Text Box: . . . Several other techniques were used to attract God’s attention. The ordeal of cold water involved immersing bound suspects in exorcised streams or wells, where priests would prod them with poles to see if they sank or swam. On the strength of a theory that water was so pure that it repelled sin, anyone who floated was convicted; those who sank convincingly enough were vindicated and, with luck, resuscitated.  Another type of ordeal, said to be especially popular among the Anglo-Saxons, was the trial by morsel, which required suspects to swear to their innocence and then swallow a piece of blessed bread and cheese without choking to death. It sounds like a procedure that would require a miracle to convict rather than to acquit, but no records survive to confirm or question its effectiveness. One incident from the eleventh century suggests, however, that there were at least some medievalists who regarded it as reliable. The tale concerns the Earl Godwin of Wessex, an eleventh-century maker and breaker of monarchs, who is said to have got up to no good in 1036 while playing host to one Prince Alfred, a young pretender to England’s hotly contested throne. Chroniclers record that Godwin began the evening pleasantly enough, entertaining Alfred at his castle and promising to support his claims, but ended it considerably less cordially by handing him over to his mortal rival, Harold Harefoot, whose henchmen extracted his eyeballs and let him bleed to death. Godwin soon gathered together the requisite number of cronies to swear to his innocence, but Edward the Confessor harbored a lurking doubt and took the opportunity at an Easter banquet seventeen years later to repeat the accusation of murder. Godwin seized a chunk of bread and raised it to the heavens. “May God cause this morsel to choke me,” he bellowed, “if I am guilty in thought or deed.” The chroniclers – none of whom, admittedly, had much time for Godwin – record that he chewed, trembled, and dropped dead.
             The notion of God as umpire attained its purest expression in trial by combat. The ritual required plaintiff and defendant to prove that He would take their side in a fight, and after weapons were blessed – to neutralize blade-blunting spells and the like – victory would go to whoever reduced the other to submission or death. There were subtle variations. Women, priests, and cripples generally had to hire professional fighters. German jurisdictions often found other ways to level the odds: a man might be buried waist-deep and armed with a mace, for example, and his female opponent allowed to roam free but given only a rock in a sack.  The residents of East Friesland allowed accused murderers to shift the charge onto a third party and prove their innocence by defeating him rather than their accuser. The choices were greatest of all for a defendant in twelfth-century England and France. He could turn the accusation onto innocent bystanders, challenge his own witnesses, or, for a few gloriously violent years, appeal a verdict by battling those who had delivered it.

Trial by ordeal



Trial by combat