Medieval Trial by Ordeal: Definition & History

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
The medieval trial by ordeal was a harsh method that relied on divine intervention to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. This lesson will cover different ordeals, the history, and the role psychology.


In a Monty Python skit, a mob of angry peasants offer up an annoyed woman wearing a false nose to their town leader. They say, ''We have found a witch, may we burn her?''

''How do you know she is a witch?'' he asks. The townsfolk are confused and offer reasons from ''She looks like one!'' to ''She turned me into a newt!'' After much debate, they determine that the best test of witchcraft is to see if she weighs the same amount as a duck, and if she is, she's a witch.

This type of tortured reasoning mocks the medieval trial by ordeal, where people underwent an ordeal to prove their innocence, like being dunked in water or asked to carry a hot iron. However, the trial by ordeal may have served an important purpose in settling matters of justice before our high-tech era of forensic science.

Different Ordeals

Ordeal by Hot Water
Ordeal by Hot Water

The trial by ordeal is defined by its appeal to supernatural forces to determine guilt or innocence. The trials were overseen by members of the clergy who oversaw the test conditions and determined the guilt or innocence of the accused in a manner prescribed by the Catholic Church.

There were several types of trial by ordeal, but the common feature was the expectation that God would intervene in the outcome if the accused were innocent. The most common trial by ordeal was the ordeal by hot water where the accused would reach into a pot of boiling water and retrieve an object. If the accused was innocent, the water would not burn their skin, but if they were guilty then the burns would reveal their guilt.

Similar to the hot water trial was the ordeal by hot iron where the accused person would carry a burning hot iron so many paces without being burned to prove their innocence.

The more widely known trial by ordeal is the ordeal by cold water where the accused was dunked into a pool of water. If they were innocent they would sink, and if they were guilty, they would float. This particular trial was oftentimes used to determine if witchcraft had been committed, but it is a myth that sinking individuals were left to drown (which would have made it a 'heads-you're-guilty, tails-you're-dead' test). The accused would be helped out of the pool within a few minutes of the trial.

A special trial by ordeal was used on the clergy known as the ordeal by the sacrament, whereby an accused priest would be required to take the wafer of communion. If they were guilty, the accused clergy member was expected to choke on the sacrament, and if innocent they would swallow it without incident.


While such trials have existed in various times historically, the specific trials we have looked at extend from the 9th century until the 13th century in Europe. The practice was formally ended by the Pope in 1215 by the Catholic Church in favor of using a jury process. The practice had some sanction in various places throughout Europe, but waned as it was viewed as an irrational way to conduct legal trials.

The medieval trial by ordeal likely worked by psychological principles to determine innocence or guilt based on the idea of iudicium Dei, or belief in divine intervention. This belief was common back then, and the trial would allow clergy to study the response of the accused.

It was expected that individuals who were wrongly accused would accede to the trial by ordeal to prove their innocence, while guilty parties were expected to confess or settle rather than be exposed. The priests, who controlled the trial by ordeal, could manipulate those conditions so that clearly innocent people would not be harmed by the trial and thus increase belief in divine intervention.

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