Medieval Mondays: Law, Order…and Ordeals

So the Medieval World was not one where fairness and justice reigned. Let’s just say being “innocent until proven guilty” would have been a laughable concept.


Often times, guilt or innocence was determined through “trials” known as Ordeals. While there were many different types of Ordeals, some of the most familiar to the modern mind are Ordeal by Combat, Ordeal by Fire, and Ordeal by Water.

In Ordeal by Combat, the accused (or a representative) and a selected champion would battle each other dressed in full armor. The weapons which were used could not really penetrate this armor, so the Ordeal by Combat was really an Ordeal by Exhaustion. The most physically capabale of the participants would normally win. According to this Ordeal, if the accused won the fight, then God had given them victory which proved their innocence.

The Ordeal by Fire involved the accused holding an object which had been placed in a fire. Their burn was then wrapped and checked three days later. If the wound had healed, God had shown their innocence. If not…well…

In an Ordeal by Water, a pond or other enclosed source of water was used to prove guilt or innocence. Once bound, the accused would be tossed into the water. If the water (which was considered to be a source of purity) rejected the person…meaning they floated…they were thought to be guilty. If the accused sank, they were innocent.

Another lesser known Ordeal was the Ordeal by Bread. In this trial, a person would be forced to swallow either an entire piece of bread or a large ball of dough without chewing. If they did not choke to death, they were considered innocent because God had protected them.


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