Trial by Ordeal and Other Medieval Customs

In the Middle Ages, the thought process on being tried for a crime was somewhat different than now.

If you were accused of a crime, your innocence or guilt might be proven by ordeal or by combat.  If by ordeal, then you might be asked to fetch a small stone out of a cauldron filled with boiling water; or asked to hold a hot iron, or walk across hot coals.  Your wound would then be wrapped and examined in three days.  If it had begun to heal, you were innocent.  If it had gotten infected or wasn’t healing well, this was proof of your guilt.

Trial by combat is pretty self-explanatory.  You would fight a duel to establish your innocence, unless of course you lost, and your opponent would then have proven your guilt.

From our point-of-view, this seems horribly unfair.  But I would have a hard time believing that, had any of us been born at that time, we would not have thought just the same.

Assuming two things (which just about everyone believed):

1. That God is omnipotent and is in complete control of the universe and

2. That God loves people, or at least those who follow Him, and would not wish for their unwarranted suffering.

Given this, is it such a far leap to assume that when an innocent person is accused of a crime, that God will protect him and prove his innocence?

This idea is explored in George Eliot’s book Silas Marner.  This particular story takes place later, around the time of the Industrial Revolution, but takes place in a small town where similar beliefs still rule the community.  An innocent and very faithful man is ‘proven’ guilty of a crime and ostracized, and so he looses his faith in God.  But the story continues and shows how this good man is still watched over and blessed, and how he eventually regains his faith.

Another widely-held belief during the Middle Ages, of which Bede recounted numerous tales, is the miraculous healing by relics.  A relic could be the bones or other possessions of the saints.  One common way of healing was to cut a small piece of wood off of the cross or table on which a saint died, place the piece of wood in water, and drink the water (not the wood).  This seems strange to us, but again, given the two beliefs above, why not?  So many believed this for such a long period of time, that I felt I had to reconcile this belief somehow with myself.  First, and I suppose the most obvious point to make with our current, very scientific view of the world, is that the human body is pretty miraculous in itself.  How often would a person heal naturally, no matter what they drank or believed?  Secondly, and some may disagree with me here, but didn’t Jesus say, “Thy faith hath made thee whole”?  I think that there is some percentage of those people who, by keeping the commandments and doing their best to live good and faithful lives, followed the teachings of the church as they were then understood, and they were blessed because of it.  I’m not saying that drinking wood-flavored water would be viable option today, because our point-of-view and situation is different.  We (people today) have been given numerous blessings and scientific advances and understandings, and I personally believe that these are inspired gifts to be used and cultivated.  But as in any age of history (including the current one), people only have the knowledge that is available to them to work with.  And, of course, they have their faith.