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Ordeal

ORDEAL

One of the most ancient forms of trial in England that required the accused person to submit to a dangerous or painful test on the theory that God would intervene and disclose his or her guilt or innocence.

Trials by ordeal were a pagan custom that took on added ritual when Christianity was introduced into England. There were various ordeals, and at different times certain ordeals were reserved for people of higher rank, whereas others were used for common people. All were based on the belief that supernatural forces would rescue the innocent from perils to which they were exposed and would allow the guilty to be physically harmed.

The ordeal of water was performed by casting the suspect into a pond or river. If the suspect floated to the surface without any action of swimming, she was deemed guilty. If the suspect sank, she was pulled out and pronounced innocent. The hot water ordeal required the accused to plunge his bare arm up to the elbow into boiling water without injury. In the ordeal of the cursed morsel, the suspect swallowed a piece of dry bread with a feather in it. If the suspect did not choke, he was found innocent. The ordeal of the red-hot iron required the accused to carry a heated poker weighing one, two, or three pounds over a certain distance. After that, the suspect's hand was bound, and in three days the bandages were removed. If the wound had not become infected, the suspect was pronounced innocent. A variation of this ordeal required the accused person to walk barefoot and blindfolded over nine red-hot plowshares placed at uneven distances. The ordeals of the red-hot iron and the plowshares were also called the fire ordeals and were often reserved for nobility.

Evidence from very early cases indicates that there were more acquittals than convictions by ordeal, but the severity of the methods may have encouraged cheating. It is impossible to tell exactly how compelling the psychological stresses of the ordeal were, but all were administered amidst the ritual of the church at the high moment of the mass. In time church leaders came to disapprove of the participation of clergymen in a somewhat pagan tradition, and in 1215 priests were forbidden to take part in trials by ordeal. In remote places, the practice continued for a time as priests disobeyed the order, but eventually trial by ordeal was eliminated. This made the criminal law of England unenforceable because the chief means of determining guilt or innocence had been abolished.

The people were reluctant to accept a system that permitted a judge to determine the facts in a criminal case. That would be replacing the voice of God with that of a mortal man. For a while, the law enforcers imprisoned persons with a general reputation for wrongdoing, banished those guilty of moderately serious crimes, and required pledges of security to ensure the peacefulness of persons accused of small crimes. When these measures proved unsatisfactory, judges began calling upon groups of people in the community to make decisions. As many as forty-eight neighbors might be asked whether the accused was guilty or innocent. Their opinions were based on what they knew or could find out about the case and not on the presentation of evidence or testimony. This procedure was a forerunner of the modern jury.

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ordeal

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.

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ordeal

ordeal an ancient test of guilt or innocence, especially among Germanic peoples, by subjection of the accused to severe pain, survival of which was taken as divine proof of innocence. In Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, until its abolition in 1215, it took four forms: fire ordeal, hot water ordeal, cold water ordeal, and trial by combat; later applied to analogous modes of determining innocence or guilt found in other societies.

Recorded in Old English and of Germanic origin, the word is related to German urteilen ‘give judgement’, from a base meaning ‘share out’. The word is not found in Middle English (except once in Chaucer's Troilus); the modern use begins in late 16th-century accounts of these traditional tests.

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"ordeal." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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ordeal

ordeal ancient mode of trial by subjection to a dangerous physical test OE.; trying experience XVII. OE. ordāl, ordēl (whence AL. ordālium, etc.) = OS. urdēli (Du. oordeel), OHG. urteili (G. urteil) judgement :- Gmc. *uzdailjam, corr. to OE. ādǣlan, OS. ādēlian, OHG, ar-, irteilan (G. urteilen) adjudge as one's share, give judgement:- Gmc. *uzdailjan share out, f. *uz- out- + *dailjan (Goth. -dailjan) DEAL1. In ME. recorded only in the form ordal, prob. from medL. ordālium; thereafter in forms also dependent on medL. (ordale, ordele) until XVII, when the present form ordeal became current through etymol. assoc. with DEAL1.

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"ordeal." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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ordeal

or·deal / ôrˈdēl/ • n. 1. a painful or horrific experience, esp. a protracted one: the ordeal of having to give evidence. 2. hist. an ancient test of guilt or innocence by subjection of the accused to severe pain, survival of which was taken as divine proof of innocence.

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"ordeal." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"ordeal." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ordeal-1

"ordeal." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved October 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/ordeal-1

ordeal

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