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Monday, May 24, 2021

Medieval Justice - Trial by Ordeal

Ordeal by fire, from a German manuscript of the late 12th. century AD
Murders and other crimes happened in the Middle Ages but there was no formal police force and no forensics, no great interest in clues. So how did medieval people decide whether someone was guilty or innocent?

What mattered was what the community in which the crime took place thought. If you could produce witnesses you could vouch for your good character, and from Anglo-Saxon times status counted, so a thegn's evidence - like his life - was legally worth more than a churl's. Those accused of a crime who were unwilling to pay the standard fine could also hope to clear their names by swearing oaths to God - this was popular in the early Middle Ages and called ‘compurgation‘: a person accused of a crime swore on oath that he or she was innocent and often had a number of associates swear the oath with him to 'prove' guilt or innocence. This system was understandably open to abuse, so by the ninth century the church actively backed another way to reveal God's judgment in any crime - by means of the ordeal.

An ordeal was precisely that - a trial the accused could undergo to submit to the divine and so prove they were not guilty. The term ordeal has the meaning of "judgment, verdict" in old English and in the Middle Ages many believed they were genuinely submitting to the judgment of God.

In the ordeal of boiling water, a man would plunge his hand or arm into a cauldron of boiling water, after which the hand would be bound up, sealed with the seals of the church and then left. After three days the bandages would be removed and if the man showed signs of scalding he would be pronounced guilty.

There was also an ordeal by fire, where a person had to carry a red hot iron (weighing one pound in the late tenth century, or three pounds for the ‘threefold ordeal’) for a certain distance. Again the suspect’s hand was bound up and later examined to pronounce innocence or guilt. There were ordeals of cold water, similar to the later practice of ducking a witch. In the Assize of Clarendon in 1166, the law of England stated: "anyone, who shall be found, on the oath of the aforesaid [a jury], to be accused or notoriously suspect of having been a robber or murderer or thief, or a receiver of them ... be taken and put to the ordeal of water."

There was also ordeal by combat, also known as 'trial by battle', a way of ‘proving’ guilt or innocence that was much favoured throughout the Middle Ages. Introduced into England by the Normans, the earliest case in which trail by battle is recorded was Wulfstan v. Walter (1077), eleven years after the Conquest, possibly between a Saxon and a Norman. By the 12th century it was the way nobles would often settle disputes. The parties fought on a duelling ground and swore before they began that they had not used witchcraft to help them.

Women were usually banned from taking part in such trials but not always, a detail I exploit in one of my novels. In parts of Germany a woman might fight a man in a trial of battle if the man had one hand tied behind his back. Lepers were banned from fighting in ordeals but hired champions could sometimes be used - these were usually desperate men, since they could be killed in the ordeal of battle, or afterwards hanged or lose a hand or foot if they were judged to have lost. In medieval France the professional champion was seen in the same way as a prostitute.

Of all the ordeals, trial by battle remained in force the longest - it was not abolished in England until as late as 1819.

I touch on trials and ordeals in my novel Dark Maiden, during a tense exchange between my heroine Yolande, hero Geraint and false prophet Peter.


She did not believe a word but marveled at how artfully it was done. Yolande pretended to pay close attention as Jehan, the leader of the new arrivals, swore that Geraint had set upon a man at the spring fair on the Great North Road. A man with drab hair and countenance, Jehan nonetheless gave a thrilling account of a savage attack that had left Geraint’s victim with two broken legs. Joan moaned when, gesticulating furiously for emphasis, Jehan went on to explain that Geraint had stolen his victim’s gold crucifix.

“Search my husband’s things,” Yolande rapped out. “You will find nothing of that kind in his pack.”

Peter touched her shoulder. “He will already have sold it.”

“Then let him stand trial.” She tore herself free of Peter’s slimy hold.

The folk gathered to meet the newcomers sucked in their breath. Yolande took advantage of the silence. “You have iron here, yes? Let him swear upon the iron.”

She spoke loudly enough for Geraint to hear then inhaled a deep, steadying breath.

My honeyman guessed this man would make mischief and so did I, though I never expected Peter to accuse him of such a crime . Let me see what Peter does now. Iron is Christ’s metal, so will he use it? Will he allow Geraint to swear upon it?

But what if Peter insists upon a trial by ordeal, maybe even ordeal by fire?

“You are deluded, my poor creature.” Peter pursed his lips and those gathered close echoed his gesture.

“Not an ordeal by iron.” Jehan flicked a spider from his sparse brown mop. “The knave is an entertainer, a juggler. Those people have all kinds of tricks to fool honest folk.”

Joan sighed. “You never told me Geraint was a juggler.”

Theodore stepped forward. “Commander, I juggled for my lady before I was freed by coming here.”

“And no one doubts you, Theodore,” said Peter. If he had noticed the glance of admiration Joan sent Theodore, Yolande surmised he would be too wise to show it. Peter was after Geraint, the mocking threat to his vision, the man unmoved by fleshly raptures. Minnows like Theodore could be dealt with later.

“He stuck a knife in that merchant,” said Jehan, twisting an imaginary knife. His sour face grew greedy. “We should swim him in the river. Swim them both.”

“And what is the man’s name?” Yolande stepped away from Peter and stalked around, scanning faces as she spoke. “Why can you not tell me at once, Jehan? Is it because you need time to invent one?” She whipped a fist into her gown and brought out her dagger, holding it aloft. “Here is Geraint’s knife. He loaned it to me to cut kindling. There is no blood on it.”

“Because he cleaned it first,” said Peter, a trace of white spittle appearing at the corner of his mouth.

His certainty might have worried Yolande but she knew Geraint. And I lied. This is my knife and I have not stabbed anyone. “You accuse him to my face, Commander?”

“Your loyalty does you credit,” said  Peter and a cloud of yellow steam snaked from his lips. Yolande scented sulfur and glanced at Theodore. He was watching Peter, but he was puzzled, not alarmed. Theo’s doubts grow but still he is not afraid. He and the others do not see what I can.

She wondered if Geraint, hiding on the hill above, could see the winding sulfur.

Pride and certainty, bedmates of the devil. How has Peter hidden this from me?

A breeze sprang up, wafting the stench at her. She choked, clamped her teeth together and pulled away, not wanting the yellow to touch her.

It may harm my baby.

“You are wrong,” said Peter and beside him Jehan smirked. Sulfur rolled from Peter over the taller man, embraced him like a lover. Jehan wallowed in the stink, a man bathing in foulness.

Still grinning, Jehan pointed. “Wrong, black girl, wrong as sin.” His broken teeth showed as he made a grab for her. About him the snaking yellow fog billowed, cradling Peter and himself, linking them in shrouds of dismal gold.

At the edge of her sight, Yolande saw Joan frowning at Jehan and looking questioningly at Peter, but the young serf woman was too habituated in obedience to protest. Theodore’s angry “Not so!” was ignored.

Jehan jeered at her, plumes of sulfur spurting from his lips and gilding his molting fur cloak. “Did you think we would not find out about you and your thief of a husband?”

“He has abandoned you,” said Peter. Spots of sulfur condensed in his hair, making it appear for an instant as if he had sprouted horns.

“Never.” Yolande wanted to turn her back on the baleful pair but dare not. These two are the pits of malice in this place. Two evil bringers, not one. It is summoned when they are together. Trembling, she forced her arms to make a protective cross over her belly but her mind was a blank parchment and she could not pray. What if they hurt my unborn child?

Others were taking up Jehan’s wicked call. “Wrong, black , wrong, black,” they chanted, stamping and clapping.

“Swim them, swim them both,” called Jehan. Another gout of sulfur spewed from him.  When he clapped, his palms glowed red, hellfire red.

“It is finished,” Peter agreed, his words a mockery of Christ’s suffering upon the cross, his face sheathed in yellow fog.

The pair glanced at each other. She knew that in a moment they would set the company on her.

“Where is he?” Jehan shouted above the rising tumult. “Where is your filthy Welshman?”

The insult braced her and she thumbed at Peter. “He says my man has gone, but look!”

People always follow an outstretched arm. She understood that from her time as exorcist and from Geraint’s as a performer. She flung her hope at the forest, a last diversion.

A pine tree crackled into flame. “The dragon comes!” To the sound of Joan’s screaming, Yolande ran straight through the middle of the stricken group.


Lindsay Townsend


  1. Wow! How terrifying it must have been to be accused of a crime one didn't commit. Even if the person survived an ordeal, he would have endured severe punishment. Interesting post.

  2. I agree, Ann. And the system was very open to abuse.
    Thanks for commenting

  3. It's a amazing how much stock people used to place on religion. The idea that anyone could go through that kind of ordeal and be healed within three days is simply staggering.

  4. A most interesting post. The history of finding guilt and innocence is a winding and scary road.

    I loved "Dark Maiden". What a story you wove. Doris

  5. Many thanks, Doris! I enjoyed writing it and exploring medieval beliefs.
    I agree, Christine. I have good healing skin but a burn within 3 days - not without divine or other intervention!

  6. They released a book, with color drawings, an older books showing all the way women could fight a man in Trial by Combat. It was ancient book, and they just released it for use. I lost my copy in the house fire and cannot recall the name. They showed one type where a hole was dug, and the man stood half in the whole, while the woman had full range freedom. The Trial by Ordeal always terrified me, since they were slanted so the accused couldn't pass it. Like the witches - toss them in the water and if they sank they were innocent; if they floated they were a witch and promptly killed. You could be innocent and still quite dead.

    Great blog!

  7. Thanks, Deborah!
    Medieval beliefs could be quite weird. I suspect there was a lot of tinkering to get the 'result' authorities wanted

  8. I can say without the slightest doubt I would never want to have lived in Medieval times. Most of these trials were unwinnable. How did they choose a judge to even determine what the trial or the punishment was to be? The priest? God help the person with no status in those days.
    THE DARK MAIDEN was a wonderful story. I really enjoyed reading it.
    All good things...