Ordeals⁠—​Duels⁠—​Wager of battle⁠—​Abraham Thornton⁠—​Red hot iron⁠—​Boiling water⁠—​Swimming⁠—​Swearing⁠—​Corsned⁠—​Pagan ordeals.

Ordeals belong to times and communities of rudeness, violence, materialism, ignorance, gross superstition and blind faith. The theory of ordeals is, that God will miraculously decide in the case of any accused person referred to Him. He will cause the accused to be victorious or defeated in a duel, will punish him on the spot for perjury, and if the innocent be exposed to certain physical dangers, will preserve him harmless.

The duel, for instance, used to be called the “ordeal by battle,” and was simply the commitment of the decision of a cause to God. Duels were regularly prefaced by the solemn prayer “God show the right.” Nowadays nobody believes that skill with a pistol is going to be specially bestowed by the Almighty, without diligent practice at a mark. Accordingly, the idea of a divine interposition has long ago dropped out of the question, and duelling is exclusively in the hands of the devil and his human votaries⁠—is a purely brutal absurdity. But in England, so long was this bloody, superstitious humbug kept up, that any hardened scoundrel who was a good hand at his weapon might, down to the year 1819, absolutely have committed murder under the protection of English law. Two years before that date, a country “rough” named Abraham Thornton, murdered his sweetheart, Mary Ashford, but by deficiency of proof was acquitted on trial. There was however a moral conviction that Thornton had killed the girl, and her brother, a mere lad, caused an appeal to be entered according to the English statute, and Thornton was again arraigned before the King’s Bench. In the meantime his counsel had looked up the obsolete proceedings about “assize of battle,” and when Thornton was placed at the bar he threw down his glove upon the floor according to the ancient forms, and challenged his accuser to mortal combat. In reply, the appellant, Ashford, set forth facts so clearly showingThornton’s guilt as to constitute (as he alleged,) cause for exemption from the combat, and for condemnation of the prisoner. The court, taken by surprise, spent five months in studying on the matter. At last it decided that the fighting man had the law of England on his side, admitted his demand, and further, found that the matters alleged for exemption from combat were not sufficient. On this, poor William Ashford, who was but a boy, declined the combat by reason of his youth, and the prisoner was discharged, and walked in triumph out of court, the innocent blood still unavenged upon his hands. The old fogies of Parliament were startled at finding themselves actually permitting the practice of barbarisms abolished by the Greek emperor, Michael Palaeologus, in 1259, and by the good King Louis IX of France in 1270; and two years afterwards, in 1819, the legal duel or “assize of battle” was by law abolished in England. It had been legal there for five centuries and a half, having been introduced by statute in 1261.

Before that time, the ordeals by fire and by water were the regular legal ones in England. These were known even to the Anglo Saxon law, being mentioned in the code of Ina, AD, about 700. It appears that fire was thought the most aristocratic element, for the ordeal by fire was used for nobles, and that by water for vulgarians and serfs. The operations were as follows: When one was accused of a crime, murder for instance, he had his choice whether to be tried “by God and his country,” or “by God.” If he chose the former he went before a jury. If the latter, he underwent the ordeal. Nine red hot ploughshares were laid on the ground in a row. The accused was blindfolded, and sent to walk over them. If he burnt himself he was guilty; if not, not. Sometimes, instead of this, the accused carried a piece of red hot iron of from one to three pounds’ weight in his hand for a certain distance.

The ordeal by water was, in one form at least, the same wise alternative in after years so often offered to witches. The accused was tied up in a heap, each arm to the other leg, and flung into water. If he floated he was guilty, and must be killed. If he sank and drowned, he was innocent⁠—but killed. Trial was therefore synonymous with execution. The nature of such alternatives shows how important it was to have a character above suspicion! Another mode was, for the accused to plunge his bare arm into boiling water to the elbow. The arm was then instantly sealed up in bandages under charge of the clergy for three days. If it was then found perfectly well, the accused was acquitted; if not, he was found guilty.

Another ordeal was expurgation or compurgation. It was a simple business⁠—“as easy as swearing;” very much like a “custom house oath.” It was only this: the accused made solemn oath that he was not guilty, and all the respectable men he could muster came and made their solemn oath that they believed so too. This is much like the jurisprudence of the Dutch justice of the peace in the old story, before whom two men swore that they saw the prisoner steal chickens. The thief however, getting a little time to collect testimony, brought in twelve men who swore that they did not see him take the chickens. “Balance of evidence overwhelmingly in favor of the prisoner,” said the sapient justice (in Dutch I suppose,) and finding him innocent in a ratio of six to one, he discharged him at once.

This ordeal by oath was reserved for people of eminence, whose word went for something, and who had a good many thoroughgoing friends.

Another sort of ordeal was reserved for priests. It was called “corsned.” The priest who took the ordeal by corsned received a bit of bread or a bit of cheese which was loaded heavily, by way of sauce, with curses upon whomsoever should eat it falsely. This he ate, together with the bread of the Lord’s supper. Everybody knew that if he were guilty, the sacred mouthful would choke him to death on the spot. History records no instance of the choking of any priest in this ordeal, but there is a story that the Saxon Earl Godwin of Kent took the corsned to clear himself of a charge of murder, and (being a layman) was choked. I fully believe that Earl Godwin is dead, for he was born about the year 1000. But I have not the least idea that corsned killed him.

The priests had the management of ordeals, which, being appeals to God, were reckoned religious ceremonies. They of course much preferred the swearing and eating and hot iron and water ordeals, which could be kept under the regulation of clerical good sense. Not so with the ordeal by battle. No priests could do anything with the wrath of two great mad ugly brutes, hot to kill each other, and crazy to risk having their own throats cut or skulls cleft rather than not have the chance. In consequence, the whole influence of the Romish church went against the ordeal by battle, and in favor of the others. Thus the former soon lost its religious element and became the mere duel; a base indulgence of a beast’s passion for murder and revenge. The progress of enlightenment gradually pushed ordeals out of court. Mobs have however always tried the ordeal by water on witches.

Almost all the heathen ordeals have depended on fire, water, or something to eat or drink. Even in the Bible we find an ordeal prescribed to the Jews (Numbers 5) for an unfaithful wife, who is there directed to drink some water with certain ceremonies, which drink God promises shall cause a fatal disease if she be guilty, and if not, not. It is worth noticing that Moses says not a word about any “water of jealousy,” or any other ordeal, for unfaithful husbands!

This drinking or eating ordeal prevails quite extensively even now. In Hindustan, theft is often enquired into by causing the suspected party to chew some dry rice or rice flour, which has some very strong curses stirred into it, corsned fashion. After chewing, the accused spits out his mouthful, and if it is either dry or bloody, he is guilty. It is easy to see how a rascal, if as credulous as rascals often are, would be so frightened that his mouth would be dry, and would thus betray his own peccadillo. Another Hindu mode was, to give a certain quantity of poison in butter, and if it did no harm, to acquit. Here, the man who mixes the dose is evidently the important person. In Madagascar they give some tangena water. Now tangena is a fruit of which a little vomits the patient, and a good deal poisons or kills him; a quality which sufficiently explains how they manage that ordeal.

Ordeals by fire and water are still practiced, with some variations, in Hindustan, China, Pegu, Siberia, Congo, Guinea, Senegambia and other pagan nations. Some of those still in use are odd enough. A Malabar one is to swim across a certain river, which is full of crocodiles. A Hindu one is, for the two parties to an accusation to stand out doors, each with one bare leg in a hole, he to win who can longest endure the bites they are sure to get. This would be a famous method in some of the New Jersey and New York and Connecticut seashore lowlands I know of. The mosquitoes would decide cases both civil and criminal, at a speed that would make a Judge of the Supreme Court as dizzy as a humming-top. Another Hindu plan was for the accused to hold his head under water while a man walked a certain distance. If the walker chose to be lazy about it, or the prisoner had diseased lungs, this would be a rather severe method. The Wanakas in Eastern Africa, draw a red hot needle through the culprit’s lips⁠—a most judicious place to get hold of an African!⁠—and if the wound bleeds, he is guilty. In Siam, accuser and accused are put into a pen and a tiger is let loose on them. He whom the tiger kills is guilty. If he kills both, both are guilty; if neither, they try another mode.

Blackstone says that an ordeal might always be tried by attorney. I should think this would give the legal profession a very lively time whenever the courts were chiefly using tigers, poison, drowning, fire and red hot iron, but not so much so when a little swearing or eating was the only thing required.

This whole business of ordeals is a singular superstition, and the extent of its employment shows how ready the human race is to believe that God is constantly influencing even their ordinary private affairs. In other words, it is in principle like the doctrine of “special providence.” Looked at as a superstition however⁠—considered as a humbug⁠—the history of ordeals show how corrupt becomes the nuisance of religious ways of deciding secular business, and how proper is our great American principle of the separation of state and church.