Medieval Sourcebook: Ordeal Formuals
The two methods of proof used in early Germanic law were compurgation and ordeal. In
compurgation the accused swore to his own innocence together with a group of "oath-helpers."
Two typical kinds of ordeal-in their Christianized form-are described in the following liturgical
The Judgment of the Glowing Iron
After the accusation has been lawfully made, and three days have been passed in fasting and
prayer, the priest, clad in his sacred vestments with the exception of his outside garment, shall
take with a tongs the iron placed before the altar; and, singing the hymn of the three youths,
namely, "Bless him all his works," he shall bear it to the fire, and shall say this prayer over the
place where the fire is to carry out the judgment: "Bless, O Lord God, this place, that there may
be for us in it sanctity, chastity, virtue and victory, and sanctimony, humility, goodness,
gentleness and plentitude of law, and obedience to God the Father and the Son and the Holy
Ghost." After this, the iron shall be placed in the fire and shall be sprinkled with holy water; and
while it is heating, he shall celebrate mass. But when the priest shall have taken the Eucharist, he
shall adjure the man who is to be tried .
.. and shall cause him to take the communion. Then the
priest shall sprinkle holy water above the iron and shall say: "The blessing of God the Father, the
Son, and the Holy Ghost descend upon this iron for the discerning of the right judgment of God."
And straightway the accused shall carry the iron to a distance of nine feet. Finally his hand shall
be covered under seal for three days, and if festering blood be found in the track of the iron, he
shall be judged guilty. But if, however, he shall go forth uninjured, praise shall be rendered to
Test of the Cold Water
Consecration to Be Said over the Man.
May omnipotent God, who did order baptism to be made
by water, and did grant remission of sins to men through baptism: may He, through His mercy,
decree a right judgment through that water. If, namely, thou art guilty in that matter, may the
water which received thee in baptism not receive thee now; if however, thou art innocent, may
the water which received thee in baptism receive thee now. Through Christ our Lord.
Afterwards He Shall Exorcise the Water Thus
: I adjure thee,water, in name of the Father
Almighty, who did create thee in the beginning, who also did order thee to be separated from the
waters above,. . . that in no manner thou receive this man, if he be in any way guilty of the
charge that is brought against him; by deed, namely, or by consent, or by knowledge, or in any
way: but make him to swim above thee. And may no process be employed against thee, and no
magic which may be able to conceal that (fact of his guilt).
from Ernest F. Henderson,