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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.
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.