E. Cobham Brewer 18101897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
Ordeal (Saxon, great judgment),
instituted long before the Conquest, and not abolished till the reign of Henry III.
Ordeals were of several kinds, but the most usual were by wager of battle, by hot or cold water, and by fire. This method of trial was introduced from the notion that God would defend the right, even by miracle if needful.
(1) Wager of battle, was when the accused person was obliged to fight anyone who charged him with guilt. This ordeal was allowed only to persons of rank.
(2) Of fire, was another ordeal for persons of rank only. The accused had to hold in his hand a piece of red-hot iron, or had to walk blindfold and barefoot among nine red-hot plough-shares laid at unequal distances. If he escaped uninjured he was accounted innocent, aliter non. This might be performed by deputy.
(3) Of hot water, was an ordeal for the common people. The accused was required to plunge his arm up to the elbow in scalding hot water, and was pronounced guilty if the skin was injured in the experiment.
(4) Of cold water, was also for the common people. The accused, being bound, was tossed into a river; if he sank he was acquitted, but if he floated he was accounted guilty.
(5) Of the bier, when a person suspected of murder was required to touch the corpse; if guilty the blood of the dead body would start forth afresh.
(6) Of the cross. Plaintiff and defendant had to stand with their arms crossed over their breasts, and he who could endure the longest won the suit.
(7) Of the Eucharist. This was for clergymen suspected of crime. It was supposed that the elements would choke him, if taken by a guilty man.
(8) Of the corsned, or consecrated bread and cheese. Godwin, Earl of Kent, is said to have been choked when he submitted to this ordeal, being accused of the murder of the kings brother.
This sort of ordeal was by no means unusual. Thus in Ceylon, a man suspected of theft is required to bring what he holds dearest before a judge, and placing a heavy stone on the head of his substitute, says May this stone crush thee to death if I am guilty of this offence.
In Tartary, an ostiack sets a wild bear and an hatchet before the tribunal, saying, as he swallows a piece of bread, May the bear devour me, and the hatchet chop off my head, if I am guilty of the crime laid to my charge.
(9) Of lot, two dice, one marked by a cross, being thrown.