Trial by compurgation
(in which the winning litigant was the one who could bring a designated number of respected people to court willing to swear to the truth of his oath) was generally limited in post-Conquest England to minor civil disputes and misdemeanor criminal offenses.
fell from favor during the Middle Ages, "presumably because principals were allowed to select their own oathhelpers and people could often be found who did not fear godly retribution from false oaths.
Compurgation is probably not quite as old or ubiquitous as battle or ordeal, but it was practiced in various forms by some ancient peoples, including the Babylonians and Israelites.
Similarly, as medieval man lost confidence in the sanctity of the oath, compurgation also became disfavored.
That Robert had been put to compurgation to prove his innocence suggests that the affair between Robert and Alice was a matter of public discussion, because, according to canon law, no one could undergo compurgation for a matter that was not an issue of public fame, and, secondly, an intention to admit the accused to purgation was frequently made by public proclamation in the parish church.
Compurgation was, at any rate, deemed an inappropriate mode of trial for certain pleas, notably the higher trespasses.
The other irrational modes of proof were ordeals, casting lots, and compurgation
Press, 1924), xxx-xxxix, gives an excellent overview of compurgation
in London during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Finally, the Church court's method of trial, compurgation, depended far less on the displaying and weighing of evidence than on the assessment of the public's opinion of the defendant: this procedure required the accused to take a formal oath testifying that he was innocent of the crime and enlist a number of compugators or oath-helpers to swear--not to the truth of the underlying facts--but to the trustworthiness of his oath.
Helmholz, "Crime, Compurgation and the Courts of the Medieval Church," in Canon Law and the Law of England (London: Hambledon Press, 1984), pp.
Even before facing God's judgment, Adam, realizing that he can enter no "plait" in God's court, recognizing that compurgation, at least for the moment, is impossible, and acknowledging that protection and aid are no longer his right, declares:
Agreeing with Odenkirchen, she notes but does not develop the idea that these lines "evoke the legal procedure of compurgation," nor does she explore the idea raised in this essay that Christ will serve as compurgator for Adam and Eve and their descendants.