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3 Ways of Judging the Accused in the Dark Ages

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A gruesome fate awaited those who failed a medieval trial by ordeal.

A gruesome fate awaited those who failed a medieval trial by ordeal.

The Medieval Trial by Ordeal

In 1215, the Magna Carta stipulated that no man could be imprisoned without being tried and found guilty by a body of citizens.

Thus was trial by jury cemented in law, whereas before it had just been one of several options for determining guilt or innocence, the rest of which were questionable, to say the least.

The US Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment, but in the Middle Ages, cruel and unusual punishment was all the rage. Being found guilty of a crime could result in being flayed alive, drawn and quartered, or burnt at the stake.

All the more unfortunate that so many individuals were subjected to farcical trials steeped in superstition. Here are three ways the accused were judged in the Middle Ages.

3 Ways of Dealing Out Justice in the Middle Ages

  1. Trial by water
  2. Trial by hot iron
  3. Trial by combat
The cold-water ordeal: a man is tortured by being tied with rope and lowered into cold water

The cold-water ordeal: a man is tortured by being tied with rope and lowered into cold water

1. Trial by Water

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, angry villagers accuse a woman of being a witch and resolve to test her innocence by weighing her. If she weighs the same as a duck, then she must be a witch, they claim.

Why? Because a duck floats, and so does wood, and wood burns, as do witches; so if the accused weighs the same as a duck, she must be made of wood and therefore a witch.

This farcical line of logic is actually not that far off from what medieval folk believed. This is evident in the trial by water, where the accused was tossed into a pond. If they sank, they were deemed innocent. If they floated, then guilt was the verdict. Why? Because it was assumed that the water, and by extension god, had rejected them.

According to bbc.com, a man named Ailward was, in this manner, found guilty of breaking and entering. His punishment was to have his eyes gouged out and genitals mutilated.

The ancient Rus had a ritual similar to that described below. The accused must pull a hot iron out of the fire. If he does so without being burnt, he is innocent. If not, he gets the sword, which the Grand Duke clutches in readiness.

The ancient Rus had a ritual similar to that described below. The accused must pull a hot iron out of the fire. If he does so without being burnt, he is innocent. If not, he gets the sword, which the Grand Duke clutches in readiness.

2. Trial by Hot Iron

What do you do when the method for determining guilt is in itself a form of punishment? You just clutch the hot iron and hope for the best.

This trial by fire required the accused to walk about 3 metres while holding a red hot bar of iron. The ordeal itself was not the test, but rather the speed with which the resultant wound healed.

The wound was checked three days after the trial. If it was healing cleanly, the accused was deemed innocent. If it was festering, then god had clearly abandoned them.

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In many cases, the defendant admitted to guilt before the trial could commence. Of the 308 cases of hot iron ordeal recorded in the register between 1208 and 1235, 100 were called off with the iron bar left unused This was probably because the accused was guilty and would rather just admit it than be forced to carry a hot iron.

One imagines that someone confident in their innocence would be willing to endure the pain, although their innocence would not guarantee the miraculous healing of their hand. In the remaining 208 cases, 78 defendants were found guilty.

Two knights engage in single combat, whereby god will pass judgement.

Two knights engage in single combat, whereby god will pass judgement.

3. Trial by Combat

As depicted in HBO's Game of Thrones and Ridley Scott's The Last Duel (2021), guilt or innocence can be determined by a duel to the death, whereby god passes judgement by choosing the victor.

Trial by combat was a Germanic law, with the earliest known reference to it being a decree by the King of Burgundy in AD 502. It was introduced to England following the Norman conquest in 1066.

The issue with trial by combat is obvious. Some people are just better at fighting than others, yet the process did not take the varying skill of the participants into account.

The accused could choose a champion to fight on their behalf. As such, trial by combat largely favoured the rich, who could attract more accomplished champions with the promise of favour.

A potential champion would certainly demand some significant compensation since he was risking life and limb by participating.

Even after Magna Carta made trial by jury the standard, trial by combat remained a recourse, albeit one that was rarely taken.

In 1819, it was made illegal in the UK. This didn't stop a British man from demanding a trial by combat in 2002, after being hit with a £25 fine for driving his motorcycle off the road.

The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, played a significant role in ending trial by ordeal and cementing trial by jury in law.

The Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215, played a significant role in ending trial by ordeal and cementing trial by jury in law.

The End of the Trial by Ordeal

Aside from Magna Carta, the withdrawal of divine sanction led to the gradual decline of the trial by ordeal.

It seems the church was never entirely comfortable with such trials. As far back as the 9th century, Pope Nicholas I suggested that the trial by combat was "blasphemous" as it essentially demanded divine intervention.

In 1215, the same year that the Magna Carta was signed, a council convened by Pope Innocent III in Rome withdrew papal support for trials by ordeal.

Without a priest to bless the iron bar used in the trial by hot iron, or sanction the trial by combat, these rituals lost legitimacy.

References

Duncan Leatherdale. 2019, 9 February. Trial by ordeal: When fire and water determined guilt (bbc.co.uk).

Ian Kelly. 2017, 27 January. ‘Hot iron’ trial by ordeal: a 13th Century lesson for investors (schroders.com)

Hannah Skoda. 2021, 15 October. Medieval trial by combat: the real history behind The Last Duel (historyextra.com).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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