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Can God deliver Judicial Justice? Trial by Ordeal and Combat

England during the Middle Ages had peculiar ways of establishing guilt to deliver justice. Dipping one’s hands in boiling water or battling the defendant in hand to hand combat were some of the options. From the 6th to the 12th Century, Trial by ordeal and combat were common ways of judging legal cases when either plaintiff or defendant were unable to provide sufficient proof or witnesses.

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Beginning with the collapse of the Roman Empire, The Middle Ages (Circa. 400-1450 CE) are believed to be a period of ignorance and social decline.

Trial by ordeal or combat in Medieval Europe was sometimes considered a “Judgement of God” as it was believed that God would aid whoever was innocent. With the rise in the influence of the church throughout the period, it is no surprise that justice was delivered with an element of the supernatural.

"God would aid whoever was innocent"

Trial by Ordeal

First mentioned in the Salic Laws of the Franks (Circa. 507-110), ordeal by water meant the accused had to retrieve a stone from boiling water. In this case, the depth of the water depended on the severity of the crime. The hand was let to heal for three days; if it healed, the accused was deemed innocent.

On the other hand, an ordeal by fire involved the accused walking over hot iron or coals then examining the wound to see if it festered or healed. Usually the innocent in most cases believing they wouldn’t suffer extreme injuries submitted to trial. The clergymen administering understood this and sometimes tampered in the trials. For example, “boiling” water may simply be warm.

Trial by Combat

In contrast, trial by combat was most apparent between wealthier parties as opposed to trial by ordeal. In most cases, parties were allowed to hire others in place of the concerned persons. In addition, trial by combat was also quite common in cases concerning property rights.

Rules concerning trial by combat varied between countries. Combatants in England had to adhere to the following rules:

  • Each side had to agree to rules presided by a judge.

  • Combat lasted till one participant was killed, wounded or called out “craven”.

  • If the defendant lost, they paid for the crime and may suffer additional loss of property.

  • If the plaintiff lost, they had to cede the case and pay a fine.

In 1215, Pope Innocent the Third banned clergymen from the use of trial by ordeal and in 1219, King Henry the Third banned the use of trial by ordeal in England. Gradually, trial by combat also fell from use and in 1819, it was removed from the UK statute book.



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