Trials in Superstitious Ages

By Ernest H. Rann

1897

In superstitious ages, when belief in the power of the law to adjust all quarrels, to hold the balance equally between man and man, and to accord to each one his rights, was less prevalent than it is at the present day, disputants naturally resorted to other tribunals for the settlement of their claims. A perfect system of law was impossible; what law existed was arbitrarily administered, often for the benefit of the most powerful litigant, and the claimant with only justice on his side often had the mortification of seeing a verdict given against him. During the development of a system of law-giving, when the accumulated experience of humanity had not sufficed to produce perfection, man in his darkness, his ignorance, and superstition, turned to the supernatural, and devised certain ceremonies by which the judgment of God might be evoked to demonstrate the guilt or innocence of the accused.

The antiquity of the ordeal, as it was called, cannot be measured. Such a form of trial is found to have existed in the earliest ages, and even now traces of it linger among savage tribes of the earth. In Africa especially the ordeal is well known. During his travels among the negro tribes north of the Zambesi, Dr. Livingstone encountered the curious practice of the “mauvi,” which consisted of making all the women of a tribe drink an infusion of “goho,” for the purpose of ascertaining which of them had bewitched a particular man. The accused women were drawn up in a row before the hut of the king, and the draught administered to them. Those who were unable to retain the horrible decoction, and vomited, were considered innocent of the charge: those who were purged were adjudged guilty, and put to death by burning.

The Calabar bean is also used by the natives of Africa in the form of an emulsion as an ordeal for persons accused of witchcraft, proof of innocence consisting of ability to throw off the poison by vomiting. Among the Barotse tribes the process is conducted by deputy, the testing liquid being poured down the throat of a dog or cat, and the accused person being treated according to the effect produced on the animal. Among the Dyak tribes lumps of salt are thrown into a bowl of water by the accuser and accused, and judgment is given against the owner whose lump disappears first. Another method adopted by the Dyaks is for each of the two parties to choose a mollusc, and to squeeze over it a few drops of lime-juice; the owner of the mollusc which moves first under the acid stimulant losing the case. Ratzel mentions that among the Malay tribes ordeals by fire, ducking, pulling a ring out of boiling water, or licking red-hot iron, are still frequent. Where the ordeal fails to produce the desired result, wager of battel, in reality another form of ordeal, is resorted to. Among the Tagals it is usual to light a consecrated candle, and to consider the person guilty of the crime under consideration to whom the candle flame is blown during the performance of the ceremony. The Igorrotes have a more painful method of fixing guilt. The accuser and the accused are placed together; the backs of their heads are scratched with a sharply-pointed bamboo stick, and the man who loses most blood also loses his case.

In Hawaii ordeals are administered by the priests, the suspected person being compelled to hold his hands over consecrated water, and adjudged guilty if the liquid trembles in the vessel while the priest looks at him. The Siamese have a form of ordeal which consists of making the two parties to a suit swallow consecrated purgative pills, the man who retains them for the greater length of time winning the case.

Even among the comparatively enlightened races of the peninsula of India, ordeals of the most elaborate and curious character are practised at the present time. Warren Hastings mentions that in his day no fewer than nine forms were in use among the Hindoos. The ordeal of the balance was commonly employed, and is still in force in certain districts. The beam is adjusted, and both scales made perfectly even. After the accused has been bathed in sacred water, and the deities worshipped, he is placed in the scale-pan and carefully weighed. When he is taken out the Pandits pronounce an incantation, and place round his head a piece of paper setting forth the charge against him. Six minutes later he again enters the scale, and the balance is called upon to show his fault or innocence. If he weigh more than before, he is held guilty; if less, innocent; if exactly the same, he must be weighed a third time, when, according to the Mitácsherá, a difference in his weight will be observable. Should the balance break down, the mishap would be considered as proof of the man’s guilt.

The ordeal of the balance is not altogether unknown in English history, for an incident is recorded in which Susannah Haynokes, of Aylesbury, was accused of bewitching her neighbour’s spinning-wheel, and preventing it from working properly. Susannah loudly protested her innocence, and demanded an ordeal to prove it. She was taken to the church, and weighed in a semi-nude condition against a copy of the Bible, and being able to outweigh the Scriptures, was considered to be innocent of the offence charged against her. Possibly it never occurred to the owner of the spinning-wheel that lack of oil was the cause of its refusal to go round.

Among other ordeals in use by the Hindoos is that of iron, the accused being required to lick a red-hot bar of the metal. If his tongue be burnt, he is considered guilty, if not, he is reckoned innocent, but it cannot be supposed that among tribes addicted to this practice the injury to the tongue is considered sufficient punishment for the offence with which the suspect is charged. The poison ordeal, employed also, it may be noted, by the Hovas of Madagascar, is commonly practised. A small quantity of vishanága, a poisonous root, is mixed with clarified butter, which the accused must eat from the hand of a Brahman. If the poison produce no visible effect, he is absolved; otherwise, condemned. In other cases the hooded snake called nága is placed in a deep earthen pot, from which the accused has to take a ring, seal, or coin without being bitten, when he is considered innocent. In trial by the Cósha the accused is made to drink three draughts of water in which images of the Sun, of Dévì, and other deities have been washed. If, within fourteen days, he is afflicted with any form of sickness, he is considered guilty.

For the fire ordeal an excavation is made in the ground, and filled with burning pippal wood. Into this a person must walk bare-footed without hurt in order to prove his innocence. Hot oil ordeals are also in force, when the accused has to thrust his hand into the liquid without being burned; and chewing a grain of consecrated rice, which, if it comes from the man’s mouth dry or stained with blood, is considered proof of his guilt. At other times a silver image of the Genius of Justice, called Dharma, is thrown with an image of iron or clay, called Adharma, into an earthen jar; and the accused is acquitted if he bring out the silver image, but condemned if he draw forth the iron.

The history of the middle ages furnishes numerous examples of ordeals employed in the settlement of disputes, which in the absence of a strong and impartial system of law-giving, found great favour with the people of all ranks. They were peculiarly distinguished by the appellation of Judicium Dei, or judgments of God, and sometimes called vulgaris purgatio. The law of the Church sanctioned the ordeal throughout Europe for a considerable period, and faculties were freely given by the clergy for the performance of these strange ceremonials. Indeed, the whole business, as a judgment of God, was frequently conducted by the servants of the Church, always in consecrated ground, and the sacred edifice itself was occasionally requisitioned in order to add greater solemnity to the proceedings. The ordeal of fire, practised, curiously enough, by the Greeks in the time of Sophocles, was allowed only to persons of high rank. The accused was required to carry a piece of red-hot iron for some distance in his hand, or to walk nine feet, bare-footed and blind-fold, over red-hot ploughshares. The hands or feet were then immediately bound up, and inspected three days afterwards. If, on examination, no injury was visible, the accused was considered innocent; if traces of the burning remained, he was reckoned guilty, and received punishment commensurate with his offence, without any discount for the harm he had already suffered.

The most notable historic instance of this form of ordeal is that of Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor. She was accused of a criminal intrigue with Alwyn, Bishop of Winchester, and condemned to the ordeal of fire, which, on this particular occasion, took the form of nine red-hot ploughshares, laid lengthwise at irregular intervals, over which she was required to walk with bandaged eyes. She passed successfully through the severe trial, and at the conclusion innocently asked when the ordeal was about to begin. The Queen’s innocence was, to the popular mind, established more substantially than would have been possible in any existing court of law. She was not the only gainer by the restoration of her reputation, for in consideration of the success which had attended her, she settled twenty-one manors on the Bishopric and Church of Winchester.

In the Eastern Empire the fire ordeal was largely used by the Emperor Theodore Lascoris for the discovery of the origin of the sickness with which he was afflicted. His majesty attributed the malady to magic, and all suspected persons were required to handle red-hot iron in order to establish their guilt or innocence, “thus joining,” as an ancient scribe exclaims, “to the most dubious crime in the world the most dubious proof of innocence.”

Fire, as we have said, was employed for persons of high rank: those of baser degree, especially bondsmen and rustics, were tried by the ordeal of boiling water. “I will go through fire and water for my friend” was a common expression in the middle ages, and, though having lost its original significance, the saying has persisted to the present time as a declaration of self-sacrifice. The accused person was required to take a stone from a pan of boiling water, to insert the hand and wrist into the liquid, and in case of the triple ordeal, to plunge the arm in up to the elbow. When cold water was employed, and in cases of witchcraft this was generally resorted to, the suspect was flung into a river or pond. If he floated without appearance of swimming, he was pronounced innocent; if he sank, he was condemned as guilty—rather a superfluous proceeding, considering that the man was in all probability already drowned.

It would be going too far to assert that in all cases these ordeals were carried out with the strictest impartiality and consideration for the ends of justice. Means were not unknown to circumvent the peculiar forms of the trial, and precautions were often taken by the clergy, as might have been done in the case of Queen Emma, to protect those whom they desired to clear of suspicion. It is a well-known fact that white-hot iron may be licked with impunity, and the Mevleheh dervishes are proficient in the trick of holding red-hot iron between their teeth. Sometimes cold iron, painted red, was employed, and at others the fire reduced in temperature at the critical moment, the suspect receiving only such injury as would heal in the three days allowed before his hand was examined. Artificial preparations were frequently employed, while the suspect had at times the option of going alone into the church, and in all cases of keeping the crowd of spectators at a distance, which made minute inspection of the proceedings impossible.

Another form of ordeal was the judicium crucis, or trial of the Cross, employed largely in criminal cases. When an accused person had declared his innocence on oath, and appealed to the judgment of the Cross, two sticks were prepared precisely like one another. The figure of the Cross was cut upon one of these sticks, and the other left blank. Each of them was wrapped in fine white wool, and laid upon the altar or the relics of the saints, after which a prayer was uttered that God might discover by unmistakable signs whether the prisoner was innocent or guilty. The priest then approached the altar, took up one of the sticks, and uncovered it. If it happened to be the stick marked with the cross, the prisoner was pronounced innocent; if it were the other, he was condemned as guilty. A different form of this ordeal was adopted when the judgment of the Cross was invoked in civil cases. The judges and all parties to the suit assembled in the church. Representatives, generally the youngest and strongest priests, were then chosen, and required to stand one on each side of a crucifix. At a given signal they stretched out their arms at full length, so as to form a cross with their body, and in this painful posture they continued to stand during divine service. The party whose representative dropped his arms first, or shifted his position, lost his cause. History records a dispute over a monastery, between the Bishop of Paris and the Abbot of St. Denis, which was settled in this manner. A crowd assembled, and arranged bets on the result, but those who supported the Bishop’s man were sadly disappointed, for he dropped his arms at an early stage, and lost the cause of his employer. The ordeal of the Cross was abolished by Louis de Debonnaire in 816, on the ground that it was irreverent in character.

Ecclesiasticism also played a prominent part in the ordeal of the corsnedd, to which persons accused of robbery had to submit. The corsnedd was a piece of bread made of unleavened barley, to which cheese made of ewe’s milk in the month of May was added. Over the whole, one ounce in weight, a form of exorcism was uttered, desiring of the Almighty that the corsnedd might cause convulsions and paleness, and find no passage, if the man were really guilty, but might turn to health and nourishment if he were innocent. The practice is strongly remindful of the trial of jealousy in use among the Israelites, by which an unfaithful woman was compelled to drink holy water containing dust of the floor of the tabernacle, the belief being that she would be stricken with illness if she were guilty. The corsnedd was given to the suspected person, who at the same time read the sacrament. Godwin, Earl of Kent, was, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, accused of murder, and forced to the ordeal of the corsnedd, when, according to ancient chroniclers, the consecrated food stuck in his throat, and caused his death. Both the expressions, “I will take the sacrament upon it,” and “May this morsel be my last,” are supposed to have been derived from this curious form of law-giving. A somewhat similar custom is in vogue in Russia at the present day. Balls of bread are made and dropped into consecrated water, the priest meanwhile reciting the formula:—“Ivan Ivanoff, if you are guilty, as this ball falls to the bottom, so your soul will fall into hell.” As a rule the culprit confesses immediately. In Ceylon, also, a similar form of ordeal is by no means unusual. A man suspected of theft is required to bring the person he holds in greatest affection before the judge, and placing a heavy stone on the head of his substitute, say, “May this stone crush thee to death if I am guilty of the offence.” The Tartar sets a wild bear and a hatchet before the tribunal, saying as he does so, “May the bear devour me, and the hatchet chop off my head, if I am guilty of the crime laid to my charge.”

Another form of ordeal which was cherished and practised with assiduity was that of the bier, founded on the belief that the body of a murdered man would show signs, by bleeding or movement, when his assassin approached. The accused had to place his hand on the naked breast of the corpse, and declare his innocence, though the slightest change in the body was considered proof of his guiltiness. This method of finding out murderers had its origin, it is believed, in Denmark, where it was in the first instance adopted by King Christian II. for the discovery of the murderer of one of his courtly followers. The belief has survived to a certain extent to the present day, for even English peasants still expect all persons present at a funeral to touch the body in proof of their bearing no ill-will towards the dead man.

Not so frequently employed, but still occasionally met with in ancient history, was the ordeal of compurgation, where the innocence of the accused was sworn to by his friends, and judgment went against the party whose kindred refused to come forward, or who failed to provide the necessary number of compurgators. It was a conflict of numerical strength, and the higher number carried the day.

Another custom, still surviving, was to tie a key in a Bible opened at Psalm L, verse 18, “When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him,” and balance the whole, the belief being that the book would turn in the hands of a guilty person.

Challenging the accuser to mortal combat was a proceeding which found much favour with the warlike spirit of the middle ages. Of course it was considered that Providence would defend the right, even if a miracle were needful, but nevertheless each party placed considerable reliance on his own strength of arm and fighting skill. These judicial combats were in ancient times practised among the Jews, and were also common in Germany in remote ages, though they do not find mention in Anglo-Saxon laws, and were apparently not in use in England until after the Norman Conquest. In Germany a bier was placed in the midst of the lists, accuser and accused stood respectively at the head and foot, and remained for some minutes in profound silence before they commenced fighting. Civil, criminal, and military cases were, in the absence of sufficient direct evidence, decided by means of the judicial combat or wager of battel. The offended party had the right to challenge his accuser to settle the dispute by force of arms, and the forms and ceremonies connected with the trial are well illustrated in the opening scenes of “King Richard II.” The combat took place in the presence of the court itself, Heaven being expected to give the victory to the innocent or injured party. It was commonly resorted to in charges of treason, as in the above-mentioned dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, when the ceremonies were of an imposing character. As in the majority of ordeals, deputies could be chosen to perform the requisite duties, but the principals were in all cases answerable for the consequences. No commoner was allowed to challenge a peer of the realm, nor could the citizens of London, for some obscure reason, indulge in these popular forms of legal administration. Each of the combatants professed his willingness to make good his claims, body for body—

“For what I speak
My body shall make good upon this earth,
Or my divine soul answer it in heaven.”

Neither sorcery nor witchcraft had to be employed, and the battel was to continue until the shades of evening had fallen, and the stars appeared. If the accused were killed, his blood was attainted, but if he were only vanquished, he was immediately condemned to an ignominious death by hanging, providing he accepted his fate without demur. The defeated party, however, might crave his life, in which case he was allowed to live as a recreant, on condition that he retracted unreservedly the false statements that he had sworn.

At the Durham Assizes, on August 6, 1638, a wager of battel was offered and accepted, for deciding the rights to land at Thickley, between Ralph Claxton, demandant, and Richard Lilburne, tenant. According to an old chronicle, “the defendant appeared at 10 o’clock in the forenoon, by his attorney, and brought in his champion, George Cheney, in full array, with his stave and sandbag, who threw down his gauntlet on the floor of the court, with five small pieces of coin in it. The tenant then introduced his champion, William Peverell, armed in the same manner, who also threw down his gage.” But the champions, instead of being allowed to fight, were ordered to appear at the Court of Pleas in the following month. Legal arguments followed, and the trial by battel was eventually postponed indefinitely.

In criminal trials no deputies were allowed, and the parties were compelled to settle their quarrel in person, unless one of them was a woman, an infant, or a man over the age of sixty, or was afflicted with lameness or blindness. In the case of any of these disqualifications, trial by jury could be claimed and insisted upon. One of the most remarkable wagers of battel occurred in 1817. A young woman named Mary Ashford, living at Erdington, near Birmingham, was supposed to have been murdered early one morning when returning from a dance. Suspicion fell on Abraham Thornton, a partner of the previous night, who was tried for the crime and acquitted. Evidence for another trial was collected, and Thornton was appealed by William Ashford, the direct heir male of the murdered woman. But when the proceedings commenced, Thornton’s counsel took refuge under a very old Act, by which no man could be tried on a second charge of murder, on which he had been acquitted, except by wager of battel before the king, between the heir-at-law of the person murdered and the accused. The appellant, Mary Ashford’s brother, declined the combat on the ground of physical inferiority, and Thornton was discharged. Immediately afterwards the antiquated law was removed from the Statute Book.

This marked the end of trials by ordeal as recognised by law. The process of extermination had long been in progress, but popular opinion was against reform, and certain of these curious customs survived. Although the clergy had at first taken part in these ceremonials, and presided over them in church, they came in time to discountenance them. The canon law declared against ordeals as being the work of the Devil, and a decree to this effect was issued in the eighteenth canon of the fourth Lateran Council in November, 1215. Upon this authority it was thought proper, says Blackstone (as had been done in Denmark a century ago), “to disuse and abolish these trials entirely in our courts of justice by an Act of Parliament, Henry III., according to Sir Edward Coke, or rather by an order of the King in Council.” The actual date of the abolition of ordeals by fire and water was 1261. On the Continent these forms of trial had been abolished by civil and ecclesiastical law much earlier, although in 1498 an attempt was made to test the doctrine of Savonarola by means of a challenge from one of his disciples to a Franciscan friar to walk through a pile of burning wood. Old customs die hard, and the incident is a curious and interesting instance of the persistence of a popular form of trial even among the members of a party by which it had been condemned.