Inspired by this Tumblr post, I thought I would write about judicial ordeals. Judicial ordeals are a funny thing, and I’m not sure I understand them. Trial by combat is sort of a subset of them, and it is a weird world unto itself which I don’t fully understand. I do know that in some areas (as that post illustrates) it was fought with special weapons, and that might be worth exploring in future. Is it maybe to give it a sense of specialness? Is it to cancel out one side’s advantage? I have no idea.
But trial by combat is far from the only form of trial that involves no actual trial. Some of my favourite ones come from Anglo-Saxon England. (Like some of my favourite ones of everything else.)
A lot of Anglo-Saxon (and later) ordeals involve sticking your hand in boiling water or picking up some kind of very hot thing, like a heated iron bar. Now, it’s not being able to carry it that’s the main thing. If you carry it, good for you. What they do is they bind up your wounds and then, a couple of days later, take a look at them. And if the wounds have become infected, you’re guilty. If they’re haling nicely, you’re free to go. Simple, right?
Now, a lot of interesting stuff has been written about crime and punishment in Anglo-Saxon England, and I could hardly cover it all here. It’s telling, for instance, that one word means “infected,” “guilty” and “dirty”. But for the purposes of this blog, I just like to speculate about how this system can be / generally would have been rigged.
So, to my eyes there are two ways. The first is that monks (or whatever neutral party is running this thing) can be nobbled. How hot is that iron? Oh, hot enough. The second way is that it’s presumably someone’s job to examine the wounds and determine them clean or not. They could pull those bandages off and reveal a festering horror and, as long as the right person had been spoken to, who’s to say what they’d see?
Now, in reality the one thing I always wonder about these types of things is the extent to which they actually happened? Did people just like writing down rules for ordeal and trials by combat? We know they happened sometimes. The historians of the First Crusade tell a very interesting story about a holy man – stroke – con artist named Peter Bartholomew who died as a result of a failed ordeal … which says something about what he thought was going to happen, doesn’t it?
You kind of have to wonder about what people who watched one of these things thought they were seeing.