ordeal, ancient legal custom whereby an accused person was required to perform a test, the outcome of which decided the person's guilt or innocence. By an ordeal, appeal was made to divine authority to decide the guilt or innocence of one accused of a crime or to choose between disputants. This custom was known to ancient peoples as well as to those of fairly advanced material culture. Until recent times the ordeal was practiced in many parts of Asia and Africa. In the early Middle Ages it was widely used to settle legal questions in Western Europe. In England it was a regular form of trial and persisted until trial by jury became common. Forms of the ordeal varied with the locality and with the nature of the crime. The ordeal by fire—walking through fire or putting the hand into a flame—was common, and there were other fiery ordeals, such as walking on hot plowshares or plunging the hand into molten metal. Usually it was believed that if the accused were innocent God would spare him. Commonly there was a lapse of several days before the injuries were inspected; then someone considered a competent judge decided from the severity of the injuries as to innocence or guilt. One form of ordeal, the trial by water, was that used to determine whether or not an accused woman was a witch. The woman was bound and cast into water that had been blessed. If the water rejected her—i.e., if she floated—she was considered guilty. If the water received her, she was considered innocent. A common form of ordeal in contentions between two parties was the submission to some trial of chance, e.g., casting lots. Allied to this in spirit was the duel, which supposedly worked on the principle that God would favor the cause of the righteous in the battle. The trial by battle or by combat (sometimes called a judicial duel or wager of battle) was a recognized procedure in the Middle Ages. It was introduced from France to England after the Norman Conquest. In this trial, one of the contending parties issued a wager of battle, or challenge. Both parties under oath declared their assertions truthful; a duel was fought, and the victor was awarded the decision. In case one of the parties was a woman, a child, or a feeble man, he or she could be represented by a champion, i.e., a knight who was a relative or who had agreed to fight. As time went on a class of professional champions arose. The Roman Catholic Church from early times disapproved of the ordeal despite its apparently religious aspect, and in 1215 it categorically forbade the clergy to take part in such ceremonies.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.