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What Is Trial by Ordeal?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

Trial by ordeal is an archaic practice of submitting an individual accused of a crime to a painful or dangerous situation with an outcome used to decide guilt or innocence. The practice was popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, and was said to be a trial before God. Many ordeals exposed the accused to tests involving fire, boiling water, or oil, and even drinking poisoned liquids. Some of the earliest examples of trial by ordeal can be found in the Bible.

The basic idea behind the concept is that the accused is being judged by God. If he or she makes it through the test or challenge unscathed, God has declaring innocence. When the individual was harmed, it was viewed as God declaring guilt and executing a punishment. The Bible tells of women whose loyalty to their husbands was tested through trial by ordeal; the Book of Numbers includes a story of a wife instructed to drink contaminated water as a test before her husband, her priests, and God. If unharmed by the water, she was declared innocent; if she became sick, however, she would be found guilty and executed.

The Holy Bible holds many of the earliest examples of trial by ordeal.
The Holy Bible holds many of the earliest examples of trial by ordeal.

Many countries and areas with or without a Christian background continued the practice well into the 13th century, even after it was condemned by the Church. Individuals were subjected to a variety of tasks, and a guilty verdict would often result in the trial being stopped and the punishment carried out elsewhere. Many of these trials were conducted in public.

Fire and water were two of the most commonly used elements for these ordeals, and the accused were ordered to perform tasks such as picking up a rock from a pot of boiling water or walking a certain distance carrying hot metal. Perhaps the most famous trial by ordeal is one faced by women accused of being witches. Thrown into a river or pond, they were declared innocent if they sank and guilty if they floated. The verdict was often decided quickly, and guilty women were pulled from the water and burned at the stake. When the accused was a member of the clergy, the trial often involved a direct appeal to God, followed by the test itself.

At first glance, this seems like a barbaric and unfair way to determine guilt or innocence, but some individuals have suggested that the method worked. In some cases, an individual's own guilt would manifest in a failure to pass the test; some ordeals involved eating or drinking something without choking, and guilt would make this task difficult. Another theory suggests that guilt or innocence was really decided by those giving the test; if a person was thought to be innocent, the water in the pot would be hot but not boiling, allowing him or her to pass through the ordeal relatively unscathed. Trial by ordeal was in some ways the precursor to the modern idea of criminal psychology, and of reading guilt or innocence in a person's actions and words.

Discussion Comments


I wonder if the story about Emma of Normandy is true. She had to walk across hot planks to prove that she did not commit adultery. They say she walked with ease and didn't even realize that she had passed them.


@fBoyle-- Well, there is the belief during that time that God will protect the innocent. So those who die or suffer as a result of these ordeals were thought to be guilty. But the underlying cause for these trials was the lack of evidence/proof and the need to punish someone for a crime.

I think the trials by ordeals in the Middle Ages that were used for "witches" were slightly different. There was a different mentality there. I think people at the time had the idea that witches were everywhere and they were made of wood. And they would use the trial by fire and the trial by water to see if the person was made of wood. It doesn't make sense now, but people really believed in these things at that time.


Another version of the trial by water was where they threw the accused into water with a brick or something heavy tied to their leg. The accused would sink and after a while, they would pull him or her out. If the accused was still alive, he or she was considered innocent. If the accused was dead, he or she was guilty.

This was done frequently for women accused of witchcraft in Europe. The trial by water and the trial by fire were the most common trials used for them. The fire one was also different. Sometimes it involved holding a hot rod. But most of the time, the accused was burned at the stake. If the flames took over, she was considered guilty.

Neither of these trials make much sense. Almost always, the accused dies and there is an assumption that surviving means innocence.

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    • The Holy Bible holds many of the earliest examples of trial by ordeal.
      By: justinkendra
      The Holy Bible holds many of the earliest examples of trial by ordeal.