1902 Encyclopedia > Ordeal


ORDEAL (Anglo-Saxon ordál, ordael, judgment) corresponds to modern German urtheil, but bears the special sense of the mediaeval Latin Dei judicium. A miraculous decision as to the truth of an accusation or claim. The word is adopted in the Latin ordalium, French ordalie. The ordeal had existed for many ages before it was thus named in Europe. In principle, and often in the very forms used, it belongs to ancient culture, thence flourishing up to the mediaeval European and modern Asiastic levels, but dying out before modern civilization. Some ordeals, which possibly represent early stages of the practice, we simply magical, being processes of divination turned to legal purpose. Thus in Burmah, suits are still determined by plaintiff and defendant being each furnished with a candle, equal in size and both lighted at once, -- he whose candle outlasts the other being adjudged, amid, the acclamations of his friends, to have won his cause (Shway Yoe, The Burman, vol.. ii. p. 254). Even quainter is a Dyak ordeal in Borneo, where the two parties are represented by two shell-fish on a plate, which are irritated by pouring on some lime-juice, and the one first moving settles the guilt or innocence (as has been before arranged) of its owner (St John, Forests of the Far East, vol. i. p. 89). The administration of ordeals has been much in the hands of priests, and they are more often than not worked on a theological basis, the intervention of a deity being invoked and assumed to take place even when the process is in its nature one of symbolic magic. For instance, an ancient divining instrument consisted of a sieve held suspended by a thread or by a pair of shears with the points stuck into its rim, and considered to move at the mention of the name to be discovered, &c. Thus girls consulted the "sieve-witch" (koskinomantis, [Gk.]) about lovers (Theocr., Idyll., iii. 31). This coscinomancy served in the same way to discover a thief, when, with prayer to the gods for direction, the names of the suspected persons were called over to it (Potter, Greek Antiquities, vol. i. p. 352). When a suspended hatchet was used in the same way to turn to the guilty, the process called axinomancy. The sieve ordeal remained popular in the Middle Ages (see the description and picture in Corneluis Agrippa, De Occ. Phil.); it is mentioned in Hudibras (ii.3):

".. th' oracle of sieve and shears
That turns as certain as the spheres."

From this ancient ordeal is evidently derived the modern Christian form of the key and Bible, where a Psalter or Bible is suspended by a key tied in at Psalms I. 18: "When thou sawest a thief, than thou consestedst with him"; the bow of the key being called over, he or she at whose name the book turns or falls is the culprit (see Brand, Popular Antiquities, ed., Bohn, vol. iii, p. 351).

One of the most remarkable groups of divinations passing into ordeals are those which appeal to the corpse itself for discovery of its murderer. The idea is rooted in that primitive state of mind which has not yet realized the full effect of death, but regard the body as still able to hear and act. Thus the natives of Australia will ask the dead man carried on his bier of boughs who bewitched him; if he has died by witchcraft he will make the bier move round, and if sorcerer who killed him be present a bough will touch him (Eyre, Australia, vol, ii. p. 344). That his is no isolated fancy is shown by its recurrence among the Negroes of Africa, where, for instance, the corpse caused its bearers to dash against some one’s house, which accuses the owner of the murder (J. L. Wilson, Western Africa, p. 231); Waitz, vol. ii. p. 193). This somewhat resembled the well-known ordeal of the bier in Europe in the Middle Ages, which, however, seems founded on a different principle, the imagination that a sympathetic action of the blood causes it to flow as the touch or neighourhood of the murderer. Apparently the liquefaction of the blood which in certain cases takes place after death may have furnished the ground for this belief. On Teutonic ground, this ordeal appears in the Nibelungenlied, where the murdered Siegfried is laid on his bier, and Hagen is called on to prove his innocence by going to the corpse, but at his approach the dead chief’s wounds bleed afresh. The typical instance in English history is the passage of Matthew Paris, that after Henry II.’s death at Chinon his son Richard came to view the body, "Quo superveniente, confestim erupit sanguis ex naribus regis mortui; ac si indignaretur spititus in adventu eius, qui eiusdem mortis causa esse credebatur, ut videretur sanguis clamare ad Deum." In Shakespeare (Rich. III., act 1, sc. 2):

"O gentlemenm see, see! dead Henry's wounds
Open their congeal'd mouths, and bleed afresh."

At Hertford assizes (4 Car I.) the deposition was taken as to certain suspected murdered being required to touch the corpse, when the murdered woman thrust out the ring finger three times and it dropped blood on the grass (Brand, vol. iii. p. 231); and there was a case in the Scotland High Court of Justiciary as late as 1668 (T. F. Thiselton Dyer, Folklore of Shakespeare, p. 487). Durham peasants, apparently remembering the old belief, still expect those who come to look at a corpse to touch it, in token that they bear no ill-will to the departed (W. Henderson, Folklore of Northern Counties, p. 57).

Certain ordeals are closely related to oaths, so that the two shade into one another. Let the curse which is to fall on the oath-breaker take effect at once, it then becomes a sign condemning the swearer, -- in fact, an ordeal. Thus the drinking of water on which a curse or magical penalty has been laid is a mere oath so long as the time of fulfillment is unfixed (see OATH). But it becomes an ordeal when, as in Brahmanic India, the accused drinks three handfuls of water in which a sacred image has been dipped; if he is innocent nothing happens, but if he is guilty sickness or misfortune will fall on him within one to three weeks (for accounts of these and other Hindu, ordeals see Ali Ibrahim Khan in Asiatic Researches, vol. i. p. 389, and Stenzler’s summary in Z. D. M. G., vol. ix.). The earliest account of such an ordeal is in Numbers v., which described the mode of administering to a woman charged with unfaithfulness the bitter water mixed with the dust of the tabernacle floor, with the curse laid on it to cause her belly to swell and her thigh to fall if guilty. Ewald (Antiquities of Israel, 236) regards the draughts as in itself harmless, and the operation of this curse on the guilty as due to the influence of the mind on the body. But the term "bitter" is applied to the water before it had been cursed, which suggests that it already contained some drug, as in the poison-water ordeal still in constant use over a great part of Africa. Thus the red water of Guinea is a decoction make by pounding in a wooden mortar and steeping in water the inner bark of one of the mimosas, producing a liquor like that of a tan-vat, astringent, narcotic, and when taken in sufficient quantity emetic. The accused, with solemn ceremony and invocation, drinks freely of it; if is nauseates him and he throws it up he is triumphantly acquitted, but if he becomes dizzy he is guilty, and he assembly fall on him, pelt him with stones, and even drag him over the rocks till he is dead. Here the result of the ordeal depends partly on the patient’s constitution, but more on the sorcerer who can prepare the proper dose to prove either guilt or innocence. Among the various drugs used in different parts of Africa are the mbundu root, the Calabar bean, the tangena nut (Tanghinia veneniflua, a strong poision and emetic). The sorcerers who administer this ordeal have their hands a power of inflicting or remitting judicial murder, giving them boundless influence (details in J. L. Wilson, Western Africa, pp. 225, 398); Burton, Lake Regions of Central Africa, vol. ii, p. 357; Bosman, "Guinea," in Pinkerton’s Voyages, vol. xvi. pp. 398, &c.). The poison-ordeal is also known to Brahmanic law, decoction of aconite root being one of the poisons given, and the accused if not sickening being declared free (Stenzler, l.c.). Theoretically connected with the ordeal by cursed drink is that by cursed food, which is, however, distinguished among this black catalogue by being sometimes an effectual means of discovering the truth. The ordeal by bread and cheese, practiced in Alexandria about the 2nd century, was practically the same as that known to English law five to then centuries later as the corsnaed or "trial slice" of consecrated bread and cheese which was administered from the later, with the curse that if the accused were guilty God would send the angel Gabriel to stop his throat, that he might not be able to swallow that bread and cheese. In fact, if guilty and not a hardened offender he was apt to fail, dry-mentioned and choking through terror, to get it down. The remembrance of this ancient ordeal still lingers in the popular phrase, "May this bit choke me if I lie!" In India the corresponding trial by rice is prescribed in the old laws to be done by suspected persons chewing the consecrated grains of rice and spitting them out, moist and untinged with blood, on a banyan leaf; this or the mere chewing and swallowing of a mouthful of rice-grains is often used even by the English as a means of detecting a thief. A classical mention of the ordeal by carrying hot iron on the hands and by passing through the fire is made more interesting by the guards who offer to prove their innocence in this way offering further to take oath by the gods, which shows the intimate connexion between oaths and ordeals (Soph., Ant., 264 see also Aeschyl., fr. 284).

Emen d'etoimoi kai mudrous airein kheroin
kai pur dierpein, kai theous horkomotein
to mete drasai mete to xuneidenei
to pragma bouleustanti met' eirgasmeno.

The passing through the fire is described in the Hindu codes of Yâmâyana the virtuous Sitâ thus proves her innocence to her jealous husband Râma (Stenzler, p. 669; Pictet, Origines Indo-Européennes, part ii. p. 457). It was not less known to European law and chronicle, as where Richardis, wife of Charles the Fat, proves her innocence by going into a fire clothed in a waxed shift, and is unhurt by the fire (Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer, p. 912). Yet more minutely prescribed in the Hindu ordeal-books is the rite of carrying the glowing hot iron seven steps, into the seven or nine circles traced on the ground, the examination of the hands to see if they show traces of burning, and the binding them up in leaves. The close historical connexion of the correspondence of minute details, as where in a Scandinavian law it is prescribed that the ret-hot iron shall be carried nine steps (Grimm, op. cit., p. 918). In Anglo-Saxon laws the iron to be carried was at first only one pound weight, but Athelstan’s law (in Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, iv. 6) enacts that it be increased to weigh three pounds. Another form well known in old Germany and England was the walking barefoot over glowing ploughshares, generally nine. The law-codes of the early Middle Ages show this as an ordinary criminal procedure (see the two works last referred to), but it is perhaps best remembered in two non-historical legends. The German queen Kunigunde, "hac dicens stupentibus et flentibus universis qui aderant, vomeres candetes nudo vestigio calcavit et sine adustionis molestia transiit" (Vita Henrici, ap. Canisium, vi. 387). Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, accused of familiarity with Alwyn bishop of Winchester, triumphantly purges herself and him by the help of St Swithin, -- each of the two thus acquitted giving nine manors to the church of Winchester, in memory of the nine ploughshares, and the king being corrected with stripes (John Bromtom; see Freeman's Norm. Conq., vol. ii. App). To dip the hand in boiling water or oil or melted lead and take out a stone or ring is another ordeal of this class. The traveller may find some of these fiery trials still in use, or at least in recent memory, in barbaric regions of Africa or further Asia, -- the Negro plunging his arm into the caldron of boiling oil, the Burman doing feats with melted lead, while the Bedouin will settle a conflict of evidence by the opposing witnesses licking a glowing hot-iron spoon (Burckhardt, Arabien, pp. 98, 233). This latter feat may be done with safety by any one, provided the iron be clean and thoroughly white hot, while if only red-hot it would touch and burn the tongue. Probably the administerers of the ordeal are aware if this, and of the possibility of dipping the hand in melted metal; and there are stories of arts of protecting the skin (see the recipe in Albertus Magnus, De Mirabilibus), though it is not known what can be really done beyond making it horny like a smith’s, which would serve as a defence in stepping on hot coals, but not in serious trials like that of carrying a heavy red-hot iron. The fire-ordeals are still performed by mountebanks, who very like keep up the same means of trickery which were in official use when the accused was to be acquitted. The actual practice of the fire-ordeal contrasts shamefully with its theory, that the fire rather than harm the innocent restrained its natural action. Thus is stands in the Hindu code of Manu (viii. 115): "He whom the flame does not burn, whom the water does not cast up, or whom no harm soon befals, is to be taken as truthful in his oath." The water-ordeal here referred to is that well known in Europe, where the accused is thrown bound into the water, which receives him if innocent, but rejects him if guilty. The manner of carrying out this test is well explained in the directions given by Arcbishop Hinemar in the 9th century; he who let down into the water fro trial is to be fastened by a rope, that he may not be in danger if the water received him as innocent, but may be pulled out. In the later Middle Ages this ordeal by "swimming" or "fleeting" because the most approved means of trying a suspected witch: she was stripped naked and cross bound the right thumb to the left toe, and the left thumb to the right toe. In this state she was cast into a pond or river, in which it was thought impossible for her to sink. (Brand, vol. iii. p. 21) The cases of "ducking" witches which have occurred in England within the last few years are remains of the ancient ordeal.

If there is one things that may be predicated of man in a state of nature it is that two disputants tend to fight out their quarrel. When in the warfare of Greeks and Trojans, of Jews and Philistines, of Vandals and Alamans, heroes come out form the two sides and their combat is taken to mark the powers of the opposing war-gods and decide the victory, then the principle of the ordeal by battle has been practically called in. Among striking instances of the Teutonic custom which influenced the while of mediaeval Europe may be cited the custom of the Franks that the princes, if they could not quell the strife, had to fight it out themselves, and Wippo’s account of the of the quarrel between the Christian Saxons and the Pagan Slavs as to which broke the peace, when both sides demanded of the emperor that it should be settled by due, which was done by choosing a champion on each side, and the Christian fell. The Scandinavian term "holmgang" refers to the habit of fighting duels on an island,. A passage from old German law shows the single combat accepted as a regular legal procedure: "If there be dispute concerning fields, vineyards, or money, that they avoid perjury let two be chosen to fight, and decide the cause of duel" (Grimm, Rechtsalterth., p. 928). In England, after the Conquest, trial by combat superseded other legal ordeals, which were abolished in the time of Henry III. Among famous instances is that of Henry de Essex, hereditary standard-bearer of England, who fled from a battle in Wales, in 1158, threw from him the royal standard, and cried out that the king was slain. Robert de Montfort afterwards, accusing him of having done this with treasonable intent, offered to prove his accusation by combat, and they fought in presence of Henry II. and his court, when Essex was defeated, but the king spared his life, and his estate being confiscated, he became a monk in Reading Abbey. A lord often sent his man in his stead to such combats, and priests and women were ordinarily represented by champions. The wager of battle died out so quietly in England without being legally abolished that in the Court of King’s Bench in 1818 it was claimed by a person charged with murder, which led to its formal abolition (Ashford v. Thornton in Barnewall and Alderson, 457; see detail in H.C. Lea, Superstition and Force, ii). A distinct connexion may, however, be traced between the legal duel and the illegal private duel, which has disappeared from England in our own time, but still flourishes in France and Germany. (E. B. T.)

The above article was written by Edward Burnett Tylor, LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., Professor of Anthropology, Oxford University; Keeper of the University Museum since 1883; author of Anahuac, Mexico and the Mexicans; Researches into the Early History of Mankind; Primitive Culture; Anthropology; and The Natural History of Religion.

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