Public Opinion: Trial by Ordeal in the Modern Age

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Mr Peabody let me borrow has absolutely no idea that I have the Wayback Machine, so we have to be quick. Pay close attention – there’s going to be a quiz later.



David Tennant Tardis
[The most appropriate response]


Monty Python Witch
We found a Witch!
May we burn her?

Look around; can you tell where we are?

That’s right! It’s the Middle Ages.

And what do we have here?

Someone’s been accused of a crime!

No, there’s no need of a jury; these fine people have something better: judicium Dei via trial by ordeal.

What’s that? You haven’t heard of trial by ordeal? Well, you’re in luck! Here’s a quick rundown:

People in the Bad Old Days widely believed God would protect an innocent person from harm, even if that meant suspending the laws of nature. That’s right; God would personally intervene with a miracle to help “prove” someone’s guilt or innocence! No need for evidence, witnesses, or anything of that kind; simply subject the accused to the ordeal du jour and let God do the rest.


Go ahead; pick your poison:


Trial by Combat

You and your accused fight it out. Last man standing wins is right.

May the Odds be Ever in Your Favor

Trial by Fire

Trial by FireWalk a given distance over red-hot ploughshares or while holding a red-hot iron. Wait three days and have a priest examine the affected area. If there’s no sign of injury: congratulations! You’re innocent and free to go. If the area is blistered, festering, or otherwise injured: prepare to die.

A variation of this trial requires you to remove a stone from boiling water or other substance (like oil or lead).

Famous – or infamous – people to undergo trial by fire include Emma of Normandy, Peter Bartholomew, and Girolamo Savonarola.

Trial by Water

Trail by WaterTrial by hot water is pretty much the same as the variation of ordeal by fire [see above].

Trial by cold water is found in the world’s oldest law codes (Code of Ur-Nammu and Code of Hammurabi) and appears reserved for those accused of sorcery/witchcraft. If you find yourself in this unfortunate position, expect to be submerged in the local stream/lake/river and declared innocent if you sink and guilty if they float. Apparently blessed water can’t receive sinners or something like that. Let’s just hope they fish you out in time (assuming you’re innocent). Either way, looks like you lose.

The witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries relied on this method.

Trial by Cross

It’s essentially a staring contest where you risk your life. You and your accuser stand on either side of a cross and stretch out your arms. First one to lower his arms loses. I hope you’ve been doing your calisthenics!

Trial by Ingestion / Trial by Sacrament / Ordeal of the Eucharist / Trial by Poison

In this (somewhat tasty) ordeal, you’re given blessed dry bread and cheese. If you choke, you’re guilty.  A variation of this requires you to take the Eucharist after solemnly swearing you’re up to no good declaring innocence. If you’re guilty, you’ll die within one year. So lock your door and become a hermit and you should be just fine.

church host
I wonder if it works on those accused of gluttony?


Have you been paying attention? Good! It’s time for our quiz. Fair warning, though: it has absolutely nothing to do with anything on this page. Still think you’re ready? Then proceed to the next page!


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