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( Iudicium Dei ; Anglo-Saxon, ordâl ; German Urteil ).

Ordeals were a means of obtaining evidence by trials, through which, by the direct interposition of God, the guilt or innocence of an accused person was firmly established, in the event that the truth could not be proved by ordinary means. These trials owed their existence to the firm belief that an omniscient and just God would not permit an innocent person to be regarded as guilty and punished in consequence, but that He would intervene, by a miracle if necessary, to proclaim the truth. The ordeals were either imposed by the presiding judge, or chosen by the contesting parties themselves. It was expected that God, approving the act imposed or permitted by an authorized judge, would give a distinct manifestation of the truth to reveal the guilt or innocence of the accused. It was believed from these premises that an equitable judgment must surely result.

Ordeals are of two kinds: those undergone only by the accused, and those taken part in by both parties to the action. It was the common opinion that the decision of God was made known in the result of the test, either immediately or after a short time. Ordeals were resorted to when the contesting parties were unable to bring forward further evidence, for according to the ancient German law, the production of evidence was not arranged for by the court itself, but was left to the contestants.

Ordeals were known and practised by various peoples of antiquity, and are still to be met with today among uncivilized tribes. The Code of Hammurabi prescribes their use for the ancient Babylonians. The person accused of a certain crime was subjected to the test of cold water, which consisted in the person's plunging into a river; if the river bore him away his guilt was established; if he remained quiet and uninjured in the water, his innocence was believed to have been proved (Winkler, "Die Gesetze Hammurabis", Leipzig, 1902, 10). Among the Jews existed the test of the Water of Jealousy, conducted by the priests, in which the woman accused of adultery must consume the draught in their presence, after having offered certain sacrifices, and the effects of which established the woman's guilt or innocence ( Numbers 5:12-31 ). Among the Indians are to be found likewise various kinds of ordeals, particularly that of the red-hot iron. This test of holding a red-hot iron was also known among the Greeks. The Romans, however, with their highly developed system of dispensing justice, did not employ this means of obtaining proof. Ordeals found their chief development among the Germanic peoples, in Germany itself as well as in those kingdoms which came into existence, after the migration of the nations, in the old Roman Provinces of Gaul, Italy, and Britain. They were an essential part of the judicial system of the Germanic races in pagan times, were preserved and developed after the conversion of these peoples to Christianity, became widespread and were in constant use.

The Christian missionaries did not in general combat this practice. They opposed only the duel, and endeavoured to minimize the barbarity attendant upon the practice of ordeals. By prayer and religious ceremonies, by the hearing of holy Mass and the reception of holy communion before the ordeal, the missionaries sought to give to it a distinctly religious character. The liturgical prayers and ceremonies are to be found in Franz, "Die kirchlichen Benediktionen im Mittelalter" (Freiburg im Br., 1909), II, 364 sqq.; the celebration of Mass on the occasion of the ordeal, in Franz, "Die Messe in deutschen Mittelalter" (Freiburg im Br., 1902), 213 sqq. This attitude of the clergy in regard to ordeals may be explained if one takes into consideration the religious ideas of the times, as well as the close connection which existed between ordeals and the Germanic judicial system.

The principal means of testing the accuser as well as the accused in the Germanic judicial practice was the Oath of the Co-jurors. It being often difficult to find jurors who were properly qualified, perjury frequently resulted, and the oath could be rejected by the opposing party. In such cases, the ordeal was brought forward as a substitute in determining the truth, the guilt, or the innocence. This mode of procedure was tolerated by the Church in Germanic countries in the early Middle Ages. A thoroughgoing opposition to ordeals would have had little prospect of success. The only bishop to take measures against the practice of ordeals during the conversion to Christianity of the Germanic races was St. Avitus of Vienne (d. about 518). Later, Agobard of Lyons (d. 840) attacked the judicial duel and other ordeals in two writings ("Liber adversus legem Grundobadi and Liber contra iudicium Dei", in Migne, P.L., CIV, 125 sqq., 254 sqq.). On the other hand, shortly afterwards, Archbishop Hincmar of Reims, at the time of the matrimonial disagreement between King Lothair and Theutberga, declared himself to be of the opinion that ordeals were permissible, the support of which he must assuredly have brought forward noteworthy arguments ("De divortio Lotharii regis et Tetbergae", in Migne, P.L., CXXV, 659-80; cf. also Hincmar's "Epistola ad Hildegarium episcopum", ibid., 161 sqq.). The universal opinion among the peoples of the Frankish kingdom favoured the authorization of ordeals, and the same may be said of Britain. In 809 in the Capitulary of Aachen, Charlemagne declared: "that all should believe in the ordeal without the shadow of a doubt " (Mon. Germ. Hist., Capitularia, I, 150). In the Byzantine Empire also, we encounter in the later Middle Ages the practice of ordeals, introduced from the countries of the West.

The ordeals, strictly speaking, of the Germanic countries are the following:

  • The duel , called judicium Dei in the Book of Laws of the Burgundian King Gundobad (c. 500). (Mon. Germ. Hist., Leges, III, 537.) The outcome of the judicial duel was looked upon as the judgment of God. Only freemen were qualified to take part, and women and ecclesiastics were permitted to appoint substitutes. The duel originated in the pagan times of the Germanic peoples. In certain individual nations were to be found various usages and regulations regarding the manner in which the duel was to be conducted. The Church combatted the judicial duel ; Nicholas I declared it to be an infringement of the law of God and of the laws of the Church ("Epist. ad Carolum Calvum", in Migne, P.L., CXIX, 1144), and several later popes spoke against it. Ecclesiastics were forbidden to take part in a duel either personally or through a substitute. Only English books of ritual of the later Middle Ages contain a formula for the blessing of the shield and the sword for use in the judicial duel ; otherwise, no medieval Ritual contains prayers for these ordeals, a proof that they were not looked upon favourably by the Church.
  • The cross , in which both parties, the accuser and the accused, stood before a cross with arms outstretched in the form of a cross. Whoever first let fall his arms was defeated. The earliest information we possess regarding this form of ordeal dates from the eighth century. It was destined to replace the duel, and was prescribed by various capitularies of the ninth century, especially for disputes with ecclesiastics.
  • The hot iron , employed in various ways, not only in courts of law, where the accused in ancient times to prove his innocence must pass through fire or place his hand in the flames, but also to prove the authenticity of relics, and to reveal the truth in other ways. The judicial test by fire, as an ordeal, was ordinarily conducted in the following manner: the accused must walk a certain distance (nine feet, among the Anglo-Saxons) bearing a bar of red-hot iron in his hands, or he must pass barefooted over red-hot ploughshares (usually nine). If he remained uninjured, his innocence was considered established. Medieval ecclesiastical Rituals of various dioceses contain prayers and ceremonies for use before the undergoing of the test. The accused was also obliged to prepare himself beforehand by confession and fasting.
  • Hot water , or the cauldron. The accused must draw a stone with his naked arm from the bottom of a vessel filled with hot water, after which the arm was bound up and the bandage sealed ; three days later it was removed, and, according to the condition of his arm, the accused was considered innocent or guilty. The religious ceremonies for this ordeal were similar to those used for the ordeal of the hot iron.
  • Cold water , in use at an early date among the Germanic races, and which continued to be practised notwithstanding the prohibition of the Emperor Louis the Pious in 829. The accused, with hands and feet bound, was cast into the water; if he sank, he was considered guilty; if however he floated upon the water, his innocence was believed to be established. For this test also, the accused prepared himself by fasting, confession, and communion, and by assisting at Mass.
  • The blessed morsel ( iudicium offoe , Anglo-Saxon corsnaed, nedbread ), which consisted in the consuming by the accused of a piece of bread and a piece of cheese in the church before the altar, the morsels being blessed with special prayers. If he was able to swallow them, his innocence was established, but if not, he was considered guilty. This test was in use principally among the Anglo-saxons. It is not mentioned in the ancient Germanic codes of the Continent.
  • The suspended loaf . -- A loaf of bread was baked by a deacon from meal and blessed water, through which a stick of wood was passed. The suspected person then appeared with two witness, between whom the bread was suspended, which, if it turned in a circle, was supposed to be a proof of guilt.
  • The Psalter , which consisted in clamping into the Book of Psalms a stick of wood with a knob attached, and then placing the whole in an opening made in another piece of wood, so that the book could turn. The guilt of the accused was established if the Psalter turned from west to east, and his innocence, if it turned in a contrary direction.
  • The Examen in mensuris . -- Though forms of prayer in connection with its use have been handed down to us, they do not give us a clear idea of how this test was conducted. It would seem to have been practised but seldom. It appears to have been an ordeal decided by lot, or by the measuring of the accused by a stick of a determined length.
  • Bleeding , to discover a murderer. The person suspected of the murder was forced to look upon the body or the wounds of the victim. If the wounds then began to bleed afresh, the guilt was supposed to have been proved.
  • In addition to these forms of genuine ordeals, two other kinds are frequently considered, which, however, do not exactly correspond to the idea of a judgment of God, as in their case there is no question of a direct establishment of a fact by the interposition of God. The first of these is the oath, which is but a means of establishing the truth, accompanied by a solemn calling upon God, but which is not in any sense a judgment of God. Another example is furnished by the belief that the perjured would, sooner or later, be overtaken by death, which was God's punishment for perjury, but this was not a judicial ordeal. The same is true of the Eucharistic test. The firm belief existed that if anyone to prove his innocence should receive Holy Communion, he would, if guilty, be punished by God with instant death. Here also it is question of Divine chastisement; the judgment however not taking place by means of a judicial process. When at the Synod of Worms in 868 it was ordered that the bishops and priests should clear themselves of suspicion by the celebration of Mass, and the monks by the reception of Holy Communion, this was in reality of the same significance as the oath of purgation, by which those under shadow of suspicion swore to their innocence.

    The ecclesiastical authorities of the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as we have remarked above, were very broad-minded in their acceptation of the greater number of species of ordeals; several councils publishing regulations concerning them [cf. Hefele, "Konziliengeschichte," 2 ed., III, 611, 614, 623, 690, 732; IV, 555; Synod of Tribur (895), IV, 672; Synod of Seligenstadt (1022)]. Ordeals were practised in Britain, France, and Germany in connection with legal processes before civil as well as ecclesiastical tribunals up to and during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. From then on they were gradually discontinued.

    The tribunals of Rome never made use of ordeals. The popes were always opposed to them and began, at an early date, to take measures for their suppression. It is true that in the beginning no general decree was published regarding them; however, in individual cases concerning ordeals brought to them, the popes always pronounced against the practice, and designated it as unlawful. This course was followed by Nicholas I when, in 867, he prohibited the duel by which King Lothair sought to decide his matrimonial dispute with Theutberga. The latter had previously, through one of her servants, submitted to the test of hot water to prove her innocence, and indeed with favourable results. Upon the inquiry of the Archbishop of Mainz as to whether or not the tests of the hot water and the glowing iron could lawfully be made use of in the case of parents who were accused of having smothered their sleeping child, Stephen V (885-891) forbade these ordeals (Decr. C. 20, C. II, qu. 5). Alexander II (1061-73) likewise condemned these tests, and Alexander III (1159-81) prohibited the bishop and the clergy of the Diocese of Upsala from countenancing a duel or other ordeal imposed by law, as such a practice was disapproved of by the Catholic Church. Before long definite condemnations were published by the popes, as for example, that of Celestine III (1191-98) regarding the duel. At the Council of the Lateran in 1215, Innocent III promulgated a general decree against ordeals, which prohibited anyone from receiving the blessing of the Church before submitting to the test of the hot water or to that of the glowing iron, and confirming the validity of the previous prohibition against the duel (Can. xviii; in Hefele, l.c., V, 687).

    Various accounts in regard to the co-operation of the popes in the practice of ordeals in Frankish times which are contained in apocryphal writings have no historic value. From the twelfth century, a thorough and widespread opposition to ordeals, as a result of the stand taken by the popes, began to manifest itself generally, and whereas, at an earlier date, no one was found to support Agobard of Lyons in his opposition to these tests, which was without result, the writings of Peter Cantor (d. 1197) against the proceedings of the civil courts with regard to ordeals (in his "Verbum abbreviatum", Migne, P.L., CCV, 226 sqq.) had a far greater success. In "Tristan", Gottfried of Strasburg sets forth his disapproval of ordeals.

    As a result of the General Council of 1215, several synods of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries published prohibitions in this connection. A synod held at Valladolid in 1322 declares in Can. xxvii: "The tests of fire and water are forbidden; whoever participates in them is ipso facto excommunicated " ( Hefele, "Konziliengesch.", VI, 616). The Emperor Frederick II also prohibited the duel and other ordeals in the Constitution of Melfi, 1231 (Michael, "Geschichte des deutshen Volkes", I, 318). Nevertheless, there are to be found in Germanic code books as late as the thirteenth century, regulations for their use. However, a clearer recognition of the false ground for belief in ordeals, a more highly-developed judicial system, the fact that the innocent must be victims of the ordeal, the prohibitions of the popes and the synods, the refusal of the ecclesiastical authorities to cooperate in the carrying out of the sentence -- all these causes worked together to bring about, during the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the gradual discontinuance of the practice. The ancient test of the cold water was resuscitated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the ducking of so-called witches, consequent upon the trials for witchcraft.


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