Ordeal (Ang. Sax. ordoel, from or, primitive, and doel, judgment; Ger. Urtheil), an ancient form of trial for persons accused of crime, designed to determine their guilt or innocence by a supposed reference to the judgment of God. The earliest mention of such a practice is in the laws of Moses (Numbers v.), according to which the Hebrew woman suspected of adultery is to drink the "waters of jealousy." Trial by ordeal seems to have been known in Greece, as in the "Antigone" of Sophocles a sentinel who had failed in fulfilling a trust is represented as declaring that he is ready to "handle hot iron and walk over fire" to prove his innocence. In modern Europe trials by fire and by water were most usual. " Eire ordeal," says Blackstone, "was performed either by taking up in the hand, unhurt, a piece of red-hot iron of one, two, or three pounds weight; or else by "walking barefoot and blindfold over nine red-hot ploughshares, laid lengthwise at unequal distances; and if the party escaped being hurt, he was adjudged innocent; but if it happened otherwise, as without collusion it generally did, he was then condemned as guilty." The trial by fire was the one commonly in use among the higher orders, and several instances are recorded in which noble females by means of it vindicated their chastity. - The trial by water, the origin of which is usually ascribed to Pope Eugenius II., was of two kinds, that by boiling water and that by cold water.
In the former, the individual thrust into a vessel of hot water his arm, which when withdrawn was bound up and sealed, and at the end of three days examined. If no trace of scald appeared he was declared innocent. In the cold water ordeal the individual was thrown into the water, and if he floated without swimming he was considered guilty; but if he sank he was deemed innocent and drawn out. A trace of this practice lasted until a late period in the case of persons suspected of witchcraft, in which the victim, with the right arm bound to the left leg and the left arm to the right leg, was cast into a pond, and if the body floated the charge was thought to be proved. In Malabar the suspected criminal was obliged to swim across a large stream abounding in crocodiles. As, according to Blackstone, the ordeal could be performed by deputy, the principal answering for the result, and the deputy only venturing on some corporeal pain for hire or for friendship, language has preserved a relic of the practice in the expression " to go through fire and water to serve one." - The corsned, or trial by the hallowed bread and cheese, was chiefly practised by ecclesiastics.
A morsel of bread or of cheese, loaded with imprecations, was given the accused to eat along with the eucharist; and if the person were guilty, it was believed he could not swallow it. The ordeal of the bier, which was common in cases of murder, existed from a very early period and as late as the 18th century. The murdered man was laid upon a bier, and the suspected criminal was obliged to touch his body, and particularly the wound. If blood flowed, if foam appeared at the mouth, or if the body moved, the charge was deemed to be proved. The ordeal of battle (see Appeal, vol. i., p. 596) seems to have been unknown among the ancients, except by a Spanish tribe mentioned in Livy (xxviii. cap. 21). William the Conqueror introduced it into England. Decretals were issued against this method of deciding disputes by Pope Alexander III. in 1179 and by Innocent III. in 1215, and Louis IX. abolished it in the ordinance of 1260. From this time the practice fell gradually into disuse. Other forms of ordeal, chiefly local, such as the weighing of witches, were practised in northern Germany as late as the beginning of the 18th century.
If they were exceedingly light, they were declared guilty. - The practice of these ordeals sprang from a superstitious belief that a just God would interfere to punish the guilty. Yet, although ordeals were performed upon consecrated ground, and though so late as the reign of King John the clergy of England had the privilege of using the judicium ferri, aqum et ignis, the church early and earnestly endeavored to do away with them. The temporal power came to the aid of the spiritual, and by the 16th century the practice with a few exceptions had been given up. According to Sir Edward Coke, it was abolished in England in the reign of Henry III. - In Hindo-stan especially the system of ordeals was developed, so that, according to Warren Hastings in the first volume of the "Asiatic Researches," there were, nine kinds of ordeal in use, all equally absurd. The laws of Manu contain the following directions: " According to the nature of the case, let the judge cause him who is under trial to take fire in his hand, or to plunge in water, or to touch separately the heads of his children and of his wife.
Whom the flame burns not, whom the water rejects not from its depths, whom misfortune overtakes not speedily, his oath shall be received as undoubted." Ordeals of various kinds, but chiefly the trials by fire and by water, are found among the Japanese, the Chinese, the natives of Pegu and of Guinea, and the tribes of Asiatic Russia. In Japan, while the ordeal of fire was employed, accused persons were also sometimes required to swallow a paper inscribed with mysterious characters, which was supposed to give them no rest if guilty till they confessed. In Siam the accuser and the accused were placed together, and a tiger was let loose upon them. If one was spared, he was considered innocent; if both were destroyed, they were both deemed guilty. In Madagascar the trial by ordeal was long practised, the supposed criminal being made to drink a decoction of a poisonous fruit called the tangena, a small dose of which acts as an emetic, while a large dose is fatal. By managing the size of the dose, those who administered it could decide the result.
In 18G2 the practice was totally abolished by royal edict. - See "Superstition and Force," by Henry C. Lea (Philadelphia, 1870).