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Medieval Sourcebook:
Ordeal Formuals


The two methods of proof used in early Germanic law were compurgation and ordeal. In compurgation the accused swore to his own innocence together with a group of "oath-helpers." Two typical kinds of ordeal-in their Christianized form-are described in the following liturgical formulas.

 

The Judgment of the Glowing Iron

After the accusation has been lawfully made, and three days have been passed in fasting and prayer, the priest, clad in his sacred vestments with the exception of his outside garment, shall take with a tongs the iron placed before the altar; and, singing the hymn of the three youths, namely, "Bless him all his works," he shall bear it to the fire, and shall say this prayer over the place where the fire is to carry out the judgment: "Bless, 0 Lord God, this place, that there may be for us in it sanctity, chastity, virtue and victory, and sanctimony, humility, goodness, gentleness and plentitude of law, and obedience to God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost."-After this, the iron shall be placed in the fire and shall be sprinkled with holy water; and while it is heating, he shall celebrate mass. But when the priest shall have taken the Eucharist, he shall adjure the man who is to be tried ... and shall cause him to take the communion. Then the priest shall sprinkle holy water above the iron and shall say: "The blessing of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost descend upon this iron for the discerning of the right judgment of God." And straightway the accused shall carry the iron to a distance of nine feet. Finally his hand shall be covered under seal for three days, and if festering blood be found in the track of the iron, he shall be judged guilty. But if, however, he shall go forth uninjured, praise shall be rendered to God.

 

 

Test of the Cold Water

Consecration to Be Said over the Man. May omnipotent God, who did order baptism to be made by water, and did grant remission of sins to men through baptism: may He, through His mercy, decree a right judgment through that water. If, namely, thou art guilty in that matter, may the water which received thee in baptism not receive thee now; if however, thou art innocent, may the water which received thee in baptism receive thee now. Through Christ our Lord.

Afterwards He Shall Exorcise the Water Thus: I adjure thee,water, in name of the Father Almighty, who did create thee in the beginning, who also did order thee to be separated from the waters above,. . . that in no manner thou receive this man, if he be in any way guilty of the charge that is brought against him; by deed, namely, or by consent, or by knowledge, or in any way: but make him to swim above thee. And may no process be employed against thee, and no magic which may be able to conceal that (fact of his guilt).

 

from Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1910), pp. 314-317


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

(c)Paul Halsall Feb 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu