- Date: before 12th century
- 1 : a primitive means used to determine guilt or innocence by submitting the accused to dangerous or painful tests believed to be under supernatural control <ordeal by fire>
- 2 : a severe trial or experience
Trial by ordeal is a judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience. In some cases, the accused was considered innocent if they survived the test, or if their injuries healed; in others, only death was considered proof of innocence. (If the accused died, they were often presumed to have gone to a suitable reward or punishment in the afterlife, which was considered to make trial by ordeal entirely fair.)
In medieval Europe, the trial by combat, trial by ordeal was considered a judicium Dei: a procedure based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle on their behalf. The practice has much earlier roots however, being attested as far back as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu, and also in animist tribal societies, such as the trial by ingestion of "red water" (calabar bean) in Sierra Leone, where the intended effect is magical rather than invocation of a deity's justice.
In pre-modern society, the ordeal typically ranked along with the oath and witness accounts as the central means by which to reach a judicial verdict. Indeed, the term ordeal itself, Old English ordǣl, has the meaning of "judgment, verdict" (German Urteil, Dutch oordeel), from Proto-Germanic *uzdailjam "that which is dealt out".
According to one theory, put forward by Peter Leeson, trial by ordeal was surprisingly effective at sorting the guilty from the innocent. Because defendants were believers, only the truly innocent would choose to endure a trial; guilty defendants would confess or settle cases instead. Therefore, the theory goes, church and judicial authorities would routinely rig ordeals so that the participants—presumably innocent—could pass them. If this theory is correct, medieval superstition was actually a useful motivating force for justice.
Priestly cooperation in trials by fire and water was forbidden by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, and replaced by compurgation. Trials by ordeal became rarer over the Late Middle Ages, often replaced by confessions extracted under torture, but the practice was discontinued only in the 16th century. Johannes Hartlieb in 1456 reports a popular superstition of how to identify a thief by an ordeal by ingestion practised privately without judicial sanction.