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The Medieval Judicial Ordeals
Professor Dr Heinz Sieburg (University of Luxembourg)
To this day, Tristan and Isolde are known to many as a famous couple of the Middle Ages. There is a problem though. Isolde is married to King Marke and her love for Tristan was induced by a magic potion – a fairly complicated love triangle. In medieval literature, the Tristan narrative is a major theme, popular in many countries and it passed down in a variety of languages. The German version (in Middle High German) was written around the year 1200 by Gottfried von Strassburg. The text includes a rather disconcerting, almost absurd episode. Based on suspicions but lacking real evidence, the King finally wants to know the truth: Do his wife Isolde and his nephew Tristan really have a secret love affair? In order to find out, Marke calls for a special court procedure, a so-called judgement of God or ordeal, in which Isolde is required to take a red-hot iron into her hand. Depending on whether she is burned, she will be considered either guilty or innocent.
What may come as a surprise to today’s readership, such trials actually happened during the Middle Ages. What seems unimaginable, perhaps nonsensical today was deemed a viable solution during the (Christian) Middle Ages and follows a certain logic. The belief was that a just God exists and that He would never pass judgement that would allow for an innocent person to be punished. Therefore, He would (must!) intervene and manifest the truth of the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Historically, it was more realistic that after such ordeals by fire the hand was bandaged and sprinkled with holy water so that after three days the burns could be examined by a priest and a verdict was announced. There are credible historical records showing that frequently the accused were, in fact, declared innocent.
Figure 1 shows a noble woman who, like Isolde, had to carry a red-hot iron. It is likely that this ordeal was preferentially imposed on women and specifically in cases of suspected adultery. The Dutch painter Dierik Bouts depicts an incident that is reported to have happened at the court of Emperor Otto III (980-1002 CE) and that was very unusual. According to the records, a courtier was accused of having adulterous intentions towards Otto’s wife, which is why the emperor had him beheaded. A miscarriage of justice! The widow of the executed man proved his innocence: in one hand she held her husband’s severed head, in the other (voluntarily and without hurting herself) the red-hot iron.
But what about Isolde? She is indeed an adulteress and therefore guilty. Yet, she does not suffer burns. This contradiction presents a problem within the world view of the time and a tough nut to crack for literary scholars today. For what might have been the intention behind such a narrative? Criticism of God? This idea seems inconceivable as it would have been very dangerous for a medieval author such as Gottfried von Strassburg to doubt God, an offense punishable as heresy. Perhaps it could be seen as covert criticism of the ordeal as judicial practice. Maybe it played a role that the Bishop of Strassbourg advocated for the practice in spite of it being admonished by the Pope. It is possible that Gottfried meant to comment on this. Certainly, judgement by ordeal was by no means uncontroversial among the clergy.
Regardless of this, ordeals were part of documented European legal and cultural history. As a legal instrument, however, they always had to be seen as ultima ratio. That is, they were reserved for cases in which one could not arrive at a verdict by other means (through witnesses’ statements, oaths, or deeds) and where uncertainty could not be tolerated. Only consulting a higher power (God) was considered as a last resort.
A number of different methods were employed for this purpose during the Middle Ages. These also encompass bloodless/non-violent practices mostly reserved for the clergy. Such a test could, for instance, consist of having two people hold up their arms in the shape of a cross. Whoever had to lower their arms first was considered to be wrong. Yet, most ordeals involved violence, pain, and blood. Disputes could be settled in judicial duels (trial by battle) in which the opposing parties had to fight each other directly or via a substitute. Again, the idea was that God would surely help the righteous side to victory.
Another relatively frequent method was the trial by water. Suspects were tied up and immersed in water. If they sank, they were considered innocent and pulled out again. If they remained afloat, this was taken as a proof of guilt and the accused was punished. This was religiously motivated by the idea that ‘the pure water does not tolerate the sinner’.
Figure 2, an illustration from a late 12th-century manuscript, depicts an ordeal by water, a scene where the naked and bound suspect is tried by water as he is lowered into it on a chain. This takes place on a boat in front of many witnesses and under the oversight of a clergyman.
Medieval manuscripts contain several instances documenting the practice of ordeals. One well-known example is the Sachsenspiegel, a German-language law book from the early 13th century.
The illustration shows the ordeal of cauldron. Here, a ring or stone had to be fished out of a cauldron of boiling water. Then the degree of scalding and the healing process of the hand separated right from wrong.
In the judgments of God, the bodies of suspects became the object of legal practice. This means that guilt or innocence was to be read from the body. This usually required brutal procedures which inflicted enormous pain and fear. It must be emphasised, however, that the ordeals themselves were not considered a punishment, but an instrument in the finding of justice. Normally, they were ordered by the courts against the suspect or both litigants. Nevertheless, there are cases in which the accused voluntarily subjected themselves to such procedures, as illustrated above in the picture by Dierik Bouts. This may be seen as clear indication that the many relied upon and believed in the effectiveness of ordeals.
Obviously, judgments of God can be also found in the extant medieval literature of which the Tristan narrative is just one example. Another example, similarly dated to around 1200 CE, can be found in the Nibelungenlied. In this Middle High German heroic epic, there is a scene that depicts the practice of the so-called ‘cruentation’. In unsolved murder cases, it was believed that the corpse of the victim would bleed once the murderer approached it. In the Nibelungenlied this is the final proof for the queen of Xanten that her brother’s liege Hagen is, in fact, her husband’s murderer. A painting by the late 19th-century painter Emil Johann Lauffer captures this moment.
The murdered is shown lying in state, his wounds still bleeding. Kriemhild, the mourning wife, points towards the murderer with a dramatic gesture. In contrast to the scene depicted in the Nibelungenlied, the painting frames it with Christian symbolism by displaying the crucifix in the background.
It is questionable whether the cruentation should even be counted among the judgments of God in the narrow sense. It is obviously linked with the magical, mantic idea of the living corpse, according to which the deceased themselves will reveal their murderers, as ‘the blood of the dead cries out for justice’. Generally, equating ordeals with judgments of God is really a mistake. Although ordeals were carried out with the participation of the Church, there were dissenting voices within the Christian community: the idea that man could force God to perform any action was particularly criticised. Moreover, there was doubt that human law and divine justice were the same thing. And how should God judge someone who had confessed before the trial? Pope Innocent III (IV Lateran Council of 1215) even officially outlawed God’s judgments and forbade the clergy to participate in ordeals – although this rule remained largely ineffective.
Another reason why the characterisation of the ordeal as Christian seems untenable is the fact that similar practices were transmitted from pre-Christian times and a wide range of cultures. In the 19th century, the ordeal was considered of Indo-European origin, referring to comparable historical legal practices from India. However, this perspective is rather too narrow since ordeals have also been documented in other parts of Asia, as well as in African cultures.
In Europe, the number of divine judgements decreased over the course of the High Middle Ages although they did not disappear entirely, as the Bern Chronicles written by Valerius Anselm attest. For the year 1503, a ‘miraculous murder’ is reported. The townsman Hans Spieß was suspected of having strangled his wife and because there was no other way to prove his guilt, Spieß was led to the exhumed corpse. Then the dead body allegedly started bleeding and Spieß eventually confessed. The scene is depicted in a drawing contained in a well-known Swiss illustrated chronicle, the Lucerne Chronicle, from around 1511-1513.
In the setting of a cemetery, Hans Spieß is shown touching his wife’s bleeding corpse. Spieß himself is depicted naked. In order to prevent tempering with the result of the trial by carrying hidden amulets and the like, the accused must not wear any clothes. The spectators are recognisable as representatives of the secular jurisdiction, as well as of the clergy. Ordeals, as this example illustrates, appear to have been practised sporadically even in the early modern period. Overcoming such practices is undoubtedly an advance in civilisation. Problematically, they were often replaced by practices of torture. This was considered a more rational form of law.
Bartlett, Robert, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Brattleboro, Vermont: Clarendon, 1986).
Dinzelbacher, Peter, Das fremde Mittelalter: Gottesurteil und Tierprozess (Essen: Magnus, 2006).
Ziegler, Vickie L., Trial by Fire and Battle in Medieval German Literature (New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2004).