The fascinating truth about medieval justice by ordeal: It “worked.”
For the better part of a millennium, Europe’s legal systems decided difficult criminal cases in a most peculiar way. When judges were uncertain about an accused criminal’s guilt, they ordered a cauldron of water to be boiled, a ring to be thrown in, and the defendant to plunge in his naked hand and pluck the object out. The defendant’s hand was wrapped in bandages and revisited three days later. If it survived the bubbling cauldron unharmed, the defendant was declared innocent. If it didn’t, he was convicted.
These trials were called “ordeals.” They reached their height between the 9th and 13th centuries, and the methods varied. In one variant, a piece of iron was heated until it was red hot. The defendant picked it up and carried it with her bare hand. In another, the defendant was stripped naked, his hands and feet bound, and he was pushed into a pool of holy water. If the defendant sank, he was acquitted. If he floated, he was condemned.
Modern observers have roundly condemned ordeals for being cruel and arbitrary. Ordeals seem to reflect everything that was wrong with the Dark Ages. They’re an icon of medieval barbarism and backwardness.
But a closer look suggests something very different: The ordeal system worked surprisingly well. It accurately determined who was guilty and who was innocent, sorting genuine criminals from those who had been wrongly accused. Stranger still, the ordeal system suggests that pervasive superstition can be good for society. Medieval legal systems leveraged citizens’ superstitious beliefs through ordeals, making it possible to secure criminal justice where it would have otherwise been impossible to do so. Some superstitions, at least, may evolve and persist for a good reason: They help us accomplish goals we couldn’t otherwise accomplish, or accomplish them more cheaply.
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