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trial by ordeal

trial by ordeal was used to decide the guilt or innocence of a suspected criminal by invoking divine justice. There were several forms of ordeal in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England. In one the accused held a red hot iron or put his hand in a flame. The hand was then bound up and examined after several days. If the wound was healing, the accused was deemed innocent but if it festered, this was believed to show guilt. In ordeal by cold water, used particularly for villeins, the accused was thrown, bound, into a pond or river. If he sank, he was deemed to be innocent, but if he floated he was regarded as guilty—the water was rejecting him. In ordeal by accursed morsel, the accused was required to eat a piece of meat with a feather or other foreign body in it, and was adjudged guilty if he choked. The ordeal was administered within a religious service. When in 1215 the Lateran Council of the church forbade clergy to take part in ordeals, they fell into disuse and were eventually replaced by jury trial.

Maureen Mulholland

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