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ORDEAL is a divinatory practice that has a judiciary function. The word reached the English language from the medieval ordalium, the latinized form of the German word Urteil ("sentence, judgment"). Two kinds of judiciary ordeals may be distinguished: those prescribed by a judge or judicial body as a form of trial and those that also involve the sentencing and punishment of the accused. Ordeals of the first type are based mostly upon the drawing of lots and the identification of the guilty party among a group of suspects. Except for those that involve the simple drawing of lots, it could be said that every ordeal is designed to prove definitively the guilt or innocence of the accused. For example, a Shoshoni medicine man would take two hairs from the accused and place them in his own tent. If they had disappeared the day after, it was seen as a proof of innocence; if the hairs still remained, it indicated guilt. Ordeals of the second type are those that place the accused in mortal risk. If the accused escapes death, he or she is judged innocent; if he or she dies, the death is considered the due punishment of proven guilt. The most common ordeals of this sort are ordeal by poison, in which the accused is forced to ingest poisonous substances (if innocent, the substances will be vomited up); ordeal by water, in which the accused risks drowning; and ordeal by fire, in which the accused risks burning to death.

Types and Sources of Judiciary Ordeal

The most ancient body of laws that includes judiciary ordeals is the Code of Hammurabi (Babylonia, 17921750 bce), which prescribes the so-called ordeal of the river, in evidence during the Mesopotamian era as early as the twenty-fourth century bce. In the ordeal of the river (which belongs to the second category of ordeal because it includes sentencing and punishment), a woman accused of witchcraft or adultery was thrown into the river. If she drowned, she was considered to have been guilty, and if she survived, she was absolved. It is interesting to note that those two crimes statistically outnumber all others in the comparative documentation of ordeal and that, in the case of witchcraft, the Code of Hammurabi (stele 5, lines 3356) seems to have imposed the ordeal (or what today would be called "the burden of proof") on the accuser and not, as one would expect, on the accused. Another application of ordeal as a judiciary instrument dates back to the high Middle Ages. Unlike the Code of Hammurabi, which records the laws of the Mesopotamian civilization, ordeal in medieval times represents an aberrant episode in European legal history that has its foundations in Roman jurisprudence. The appearance of ordeal in European culture can be directly attributed to Roman and Christian adaptation of a Germanic custom. Ordeal was adopted because it had been included in the tribal laws of the various Germanic populations (Lex Visigothorum, Lex Burgundiorum, Lex Salica, etc.) and because it had also come to be regarded as a manifestation of divine justice, even to the point of being called "the judgment of God." For an example of the interaction of these two frames of reference, the one civic and the other religious, one can refer to the Lex Frisonorum, which prescribed the drawing of lots in the case of a crime for which more than one person was suspected. Three elements enjoined for this ordeal gave it a consecrated character: the prayer to God that he might reveal the guilty party; the request for a priest to officiate at the rite; and the obligation to execute the rite in a church or, at least, in the presence of a reliquary. The religious frame of reference was eliminated because of the negative attitude of the church, which on more than one occasion forbade the clergy to lend itself to the execution of ordeal; gradually, this led to the exclusion of ordeal by judicial institutes as well. Hence its presence in Western culture should be considered episodic and anything but characteristic. The Lex Salica called for ordeals in which the accused was tested for resistance to pain and for ordeals that involved the drawing of lots. This judiciary ordeal corresponds to the practice of inflicting torture on the accused to extort confessions. The most common use of torture in trial by pain involved boiling water, but a law of 803 ce speaks of trial by sword. In the form of dueling, trial by sword appears to be the most ancient and most easily verified trial of the Germanic tradition. Recourse to a duel between accuser and accused took place when the accused could not find enough witnesses willing to swear to his innocence (the graver the crime, the more witnesses he had to produce). A refusal to duel by the accuser in itself constituted proof of the innocence of the accused, but a refusal by the accused proved his guilt. According to the Edictus Rotharii (643), the accused could be represented by a substitute. He could also refuse to duel, if he submitted to a different kind of trial. One trial by sword that substituted for the duel, called ad novem vomeres, was practiced by the Thuringians. In an ordeal that could be called trial both by sword and by pain, the accused was made to walk barefoot over nine flaming plowshares. The symbolism of the plowshares in contrast to the sword is evident: This was more appropriate for farmers than was the duel, the typical ordeal for gentlemen. As an ordeal for gentlemen, the duel endured as a standard feature of chivalric codes and has survived even in modern times as a private solution to disputes, sometimes tolerated and at other times expressly forbidden by law.

Biblical Precedents

The medieval concept of ordeal as "the judgment of God" probably found precedent in the Germanic tradition, but another of its precedents was most certainly found in the Bible. One reads there that judgment came from God through lots (Prv. 16:33) and that the drawing of lots resolved conflicts (Prv. 18:18). In Joshua 7:1422, the judiciary drawing of lots to discover the violator of a divine interdiction was elaborated: First, the tribe of the guilty party was identified, then his family, then his house, and finally the individual himself. It should be noted, however, that the same procedure, from tribe to individual, was also used for the designation of Saul as the first king (1 Sm. 10:1724), and that Saul himself used it as a judiciary method to discover the violator of a civic and not a divine law (1 Sm. 14:4045). In view of his royal position, which detached him from tribal regulations, Saul put to one side all the tribes of Israel and to the other himself and his son Jonathan. The lots designated him and his son, and as the choice was between them alone, the son was named guilty by the lots. In this phase of the history of Israel, the same ordeal was thus used in identifying a guilty man, whether he had broken civic or divine laws, and in the selection of the first king. This would seem to signify not only that a royal prescription is equal to a divine one but also that the acquisition of royalty is itself tantamount to a violation of divine law. In effect, the Bible describes the arrival of monarchy in Israel as a sinful usurpation of divine authority (1 Sm. 8), so God himself is entrusted to designate the usurper as one who has violated divine law. In substance, it was a method that freed the community from the responsibility of decision.

Ordeal and Power

It could be said that recourse to ordeal is always liberating, considering the risk of uncertainty that lies in decision making, though this understanding of ordeal depends on a typically Western concept of responsibility. Ordeal, in the biblical case, reflects a system of interdependence among the divine, the royal, and the judiciary. In abstract terms, this interdependence is seen in the formula of a king who, through divine grace, administers justice in the name of a god, or as if he were a god. But in concrete terms, the royal institution is supported by the heredity of the office, whereby a king becomes king by virtue of being the son of the preceding king. Nor can he substitute for a god as supreme judge, because he is not endowed with divine omniscience and also because he himself could become involved in a judgment as accuser or accused. As in the case of Saul, these contradictions can be resolved.

Ordeal and royalty

As one who has not inherited the throne, the first king is designated by the drawing of lots, or it is believed that he has been so designated. A well-known example of this recourse to ordeal as legendary justification of the title to the throne is that of Romulus, who became the first king of Rome because he saw twice the number of vultures as did his brother Remus. Thothmose III (15041450 bce), one of the greatest of Egyptian pharaohs, prided himself on having been designated for the throne by the oracle of Amun. If a king is involved in a judiciary procedure, he is most likely to figure as the injured party or as the object of betrayal. This crime, treason, required a "judgment from God" in the Middle Ages. It should also be noted that the only ordeal known to have existed in the Inca Empire concerned betrayal: The party accused of treason was held for one day in a cell with dangerous beasts or serpents; if he came out alive, he was absolved. However, most instances of ordeal that involved interdependence between the judicial, the divine, and the royal occurred in Egypt, where this institution had its origin. In the classical model that Egypt presents, the pharaoh takes the place of a god or is a god on earth and, as the beneficiary of divine omniscience, exercises judicial power in concurrence with the divine oracles from whom sentences were often asked. There were moments in Egyptian historyfor instance, in the twenty-first dynasty (1085950 bce)when the justice exacted by a divine oracle seems to have prevailed over that administered by the king or his courts; but there are also instances of oracular sentences being challenged, with consequent recourse to the royal tribunal.

Ordeal and divinity

The biblical precedent of the medieval "judgment of God" must be considered not only to explain the adaptation of Roman Christian ethos to Germanic custom but also for the phenomenological problem presented by the relationship between ordeal and divinity. Ordeal is an autonomous and not a cultural ritual. Thus, in some historical contexts, that relationship is considered an accessory, almost a reinforcement of the effectiveness of ordeal as a judicial method. At any rate, numerous cases of ordeals imposed for their own sake, without invocations or evocations of divinity, have been documented. The Mesopotamian river ordeal provides for no divine intervention; in fact, the Code of Hammurabi allows two alternative courses of actionordeal or divine intervention. For one charge, adultery, the woman accused can demonstrate her innocence either by swearing "to the god" (stele 21, lines 6876) or by submitting herself to the river ordeal (stele 21, lines 7782; stele 22, lines 16). The judiciary function of swearing "by God," which persists even in the judicial halls of the present time, results from the adaptation of the concept of ordeal to the logic of a polytheistic or monotheistic religion, in which a god who punishes perjurers takes the place of the punishment implicit in the trial by ordeal. The god by whom one swears is, in substance, evoked as the judge; historically, these are usually sun gods or gods of enlightenment and, as such, omniscient. Raffaele Pettazzoni (1955) has called this judiciary role the principal function of an omniscient god. The Mesopotamian sun god Shamash, by whom one swore as proof of one's innocence, was called "lord of judgment" (bel dini ) and was regarded as the father of Kettu (Justice) and Mesharu (Rectitude). The Bible does not provide evidence of judiciary oaths, but biblical oaths have the quality of a pact, a vow, or a curse. The most severe Hebrew sects forbade even the taking or oaths, as did Christ, according to Matthew (5:3337). Nevertheless, an ordeal was called for in cases of suspected adultery and was carried out as if it were an offering to God (Nm. 5:1131). This is the so-called oblation of jealousy. The oblation to God served to evoke his presence; in front of God, the suspected woman swore to her innocence. The possibility of a lie did not require divine intervention: The punishment could be delegated to humans who administered a potion called "bitter water" that the woman had to ingest; if she was guilty, it would make her dropsical. Oaths were common, however, in Roman law, which never prescribed true ordeal as a judiciary process. The several cases in which the accused himself, outside of legal procedure, requested divine intervention to prove his innocence are considered exceptional. The most famous of such cases is that of Quinta Claudia, a Vestal Virgin accused or suspected of immorality, who submitted herself to the judgment of the Magna Mater (204 bce). While oaths in a judiciary action may separate divine intervention from ordeal, there are cases in which the opposite is true. Sometimes the ordeal itself is divinized. Among the Sudanese of the interior (Azaude and neighboring peoples), for example, the poison used in an ordeal is personified and assigned divine attributes. Because evidence is scanty, it is not possible to ascertain how much this description of an indigenous custom depends on European interpretation (which tends to give priority to divine figures); but it is a fact that such a process has been found even among the descendants of Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. Ordeal by poison is still common among the so-called Maroons (or "Bush Negroes") of French Guiana and Surinam, the descendants of slaves who rebelled and took refuge in the forest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This ordeal is, however, associated with an invocation to Odun, the god of justice. The name of this god goes back to the denomination (odu ) used by the Sudanese of the western African coast (e.g., the Yorulas) to designate the signs of their geomantic prophetic system. This demonstrates the prophetic and autonomous character of ordeal more than it does its substitution for "God's judgment."

Ordeal as Prophetic Battle

This article has considered ordeal as a prophetic form with a judiciary purpose. In this sense it has defined the characteristics of dueling, starting with its Germanic, medieval formulation as trial by sword. In the Germanic tradition also, Tacitus (Germania 10) describes a functional inversion of the duel from, not as a prophetic form with a judiciary function, but as a battle with a prophetic function. Before battle, the Germans captured an enemy soldier and forced him to fight against one of their own warriors. The outcome of the fight was taken as an omen regarding the outcome of the upcoming battle. This context seems to broaden the definition of ordeal, but in reality it extends the concept to the point of rendering it meaningless, precisely because of its functional reversal of the judiciary practice. On the other hand, this sort of weakening due to reversals of perspective conveniently brings ordeal into the field of prophecy. Ordeal becomes a judicial process, in whatever form an oracular response is sought. The constant recourse to oathinterpretable as ordeal, as has been notedseems to provide evidence for such a process. Nor is it necessarily true that, in the Germanic practice of the duel as an ordeal before battle, the prophetic function of the ordeal is predominant at the expense of the judiciary function. In fact, on the level of phenomenology, the battle itself can be regarded as judgment, as the solution to a dispute between two human groups (nations, tribes, clans, etc.). Battle, too, can be seen as an ordeal. The difference between reality and appearance lies not so much in facts as in interpretation. An example is the case of the battle between the Horatii and the Curiatii: It is not worthwhile to ask if it really took place or if it is only legend, because what matters for this article's purposes is the interpretive model it offers. This discussion will begin with the disputes involved in this battle: A routine case of Roman farmers trespassing on Alba Longa territory during the reign of Tullus Hostilius and of Alban farmers encroaching upon Roman territory. The conflict was to be decided by a war. Tullus Hostilius called the gods to witness before the war, meticulously following ritual. The Roman king took great care to characterize this war as "holy" (pium bellum is the Latin expression used by Livy), what would today be called a "judgment of God." The war, which one might call a figurative ordeal, was then replaced by a genuine ordeal: The Romans and Albans agreed to make three Roman champions (the Horatii) and three Alban champions (the Curiatii) battle each other, designating the outcome of this battle as the solution to the conflict. The model provided by this event can be used to interpret other situations in which war figures, whether in the search for a common structure in legendary wars such as the Trojan War, or for the purpose of classifying ethnological material pertinent to war. The Trojan War, for instance, was a conflict of which it could be said had a judiciary nature (Menelaus against Paris) and that turned into a war between Greeks and Trojans; it even contains evidence of recourse to a duel (Achilles against Hector). To examine this from the point of view of ordeal, one could speak of a dilatory process (from duel to war) and a reductive process (from war to duel). This pattern of dilation and reduction can be applied theoretically as if the subject of disagreement allowed the two modes indifferently. A purely quantitative distinction between war and duel is possible and in fact fully justified by ethnological documentation of cultures that do not have wars of conquest in the Western sense, but in which every conflict seems to assume the aspect of ordeal. Some of these cultures documented by ethnological research know no type of war but resolve every type of conflict by dueling, even between two groups or tribes. Among the Inuit (Eskimo), an ordeal-duel (by blows) between two champions of opposing sides took the place of war. Similarly, the Colombians resolved all hostilities between individuals, villages, and tribes with an ordeal-duel. This is also true of the natives of North America (e.g., the Tlingit), South America (the Botocudo), Africa (the Ashanti), and Australia. Even when one can speak of war, or an extended ordeal, reduction is always noticeable: It can influence the number of combatants, the arms used, the length of battle, and so forth. Among Northwest Coast Indians war between two villages ceased with the death in battle of one of the chiefs. The equivalence of war and dueling is obvious in these cases, and it is not at all exceptional that the death of the chief signals defeat almost everywhere. Although battle requires a great number of participants, only two people count as far as the ordeal is concerned. The outcome of the ordeal is always binary, because there is a choice between two eventual outcomes that are equally probable before the confrontation takes place, just as in the biblical ordeal, cited above, conducted by successive alternates. This duality is well expressed by the Latin term for war, bellum, which derives from duellum.

Fighting as ordeal, whether war or duel, reveals its ritual nature through the rules that govern it. On the other hand, ritual fighting is found in religious contexts of various kinds, but perhaps the reduction of fighting to ordeal, even though problematic, can be deduced through recourse to documentary material, as is the case with ritual fighting that precedes tribal initiation ceremonies. Initiation fighting is found in various forms and with various functions: between initiates, between initiates and initiators, between the newly initiated and the women, and so on. But to reach an interpretation that illuminates ordeal, each case should be viewed as proving the ability of the young to be admitted into the adult community. Naturally, there are other ways of testing the battle skills of the young; generally, one would speak of athletics rather than of ritual battle. All athletics, which for the most part have been connected with tribal initiations but which in ancient Greece assumed an independent development, can be looked at for their meaning as ordeal. (The custom of wagering on the winner still attests to the ordeal character of athletics.) A "judgment of God" was derived from the Greek athletic arenas, as from medieval ordeal. Athletic trials pertained to the divine; the verdict, or outcome of the competitions, lent a "divine" prestige to the victorious city. As for the connection with battle, it should be remembered that every competition derives from a form of fighting; it could be said that the athletic arena figuratively substitutes for the duel, just as dueling figuratively takes the place of war. According to the logic of these figurative substitutions, athletic contests and wars were incompatible, in the sense that if the former could figuratively substitute for the latter, it became illogical to hold both athletic events and wars at the same time. Every war between Greek cities was suspended during the celebration of the Olympics, as if the decision that had up to that point been delegated to the armies could be deferred to the games. This "as if" implies a theory that, although belied by the fact that real wars were only delayed and not entirely replaced by the games, permits a glimpse a quality in Greek athletics that is not compatible with today's concept of sports: It could be said that they were more "war" than "sport." Angelo Brelich (1961) has brought to light the initiation-athletic elements of certain traditional Greek wars (between Cretan cities, between Eretria and Chalcis, between the Athenians and the Boeotians, between Argos and Sparta, etc.). More "ordeal" than "game," one may say, remembering that, according to one tradition, the first Olympic competition, a race, was instituted in order to establish the succession to the throne of Elis. For its game-war-ordeal-prophecy connection, a Mexican tradition is emblematic. Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, lost a Mexican ball game against the king of Texcoco, who had wagered his kingdom against three turkeys. The outcome of the game was to verify, with the defeat of Moctezuma, the truth of the prophecy of the arrival of the Spanish, who would conquer Mexico. On the other hand, every game, when the results are binding (as, for instance, in a game of chance), loses the quality of entertainment and assumes the dramatic aspect of ordeal. For such as interpretive orientation, consider the conclusion of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who notes how certain trials by ordealunderstood by him to be among the cleromantic practicesare not too far removed from the spirit of today's "games of chance" (La mentalité primitive, Paris, 1925, p. 256).

Ordeal as Initiation Ritual

To return to the probatory, and therefore ordeal-like, function of the ritual battle in tribal initiation contexts, it can be said that, in the abstract, not only these but all the trials to which initiates are subjected are more or less comparable to the various known forms of ordeal. It is not difficult to compare initiation trials of resistance to pain with certain trials by ordeal in which such resistance serves to demonstrate the innocence of the accused. Ordeal is represented also by torture in a judiciary function; among the initiation trials inventoried by ethnologists, genuine torture does indeed appear. Along the same line of interpretation, it is not difficult to move from tribal initiation to initiations into certain cults where trial by ordeal becomes the evidence of a superhuman reality in which the initiate takes part. From another point of view, one can speak of the demonstration of exceptional powers, acquired in the circle of a given religious form. The best known of these powers is the one that allows a person to walk unharmed over burning brands or red-hot stones. This may be called an ordeal by fire, very similar to the ordeal of the nine plowshares of the Thuringians. The diffusion of this trial by fire is remarkable. In ancient Latium Vetus the so-called Hirpi Sorani, cult followers of Apollo Soranus on Mount Soracte, practiced it. Walkers on burning brands or red-hot stones have been observed in ancient Cappadocia, India, China, Japan, the Fiji Islands, Tahiti, Yucatán, and elsewhere. But for edification on the religious level, Mazdaism is highly representative as a religion that simultaneously confers on ordeal, called varah in the Avestan tongue, the double value of the judiciary and the initiatory. In the Denkard (7.5.46), a ninth-century Pahlavi text, can be seen the work of Zarathushtra. The text indicates at least thirty-three ordeals to "determine who will be absolved, and who condemned." In the Avesta, there are constant allusions to the methods and functions of ordeal. From several passages (Yashts 12.3; Afrinaqan 3.9), it would seem necessary to extract a ritual acknowledgment (by ordeal) from the initiate whom the priest, acting as judge, submits to a trial by fireperhaps immersion of the hand in boiling oil (more precisely, animal and vegetable fat). Elsewhere (Vendidad 4.46), trials of an ethical nature are found. However, for the purpose of religious edification, they are figuratively absorbed in trial by boiling liquid. There are also true judiciary ordeals: The accused "must drink water containing sulphur, water containing gold, which produce the proof of guilt, prove the lie with which he opposes the judge and deceives Mithra" (Vendidad 4.54). (This potion used for ordeal is spoken of in Vendidad 4.55 as well.) Finally, the judiciary function and initiatory function fuse in an eschatological perspective in which a supreme ordeal is the essential proof and brings about the ensuing sentence of reward or condemnation. In this regard, one reads in one of the five Gathas attributed to Zarathushtra that initiates will have to distinguish themselves from sinners (noninitiates) in order to have "the compensation that will be attributed to them by the ordeal of molten metal." In conclusion, ordeal is not an accessory element of Mazdaism; rather it produces, within the boundaries of a rite or ritual, the two main characteristics of this religion: dualism and attention to asha, a term that can be translated as both "youth" and "justice" (the "just order"). Mazdean dualism responds to the binary code with which ordeal is expressed. Attention to the asha corresponds to the judiciary function that, although not always in equal measure, is found in every ordeal in every context.

See Also



In regard to divination by means of ordeal, one text is indispensable: La divination: Études recueillies, 2 vols., edited by André Caquot and Marcel Leibovici (Paris, 1968). On the medieval "judgment of God," see Hermann Nottarp's Gottesurteilstudien (Munich, 1956). Also for the Middle Ages and ordeal as war, see Kurt-Georg Cram's Iudicium belli: Zum Rechtscharakter des Krieges im deutschen Mittelalter (Münster, 1955). About war as ordeal, see M. R. Davie's, La guerre dans les sociétés primitives (Paris, 1931). On the relationship between initiations and wars in Greece, see Angelo Brelich's Guerre, agoni, e culti nella Grecia arcaica (Bonn, 1961). For ordeal-oath in connection with divine omniscience, see Raffaele Pettazzoni's L'onni-scienza di Dio (Turin, 1955). For the formal connection between games of chance and ordeal, besides the Lévy-Bruhl work cited in the text, see also Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens, translated by R. F. C. Hull (London, 1949).

New Sources

As far as ordeal in classical antiquity is concerned see: Henk S. Versnel, "Pepremenos: The Cnidian Curse Tablets and the Ordeal by Fire." In Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence: Proceedings of the Second International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, Organized by the Swedish Institute at Athens, 2224 Nov. 1991, pp. 145154 (Stockholm, 1994); Andrea Piras, "Le tre lance del giusto Wiraz e la freccia di Abaris: ordalia e volo estatico tra iranismo ed ellenismo," Studi Orientali e Linguistici 7 (2000): 95109; Peter T. Struck, "The Ordeal of the Divine Sign: Divination and Manliness in Archaic and Classical Greece," in Andreia. Studies in Manliness and Courage in Classical Antiquity, ed. by Ralph M. Rosen and Ineke Sluiter, pp. 167186 (Leiden-Boston, 2003); Karel van der Toorn, "Ordeal Procedures in the Psalms and the Passover Meal." Vetus Testamentum 38 (1988): 427445; and Frank Charles Fensham, "Ordeal by Battle in the Ancient Near East and the Old Testament," in Studi in onore di Edoardo Volterra, vol. 6, pp. 127135 (Milan, 1971).

Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1986) represents the most important monograph on the subject. The evolution from medieval judicial praxis to modern times is also investigated from a juridical perspective. Among the most important studies, see: Peter Browe, ed., De ordaliis, 2 vols. (Rome, 19321933); La preuve, 2 vols. (Recueils de ls Société Jean Bodin pour l'histoire comparative des institutions, 17; Brussels, 1965); Wolfgang Schield, Alte Gerichtsbarkeit. Vom Gottesurteil bis zu Beginn der modernen Rechtssprechung (Munich, 1980); John Baldwin, "The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals," Speculum 36 (1961): 613636; Rebecca Colman, "Reason and Unreason in Early Medieval Law," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4 (1974): 571591; Colin Morris, "Judicium Dei: The Social and Political Significance of the Ordeal in the Eleventh Century," Studies in Church History 12 (1975), pp. 95111; Oliver Guillot, "La participation au duel judiciaire de témoins de condition serve dans l'Ile-de-France au XIe siècle," in Droit privé et institutions regionales. Etudes historiques offerts à Jean Yver, pp. 345360 (Paris, 1976); Paul Hyams, "Trial by Ordeal: The Key to Proof in the Early Common Law," in On the Laws and Customs of England. Essays in Honor of Samuel E. Thorne, ed. by Morris Arnold et al., pp. 90126 (Chapel Hill, 1981); Winfried Trusen, "Das Verbot der Gottesurteile und der Inquisitionsprozeß. Zum Wandel des Strafverfahrens unter dem Einfluß des gelehrten Rechts im Spätmittelalter," in Sozialer Wandel im Mittelalter. Wahrnehmungsformen, Erklärungsmuster, Regelungsmechanismen, ed. by Jürgen Miethke and Klaus Schreiner, pp. 235247 (Sigmaringen, 1994); Gerhard Köbler, "Welchen Gottes Urteil ist das Gottesurteil des Mittelalters?" in Vom mittelalterlichen Recht zur neuzeitlichen Rechtswissenschaft. Bedingungen, Wege und Probleme der europäischen Rechtsgeschichte (Festschrift Winifried Trusen), ed. by Norbert Brieskorn, Paul Mikat, Daniela Müller, Dietmar Willoweit, pp. 89108 (Paderborn, 1994); Stephen D. White, "Proposing the Ordeal and Avoiding It: Strategy and Power in Western French Litigation, 1050 to 1110," in Power and Society in the Twelfth Century, ed. by Thomas N. Bisson, pp. 89123 (Philadelphia, 1995); Stephen D. White, "Imaginary Justice: The End of the Ordeal and the Survival of the Duel," Medieval Perspectives 13 (1998): 3255.

Magical features in ordeal are well outlined by Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971); Peter Brown, "Society and the Supernatural. A Medieval Change," Daedalus 104 (1975): 133151 (reprinted in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity [Berkeley, 1982], pp. 302332); Charles Radding, "Evolution of Medieval Mentalities: A Cognitive-Structural Approach," American Historical Review 83 (1978): 577597; Charles Radding, "Superstition to Science: Nature, Fortune and the Passing of the Medieval Ordeal," American Historical Review 84 (1979): 945969.

Dario Sabbatucci (1987)

Translated from Italian by Miriam Friedman
Revised Bibliography


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A method of determining the guilt or innocence of a suspected or accused person by subjecting him to dangerous physical tests, the results of which are regarded as manifestations of divine judgment. It is essentially a form of divination. The practice is very old and has almost a universal distribution. It was widespread among the ancient Semitic and Indo-European peoples, especially among the Germans and the Slavs, and is found also in India, China, the Pacific islands, Australia, and Africa. While attested for the Americas, the practice is confined largely to Chile and Mexico.

Forms of the Ordeal. Among the numerous forms of the ordeal, several main types may be distinguished: ordeals by poison, by water, by hot iron, by fire, and by combat.

The poison ordeal is found principally among the peoples of West Africa. The accused must drink a concoction that produces vomiting or narcotic effects. If immediate vomiting results, and the accused suffers no ill effects, he is judged to be innocent. On the other hand, if he becomes dizzy and loses control of his faculties, he is thought to be guilty. Witch doctors play an important role in the poison ordeal, and the accused person often betrays his guilt through a fear that is heightened by the superstitious beliefs of his environment.

Ordeal by water is already mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi (Num 2, 132), and was widely practiced among the peoples of Europe. The accused person often a woman accused of adulterywas required to plunge into deep water, preferably running water. If the person sank at once and did not rise immediately to the surface, he was adjudged to be innocent. If, however, he did not sink at once, or arose quickly to the surface and floated, it was thought that the water rejected him and that he was therefore guilty. Boiling water and boiling oil also were used in ordeals. The accused was required to plunge his hand and forearm into the hot liquid and his guilt or innocence was determined at once, or after three days, according to the greater or less degree of injury suffered by his hand or arm.

The hot iron ordeal was common among the ancient peoples of Europe and Asia and is still found in certain primitive cultures. The accused was required to grasp a heated ploughshare or to carry a piece of heated iron a prescribed number of steps. He was judged guilty or innocent either immediately, or after three days, according to the extent of injury suffered in this trial. An Irish ordeal requiring an accused woman to run her tongue across a red-hot adze is mentioned, but this practice does not seem to have been common.

The fire ordeal is found to have been practiced especially in Asia among the Hindus and other peoples within the orbit of their influence. The accused person was required to walk over burning charcoal or other material and, if unharmed, was judged to be innocent on the ground that the fire, a living force, refrained from injuring him.

Bibliography: a. e. crawley et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 9:50733, a comprehensive world survey. l. leitmayer, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:113032. r. thurswald, "Gottesurteil," Reallexikon der Assyriologie, ed. e. ebeling and b. meissner (Berlin 1928) 4.2:44148.

[m. r. p. mcguire]

In the Bible. The bitter-water ordeal of Numbers5.1131 is the only clear example of an ordeal in the Bible. The text appears to be a conflation of two separate but complementary forms of the ordeal ritual: that of the execratory oath [see oaths (in the bible)] and that of the drinking of the "bitter water." The results of both were interpreted as judgments of God. Although the latter aspect smacked somewhat of magic, its purpose was sacred: to appeal to God for a decision on the guilt or innocence of the accused. A woman accused of adultery, holding in her hand a cereal offering (without oil or frankincense), was presented to a priest. He then sprinkled some dust from the floor of the tent over a vessel of water and had her take an oath of execration (Num 5.21). After washing down the solution of ink in which the accompanying curses were written, the priest poured it into the now "bitter water," then waved a part of the cereal offering before the Lord, and had the woman drink the mixture. If the woman was innocent, no harm befell her and she remained fruitful. If she was guilty, the dreaded consequences of the curse took place, usually in the form of frequent miscarriages. If guilty, a woman would apparently prefer to confess and take her chances on a lesser punishment than to suffer the dire consequences of the oath. Even if the bitter-water ritual is ultimately traceable to pagan practices and betrays magical overtones, the Biblical writer has deliberately placed it into a sacral context by attributing its effectiveness to the powerful hand of God (Num 5.21). It is at least more humane than the corresponding prescription in the Code of Hammurabi.

One aspect of the golden calf episode in Exodus 32.124 also reflects the bitter-water ordeal; the idolatrous image is ground into powder and given to the Israelites to be drunk (20).

The ordeal was present to some extent also in the custom of seeking decisions by lot, as when Achan's offense was discovered (Jos 7.1326) and Jonathan's breach of the ērem (1 Sam 14.3645) was revealed. For this reason the high priest's breastplate containing the deciding lots urim and thummim was called the "breastplate of judgment" (Exodus 28.15). Memory of the ordeal may also have influenced the Prophets to speak of "poisoned waters" of sinfulness contaminating the people of Israel (Jeremiah 8.14; 9.15; 23.14; Ez 23.3134).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek (1676). e. kutsch, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 2:180809. r. press, "Das Ordal im alten Israel," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissesnschaft 51 (1933) 12140. p. van imschoott, Théologie d l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 195456) 2:26365.

[e. j. ciuba]

The Medieval Ordeal. The ordeal in medieval Europe was a form of judicial trial whereby the innocence or guilt of accused persons was made to depend upon some feat of physical endurance. The result was regarded as definitive proof and as a judgment of God. Most forms of ordeal had the favor of the Church until 1215, and were preceded by certain religious acts.

Kinds of Ordeal. In general, medieval ordeals were bilateral or unilateral. In the former, the contending parties to a duel or single combat might be represented on occasion by proxies, for example, by one or more "champions." Thus in 1179, when the people of Rosny claimed not to be serfs of the Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, the case was decided "forever" in favor of the abbey by a judicial duel ordered by King Louis VII in which, on the day appointed, the men of Rosny failed in fact to accept the "repeated challenge" of the Abbot, Stephan of Tournai [A. Luchaire, Études sur les Actes de Louis VII (Paris 1885) 2:323]. The unilateral ordeal, on the other hand, tested an accused person as such, who, to prove his innocence, was required to carry a ball of hot iron in his hand for a certain distance, to plunge his arm to the wrist or elbow in a caldron of boiling water, to be submerged in cold water, to walk blindfolded between red-hot ploughshares, or to walk barefoot on glowing coals.

Church Attitudes. The attitude of secular and ecclesiastical authorities to ordeals varied. Although Constantine successfully prohibited gladiatorial combats (Corpus iuris civilis (Berlin): v.2 Codex Iustinianus, ed. P. Krueger 11.44.1), King Liutprand in 731 complained that he was powerless to abolish duels since they were part of Lombard tradition. And whereas popes Gregory the Great (590604) and Martin I (64953) confirmed for the monastery of Saint Peter at Rouen the right of holding "secular trials of cold water and the like" (Browe 2:34), Pope Nicholas I (85867), in the famous case of King lothair ii and Queen Theutberga, averred that a duel at least had "no divine sanction whatsoever" (Corpus iuris canonici, ed. E. Friedberg C.2 q.5 c.22); but in the same context, Hincmar of Reims defended hot and cold water ordeals. A celebrated precedent was set by Pope Stephan V (88689) when, in reply to a query whether parents whose children had been smothered while sleeping with them should be made to prove by ordeal that death was accidental, he declared that ordeals of hot iron and cold water "had no canonical basis" (Corpus iuris canonici C.2 q.5 c.20; Browe 1:14).

On the whole the canonists were hostile to the idea, from ivo of chartres (1099) and gratian (c. 1140) to huguccio (c. 1190), who regarded the practice as utterly unjustifiable and a form of "tempting God"; the aforementioned canonist-theologian Stephan of Tournai was somewhat confused; sicardus of cremona (c. 1180) would allow it in cases involving the lower classes (Browe 2:88104). With the notable exception of petercantor (d. c. 1196), who attacked it resoundingly, theologians of the period generally refrained from discussing it. However, possibly as a result of the opposition of Huguccio and Peter Cantor, the Fourth lateran council in 1215 under Innocent III (who personally had allowed ordeals in civil though not ecclesiastical trials: Browe 1:3036) prohibited the clergy from blessing or consecrating trials by ordeal (c.18; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decrta 220; Corpus iuris canonici X 3.50.9). Although it did not specifically disallow the use of ordeals in administering secular justice, this canon was a turning point in the disappearance of these customary practices (purgationes vulgares, as the canonists called them) from European law. England, Normandy, and Denmark at once followed the Council's lead, and justices in eyre were instructed in England in January 1219 to adopt other evidentiary procedures in the future. Trial by ordeal was further nullified by the development of merchant law, of inquest in ecclesiastical and secular law, and of juries in English law. That ordeals, particularly judicial duels, did not go out of vogue completely is evidenced by repeated papal prohibitions (Browe 1:3847) and by writers such as Raymond of Peñafort, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Suárez, and De Liguori. A celebrated survival of bilateral ordeal by fire was the proposal by a Franciscan that it be used by savonarola to test his prophecies. Savonarola rejected the proposal.

Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 11.1:113952. p. browe, ed., De ordaliis, 2 v. (Rome 193233). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 12.2:237790. c. leitmaier, Die Kirche und die Gottesurteile (Vienna 1953). h. nottarp, Gottesurteilstudien (Munich 1956). j. w. baldwin, "The Intellectual Preparation for the Canon of 1215 against Ordeals," Speculum. A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 36 (1961) 61336.

[l. e. boyle]


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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 , the generic term for the various ways and means by which divine judgment would be ascertained. The most common form of ordeal, which survived long into the Middle Ages and beyond, was entirely unknown to biblical as well as to later Jewish law: namely, the exposing of an accused person to physical dangers which were supposed to be harmless to him if he were innocent but which were considered conclusive proof of divine condemnation if he suffered harm. The only remnant of this kind of ordeal may be found in the *Ordeal of Jealousy. It is an early talmudic tradition (Sot. 9:9) that these "waters of bitterness" ceased to be effective when adulterers proliferated. Traces of a similar ordeal by water may be found in the water that Moses made the Israelites drink after he had sprinkled it with powder ground from the golden calf (Ex. 32:20), the talmudic tradition being that this was the method used to detect the guilty. Another widespread method of ascertaining God's judgment was the curse. A written curse had first to be erased into the "water of bitterness" to be swallowed by the woman suspected of adultery (Num. 5:23), so that either the curse or the water or both could be instrumental in the ordeal. The curse is interchangeable with, and a forerunner of, the *oath: he who takes the oath before God (cf. Ex. 22:7–8, 10) brings God's curse on himself if he perjures himself (cf. i Kings 8:31–32; ii Chron. 6:22–23). On hearing the oath sworn at His altar, God judges – condemning the wicked and justifying the righteous (see also Zech. 5:3–4; et al.). There is a statement that when atonement was made for general sinfulness (Lev. 16:21–22), God would, by changing red into white, reveal His forgiveness, or by not changing the color indicate unforgiveness (Yoma 6:8; 67a). In many instances, God's judgment was, of course, executed directly, manifesting itself in the very act of divine punishment (e.g., Num. 16:5–7, 31–35; Deut. 11:6; i Kings 18:38).


J. Kohler, in: Zeitschrift fuer vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, 5 (1884), 368–76; J.G. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament, 3 (1919), 304–414; J. Morgenstern, in: huca Jubilee Volume 18751925 (1925), 113–43; R. Press, in: zaw, 51 (1933), 121–40, 227–55; et (19513), 182–5; em, 1 (1950), 179–83; 5 (1968), 1003f.

[Haim Hermann Cohn]


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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 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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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.