Why Trial by Ordeal was like a medieval polygraph

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2017/10/19/why-trial-by-ordeal-was-like-a.html

Unless they didn’t like you, probably.

Also, it kinds of assumes that the accused is a true believer in iudicium Dei. Was that actually a common belief, or just the pretense of it?

There is a similar story about Napier, the discoverer of logarithms:

Another problem that needed solving was the suspicion that there was a thief among Napier’s new workers. Tools and supplies had been disappearing but when kitchen tools vanished, Napier decided to take action. After all the workers had denied any wrong doing, Napier gathered the workers and told them he was going to use his truth telling rooster. Each worker was to go in the dark storage room where the rooster was perched, pet it, and then come out. After each worker had done this, Napier asked to see the palms of their hands. Everyone but one worker had black palms. He knew then, the thief was the one with clean palms. Because the guilty worker didn’t touch the rooster for fear the rooster would know he was the thief, he kept his hands in his pockets. But what the worker didn’t know is Napier had covered the rooster with lamp black. Those who had nothing to hide petted the rooster, thus their hands turned black. But the guilty one, who did not touch the rooster, came out with clean hands. Unorthodox, yes, but very ingenious.

from http://www.math.wichita.edu/history/men/napier.html


Yeah, the “trick” is not that the water isn’t actually hot, the trick is that the suspect also believes in God’s will protecting him.


Sounds a bit like this post is saying “torture works."


Of course it works - as a tool for indiscriminate extraction of confessions.


I’m slightly skeptical (which would not have served me well at all in a trial by ordeal to begin with…)

I’m sure this could have, under some circumstances, worked “as advertised” with a skilled, thoughtful priest. But there were many other forms of religious or quasi-religious trials in wide use which were not amenable to this headology - such as parties to the trial holding a contest of arms spread to form a cross figure (to see whom would God grant greater strength), not to mention trial by combat. So I’m not entirely sure the practice was really as benevolent or as cunningly administered as suggested.

Also, the priests would have to be quite skeptical and cynical themselves, deliberately messing with an ostensible act of God.


Psychological torture, at the very least. Including years of brainwashing prior to the ordeal so that someone accepts the idea of an all-powerful Invisible Bearded Sky Man™ who’ll take a personal interest in his case.

I wish I could say that we’re completely done with this medieval garbage as a civilisation, but given the number of megachurches selling the prosperity gospel to desperate people I can’t.


While it might have worked as advertised here by accident, I don’t really believe this was how it was ‘;supposed’ to work.
If there ever was a time peoples beliefs were so strong they actually would put their hand in boiling water thinking god would save them then the priests would have believed this as well, and used actual boiling water as a result.

The situation sketched here only works is the priest doesn’t actually believe in the divine ordeal and is just trying to scare the suspect into confessing, but in that case the suspect would probably not be sure enough of the miracle either.


Exactly! And further, once word got out that “Hey, that priest used cold water last time” nobody would take it seriously and all would know how to “play the game” if they were ever subject to it. Plus, doesn’t boiling water steam somewhat, or were the victims blindfolded too?

Utter tosh, as theories go, IMHO.


From the post: “so long as the subject is confident God will protect them if they are innocent.”

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Also, polygraphs are torture.


It depends on whether you felt you’ve adequately bribed the priest.


Three things come to mind here… one, why is not the water boiling? I’m thinking many of these Medieval torture guys just did it for the sake of torturing, no real evidence of guilt needed. I would think the water would be extra hot. Two, admitting to guilt in days of old when cauldrons of scalding water was the litmus test, I’m thinking, paying a fine would not be the punishment one would receive. More likely they would just go ahead and scald your hand off or cut it off, if not thrown in a dank, dark dungeon for your crime. Three… if the Christian believer has faith the Lord would save their limb from being boiled off and the truth is revealed that the Lord was having tea at that particular time and indeed, the innocent persons hand was scalded to the bone, would that said person lose faith and become a Satainist?

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shadrach meshach and abednego


But in many trials (e.g. in pre-Conquest England), innocence was not determined by a miraculous absence of injury, but whether the inevitable wounds were healing or festering after a certain number of days. That’s a lot harder to pre-arrange.

And if everyone who chose to undertake the trial did so because they were innocent, then the fact that “nearly two-thirds of defendants were unscathed by the ‘red-hot’ irons they carried and hence exonerated” in early 13th century Hungary actually reveals a wrongful conviction rate in excess of 33%.

Plus religious scepticism was a thing in the Middle Ages: see e.g. this article (though admittedly that does deal with a period long after peak popularity of trial by ordeal). It doesn’t follow that every innocent person would expect God to protect them.

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True. But I was thinking of all the waterboarding at Guantanamo.


I’m sure you’re right that many torturers did enjoy the job, just like today, but history shows that many people did pass the test, and were not boiled or burned. The easiest explanation for non-believers is that the test was rigged.

Although it varies wildly with time and place (just like today) Medieval punishments weren’t uniformly, grotesquely more harmful than modern ones. That’s just something that modern authorities want you to believe in order to excuse their own routine cruelties like waterboarding, life imprisonment, institutional rape, &etc.

Although this no doubt happened from time to time, I believe it’s more common to become an atheist in such circumstances. Satanists haven’t lost their faith, they’ve just transferred allegiance to a different character in the same mythos.


They always look so chill in the drawings.


Uh huh.

Sorry. Not that I want to argue with you, but “the trick” is that the accused have to also believe in God, or else it doesn’t work.

You specifically said “The trick is, of course, that the water was usually a safe temperature.”