What an Ordeal

Now that a system of trials is in place, there needs to be a method for determining truth and evaluating evidence. The swearing of oaths is incorporated into the judicial process, but oaths aren't always sufficient. In such a circumstance, a medieval judge can leave the case undecided or proceed to an ordeal. Most ordeals rely on the belief that God will intervene to prevent an innocent suspect from being harmed during a dangerous test. For example, the accused might be required to put an arm in boiling water and then bandage it up. If there are no wounds when the wrappings are removed three days later, the person is innocent. An ordeal commonly associated with witchcraft trials involves throwing the suspect into a body of water. In this case, both God and the water will reject those who are guilty, causing them to float. The unfortunate innocent parties will sink. Not surprisingly, conviction rates following ordeals are quite high. The church's role in trials by ordeal is eliminated in 1215, by decree of the Fourth Lateran Council. But ordeals continue to be used in witchcraft cases into the 19th century.

The Goddess of Heresy
The Goddess of Heresy, Anton Eisen, Late 16th Century