By Peter T. Leeson
The quest for criminal justice is fraught with uncertainty. Did the defendant commit the crime, or is he a victim of incriminating circumstances? Is he guilty as charged, or has he been charged guilty by an overzealous prosecutor? Unsure about the truth, we often end up guessing ‘He did it’ when he might not have, or ‘He didn’t do it’ when in fact he did.
The only ones who know for sure whether a defendant is guilty or innocent are the defendant himself and God above. Asking the defendant to tell us the truth of the matter is usually useless: spontaneous confessions by the guilty are rare. But what if we could ask God to tell us instead? And what if we did? And what if it worked?
For more than 400 years, between the ninth and the early 13th centuries, that’s exactly what Europeans did. In difficult criminal cases, when ‘ordinary’ evidence was lacking, their legal systems asked God to inform them about defendants’ criminal status. The method of their request: judicial ordeals.
Judicial ordeals took several forms, from dunking the defendant in a pool of holy water to walking him barefoot across burning plowshares. Among the most popular, however, was the ordeal of boiling water and the ordeal of burning iron. In the former, the defendant plunged his hand into a cauldron of boiling water and fished out a ring. In the latter, he carried a piece of burning iron several paces. A few days later, the defendant’s hand was inspected: if it was burned, he was guilty; if not, he was innocent.
Judicial ordeals were administrated and adjudged by priests, in churches, as part of special masses. During such a mass, the priest requested God to reveal to the court the defendant’s guilt or innocence through the ordeal – letting boiling water or burning iron burn the defendant if he were guilty, performing a miracle that prevented the defendant’s hand from being burned if he were innocent. The idea that God would respond to a priest’s request in this way reflected a popular medieval belief according to which ordeals were iudiciua Dei – ‘judgments of God’.
Getting God to judge the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants is a pretty nifty trick if you could pull it off. But how could medieval European courts accomplish this?