During the English middle ages law often took on the form of an ordeal. An ordeal is a method of trial in
which the accused was given a physical test that could only be met successfully if he or she was “innocent”
in the eyes of God. I will discuss specifically three types of ordeals that were commonly used.
I — Ordeal of White Hot Iron
This ordeal was used to test a person’s honesty. If a person was accused of lying to an official
pertaining to a crime supposedly committed, then the individual would be given a choice. If the accused
held the white hot iron and did not get burned by it then he was innocent. If the accused held the iron and
was burned then he was considered to be guilty and then punished according to the law. The accused
would also be held as guilty if he chose not to undertake the ordeal at all.
II — Ordeal of Fire
This ordeal was the only ordeal administered to women accused of cheating on their husbands.
The suspected woman, dressed in white cloth, was made to walk through fire. If the clothing singed or
turned black, then she was guilty and faced punishment.
III — Trial by Combat
Of all medieval ordeals, this one may be considered the most fatal. To settle a dispute in this
manner the plaintiff and the defendant would agree to wage a combat with each other until the death.
Armor, if allowed would be scanty and only a sword or dagger would be used. Often the event would be
conducted in a public meeting place such as the town square. This led to the entertainment aspect of the
ordeal. The townsfolk would often demand one arm tied behind the back or have weights tied around each
leg to contribute to the fun of spectatorship.
While these methods of trial may seem unjust or even cruel by today’s standard they were widely
accepted by the people on the basis on religious beliefs that God would reign as the supreme judge over the
matter. However, rarely did one ever walk away from ordeal by white hot iron with an unblemished hand.
And very few times did the “David” slay the “Goliath” in trial by combat. Yet the townsfolk continued to
support these events, even after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 outlawed clerics to take part in the
trials. The ordeals lasted unofficially until the early nineteenth century.