Trial by Ordeal

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Trial by Ordeal


(Dei iudicium), in slave-owning and feudal societies a kind of test which supposedly helped to ascertain judicial truth.

Trial by ordeal was originally connected with the concept of an omniscient deity who is able to defend the just and accuse the guilty. The ordeal was known in the laws of Hammurabi, but more especially in the laws of Manu. It was adopted by all barbarian law codes, the Russian Law Code, the Polish Law Code, the Serbian Law Code of St. Dushan, and others.

The most widespread forms were trials by water (cold or boiling), fire, and heated iron. In certain regions of Africa, trials consisted of such ordeals as forcing the suspected person to swim across a river that was swarming with crocodiles. Other varieties of the ordeal were trials by judicial combat and the casting of lots. With the adoption of Christianity new forms of ordeal made their appearance—for instance, swearing on the cross or on relics. As a rule, ordeals were employed when there were no sure proofs of guilt.

Trial by ordeal was retained in Western Europe until the 17th century (especially in cases involving witchcraft). The Russian Law Code mentions trial by heated iron and by water. The trial by combat, as mentioned in a 13th-century treaty between Prince Mstislav of Smolensk and the Germans, was still retained in the Law Code of 1497, but it gradually ceased to be used. The kissing of the cross (while swearing an oath) and the casting of lots remained in practice the longest of all the ordeals.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.