Ordeal


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Ordeal

One of the most ancient forms of trial in England that required the accused person to submit to a dangerous or painful test on the theory that God would intervene and disclose his or her guilt or innocence.

Trials by ordeal were a pagan custom that took on added ritual when Christianity was introduced into England. There were various ordeals, and at different times certain ordeals were reserved for people of higher rank, whereas others were used for common people. All were based on the belief that supernatural forces would rescue the innocent from perils to which they were exposed and would allow the guilty to be physically harmed.

The ordeal of water was performed by casting the suspect into a pond or river. If the suspect floated to the surface without any action of swimming, she was deemed guilty. If the suspect sank, she was pulled out and pronounced innocent. The hot water ordeal required the accused to plunge his bare arm up to the elbow into boiling water without injury. In the ordeal of the cursed morsel, the suspect swallowed a piece of dry bread with a feather in it. If the suspect did not choke, he was found innocent. The ordeal of the red-hot iron required the accused to carry a heated poker weighing one, two, or three pounds over a certain distance. After that, the suspect's hand was bound, and in three days the bandages were removed. If the wound had not become infected, the suspect was pronounced innocent. A variation of this ordeal required the accused person to walk barefoot and blindfolded over nine red-hot plowshares placed at uneven distances. The ordeals of the red-hot iron and the plowshares were also called the fire ordeals and were often reserved for nobility.

Evidence from very early cases indicates that there were more acquittals than convictions by ordeal, but the severity of the methods may have encouraged cheating. It is impossible to tell exactly how compelling the psychological stresses of the ordeal were, but all were administered amidst the ritual of the church at the high moment of the mass. In time church leaders came to disapprove of the participation of clergymen in a somewhat pagan tradition, and in 1215 priests were forbidden to take part in trials by ordeal. In remote places, the practice continued for a time as priests disobeyed the order, but eventually trial by ordeal was eliminated. This made the Criminal Law of England unenforceable because the chief means of determining guilt or innocence had been abolished.

The people were reluctant to accept a system that permitted a judge to determine the facts in a criminal case. That would be replacing the voice of God with that of a mortal man. For a while, the law enforcers imprisoned persons with a general reputation for wrongdoing, banished those guilty of moderately serious crimes, and required pledges of security to ensure the peacefulness of persons accused of small crimes. When these measures proved unsatisfactory, judges began calling upon groups of people in the community to make decisions. As many as forty-eight neighbors might be asked whether the accused was guilty or innocent. Their opinions were based on what they knew or could find out about the case and not on the presentation of evidence or testimony. This procedure was a forerunner of the modern jury.

See: aggravation, burden, infliction, nuisance, pain, trouble

ORDEAL. An ancient superstitious mode of tribal. When in a criminal case the accused was arraigned, be might select the mode of trial either by God and his country, that is, by jury; or by God only, that is by ordeal.
     2. The trial by ordeal was either by fire or by water. Those who were tried by the former passed barefooted and blindfolded over nine hot glowing ploughshares; or were to carry burning irons in their hands; and accordingly as they escaped or not, they were acquitted or condemned. The water ordeal was performed either in hot or cold water. In cold water, the parties suspected were adjudged innocent, if their bodies were not borne up by the water contrary to the course of nature; and if, after putting their bare arms or legs into scalding water they came out unhurt, they were taken to be innocent of the crime.
     3. It was impiously supposed that God would, by the mere contrivance of man, exercise his power in favor of the innocent. 4. Bl. Com. 342; 2 Am. Jur. 280. For a detailed account of the trial by ordeal, see Herb. Antiq. of the Inns of Court, 146.

References in classic literature ?
The girl was a prey to the nervous reaction from the frightful ordeal through which she had so recently passed, and in her overwrought state it seemed that never again should she dare descend to the ground among the fearsome dangers which infested the broad stretch of jungle that she knew must lie between herself and the nearest village of her faithful Waziri.
Altogether, Anne sighed with relief when the ordeal was over.
I had no idea," Wingrave remarked, "that you had been submitting the lady and her affairs to the ordeal of your marvelous gift of analysis.
He took a small bottle from his follower, and sniffed strong ammonia to clear his senses for the ordeal.
She had carried herself bravely right to the moment of the ordeal, but the sight of the four horses, ranged two and two opposing her, with the thing patent that she was to hold in her hands the hooks on the double-trees and form the link that connected the two spans which were to pull in opposite directions--at the sight of this her courage failed her and she shrank back, drooping and cowering, her face buried in her hands.
the trial-at-law from the low estate of a fortuitous ordeal to the
But it is a terrible ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for himself but one freedom--namely, the anticipating of the day of his death.
The two ladies waited the coming ordeal together gravely, as became the occasion.
Day followed day, and still she shrank from the unendurable ordeal of confession--as she was shrinking from it now!
She was lame and sore and exhausted from the frightful ordeal through which she had passed, and she had the confidence of her sex in the prowess of her mate and the other bull of her tribe--they would not need the help of a she in their battle with these two strangers.
Fentolin's keen eyes was hard to meet, but Hamel came out of the ordeal without flinching.
The position was one of misery for all three; and not one of them would have been equal to enduring this position for a single day, if it had not been for the expectation that it would change, that it was merely a temporary painful ordeal which would pass over.