These days, the word “trial” calls to mind a courtroom, a judge, learned people arguing about evidence and the law.
But that’s not the only way of doing things.
Most people will have encountered the idea of trial by ordeal in the context of European witch-trials, as that’s where it hung on the longest. It isn’t just a European thing, though; we also find it in the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa. The specific manifestations vary wildly, but the general concept is that you make the accused do something dangerous, and if they survive or are unharmed, then it’s proof that they’re innocent of the crime — usually something serious, like witchcraft, murder, heresy, or adultery. (And yes, it says something about a society when they put adultery on par with those others.)
Trial by combat is a specialized case of this, which came up when we discussed dueling back in Year Two. Also called “judicial dueling” or “wager of battle,” it’s not as widespread as other ordeals, being mostly confined the the broader Germanic sphere in Europe. These were often heavily regulated as to the cause, timing, armaments, clothing (you might have to fight barefoot), and who could duel in the first place (women, children, the elderly, and the disabled being excluded). Appointing a champion to fight in your stead might be illegal, but sometimes it happened anyway. There were consequences for the losing party, whether defendant or plaintiff; for the former it was usually execution or exile, while the latter might pay restitution, suffer a formal loss of reputation, and/or be deprived of certain legal privileges and benefits.
There are many other kinds of ordeals, though. “Trial by fire” has survived as an idiomatic phrase in English; historically, it can mean holding onto or walking over red-hot metal, walking a certain distance while holding embers wrapped in only leaves, walking through or sitting on a fire, and so forth. The form of a trial by water depends on whether the water is cold or hot. When cold, this is the classic “if the suspect floats, they’re a witch” scenario, while hot water requires plucking something out of a boiling pot. (Variants on this use boiling oil or molten metal instead.) Trial by ingestion requires you to eat something: sometimes poison, but sometimes holy material such as the Eucharist. This one also appears in the Bible, in the form of the ordeal of the bitter water, used on a woman suspected of adultery. Others are very culture-specific, e.g. the Frankish ordeal of the cross (accuser and accused stand with their arms outstretched; whoever lowers them first loses) or the Icelandic ordeal of turf (walk under a piece of turf and see if it falls on your head).
Like trial by combat, these ordeals were sometimes regulated by statue. For example, the severity of the offense might dictate how deep the boiling water should be, or how many paces the accused has to travel while bearing a hot object. At heart, though, trial by ordeal is inherently a supernatural practice. Although it’s possible to walk unharmed across embers, and physics has some suggestions as to why, the odds of touching red-hot metal or putting your hands into boiling water without being injured are roughly nil. In the legends that say someone did exactly that, it’s attributed to divine intervention: God knew the accused was innocent, and arranged a miracle to confirm it. In historical practice, the question is often not whether the person is unharmed, but whether they heal cleanly or suffer an infection. Virtue and faith make a person pure; the corruption of rot is proof of guilt.
Even when trial by ordeal was widespread, people could see problems with it. From a theological standpoint, it amounts to pestering God to take care of the problem for you, staging bespoke miracles on demand. There were also ways to game it, depending on the ordeal in question. The preparation of a bed of coals can affect how likely a firewalker is to get burned; the appointment of a champion in a duel can certainly tip the balance of the fight. I’ve lost the specific citation for this, but I know I read about an ordeal where the accused had to consume a poisonous substance, which the innocent would vomit up — and you were more liable to regurgitate a stronger dose. A sympathetic judge could therefore help to ensure an acquittal.
And, of course, the fundamental problem is that sometimes the outcome of the ordeal was wrong. There’s a twelfth-century English case of a pilgrim who returned home without his companion and was suspected of murdering him. Because the pilgrim knew he was innocent, he agreed to an ordeal — which he failed, and so they executed him. A little while later, his supposed victim returned home, alive and well. Incidents like this contributed substantially to the eventual decline of ordeals as a standard way of trying cases.
But what if you’re writing fantasy? It’s entirely possible to create a world in which ordeals work exactly like they’re supposed to, one hundred percent of the time. What would that world look like? I think it would be an odd one, because you’re essentially removing the possibility of miscarriages of justice. If someone gets murdered, there’s no need for an investigation; all you have to do is heat up a poker and touch it to the hands of everyone in the village to find out who the killer is. That might be an interesting narrative experiment.
I have to admit, though, that as soon as I start to imagine that world, I also start imagining ways to break it. Because in a world where the supernatural is reliable enough to offer the possibility of an infallible justice system, I reflexively assume there are other supernatural forces that can attempt to screw with it. That’s why participants in judicial duels were often required to swear they weren’t using any kind of witchcraft or sorcery; the belief that God would judge was counterbalanced by a fear that people would call on the Devil to hide their sin. And do you have to conduct the rituals correctly to be sure the ordeal will produce an accurate result? Catholic priests used to preside over these ordeals with formal rites (before the Church barred them from doing so), and that raises the possibility of what amounts to spiritual malpractice. Do you then have a trial to see if the priest is guilty of making a mistake that led to the death of an innocent?
Even with magic very clearly in play, the process isn’t straightforward. Which is good — because that makes for good stories.