Then Again




Three Examples of Germanic Law



The following are four examples of "trial by ordeal" taken from various sources. This method of determining guilt or innocence was widely practiced until it was outlawed by the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

I. Ordeal by Hot Water

This story is taken from Gregory of Tour's In Gloris martyrm written around AD 580.

An Arian [1] presbyter disputing with a deacon of our religion made venomous assertions against the Son of God and the Holy Ghost, as is the habit of that sect. But when the deacon had discoursed a long time concerning the reasonableness of our faith and the heretic, blinded by the fog of unbelief, continued to reject the truth, according as it is written, "Wisdom shall not enter the mind of the wicked," the former said, "Why weary ourselves with long discussions? Let acts approve the truth. Let a kettle be heated over the fire and someone's ring be thrown into the boiling water. Let him who shall take it from the heated liquid be approved as a follower of the truth, and afterwards let the other party be converted to the knowledge of this truth. And do thou also understand, 0 heretic, that in this our party will fulfill the conditions with the aid of the Holy Ghost; thou shalt confess that there is no discordance, no dissimilarity in the Holy Trinity." The heretic consented to the proposition and they separated after appointing the next morning for the trial. But the fervor of faith in which the deacon had first made this suggestion began to cool through the instigation of the enemy. Rising with the dawn he bathed his arm in oil and smeared it with ointment. But nevertheless he made the round of the sacred places and called in prayer on the Lord. What more shall I say? About the third hour they met in the market place. The people came together to see the show. A fire was lighted, the kettle was placed upon it, and when it grew very hot the ring was thrown into the boiling water. The deacon invited the heretic to take it out of the water first. But he promptly refused, saying, "Thou who didst propose this trial art the one to take it out." The deacon all of a tremble bared his arm. And when the heretic presbyter saw it besmeared with ointment he cried out: "With magic arts thou hast thought to protect thyself, that thou hast made use of these salves, but what thou hast done will not avail." While they were thus quarreling there came up a deacon from Ravenna named Iacinthus and inquired what the trouble was about. When he learned the truth, he drew his arm out from under his robe at once and plunged his right hand into the kettle. Now the ring that had been thrown in was a little thing and very light so that it was thrown about by the water as chaff would be blown about by the wind; and searching for it a long time he found it after about an hour. Meanwhile the flame beneath the kettle blazed up mightily so that the greater heat might make it difficult for the ring to be followed by the hand; but the deacon extracted it at length and suffered no harm, protesting rather that at the bottom the kettle was cold while at the top it was just pleasantly warm. When the heretic beheld this, be was greatly confused and audaciously thrust his hand into the kettle saying, "My faith will aid me." As soon as his hand had been thrust in all the flesh was boiled off the bones clear up to the elbow. And so the dispute ended.

II. Ordeal by Cold Water

This is taken from a work written by Hincmar of Rheims around AD 860.

Now the one about to be examined is bound by a rope and cast into the water because, as it is written, each one shall be holden with the cords of his iniquity. And it is evident that he is bound for two reasons: to wit, that he may not be able to practice any fraud in connection with the judgment, and that he may be drawn out at the right time if the water should receive him as innocent, so that he perish not. For as we read that Lazarus, who had been dead four days (by whom is signified each one buried under a load of crimes), was buried wrapped in bandages and, bound by the same bands, came forth from the sepulcher at the word of the Lord and was loosed by the disciples at his command; so he who is to be examined by this judgment is cast into the water bound, and is drawn forth again bound, and is either immediately set free by the judgment of the judges, being purged, or remains bound till the time of his purgation and is then examined by the court . . . And in this ordeal of cold water whoever, after the invocation of God, who is the Truth, seeks to hide the truth by a lie, cannot be submerged in the waters above which the voice of the Lord God has thundered; for the pure nature of the water recognizes as impure and therefore rejects as inconsistent with itself such human nature as has once been regenerated by the waters of baptism and is again infected by falsehood. [2]

III. Ordeal by Hot Iron.

This is taken from an anonymous English source written around AD 930.

If anyone shall have given pledge to undergo the ordeal of iron . . . let him go three days beforehand to the priest whose duty it is to bless him with the sign of the cross; and let him live upon bread, water, salt and herbs, and hear mass each one of the three days; and let him make his offering and go to the holy communion on the day when he is to be examined by the ordeal; and before he is examined, let him swear that by the law of the realm he is innocent of the charge . . . Concerning the ordeal, we enjoin in the name of God and by the command of the archbishop and of all our bishops that no one enter the church after the fire has been brought in with which the ordeal is to be heated except the priest and him who is to undergo judgment. And let nine feet be measured off from the stake to the mark, by the feet of him who is to be tried . . . And when the ordeal is ready, let two men from each side go in and certify that it is as hot as we have directed it to be. Then let an equal number from both sides enter and stand on either side of the judgment place along the church, and let them all be fasting and abstinent from their wives on the preceding night. And let the priest sprinkle them all with water, and let them bow themselves everyone to the holy water and let the holy Gospel and the cross be given them all to kiss. And no one shall mend the fire any longer than the beginning of the hallowing, but let the iron lie on the coals until the last collect. Afterwards, let it be placed on a frame, and let no one speak except to pray diligently to God, the Father Omnipotent, to deign to manifest His truth in the matter. And let the accused drink of the holy water and then let the hand with which he is about to carry the iron be sprinkled, and so let him go [to the ordeal]. Let the nine feet that were measured off be divided into three sections. In the first division, let him hold his right foot close to the stake. Then let him move his right foot across the second into the third division, where he shall cast the iron in front of him and hasten to the holy altar. Then let his hand be sealed up, and on the third day let examination be made whether it is clean or foul within the wrapper. [3] And whoever shall transgress these laws, be the ordeal of no worth in his case, but let him pay the king a fine of one hundred and twenty shillings.

[1] Arians did not hold to orthodox beliefs about the relation between God the Father and God the Son.

[2] That is, if the accused was innocent, he would sink and, if guilty, would float.

[3] That is, if the wound healed, the person was innocent.


From: A. C. Howland, trans., Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Series I, Vol. 4 (Philadelphia: University of Penn. Press, 1898) pp. 6, 10-13. Reprinted in: The Easgle, the Crescent and the Cross: Sources of Medieval History , Vol. I: c. 250-c. 1000, (New York: Appleton, Century Crofts, 1967) pp. 236-240.

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