community.

However, for many reasons, ordeal fell into disrepute. (Interestingly, one of the objections was religious. Some theologians thought it wrong for anyone to demand a service of God, as those undergoing ordeal did in demanding that God be their judge.) The jury system had always been around, and in 1215 ordeal by hot iron or cold water was forbidden by the Pope and judgement by one's peers became the norm.

However, as I said earlier, this didn't affect trial by battle.

(Copyright Jo Beverley. This article may be freely reproduced and distributed, but only on the following conditions. That it is unaltered. That the copyright is in place. That no profit is made.)
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