If accused of a crime in medieval times, a person could undergo a lengthy trial with a jury of his peers. This happened more often with nobility, richer and more important people who might disrupt societal structure if proven guilty and removed from their stations. The peasants often faced quick trials by ordeal.
In Vassal, the upcoming novel following the short story “Darrion,” Aislin has already banished Darrion from her manor house, for sins she just can’t forgive. He lives within the serfs’ cottages, biding his time until she can find a way to banish him from her fief forever. But someone has slipped belladonna poison into Darrion’s food, and the soldiers have arrived to arrest both of them. Harboring a gifted fugitive, and consorting with the Brotherhood of Teague, isn’t punishable by death. It’s punishable by torture, dismemberment, and then death when the accused could take it no longer.
Aislin faces a trial, but medieval trials weren’t as merciful as they are today. A woman, even a landholding vassal, did not stand equally among a jury of her “peers.” She relied upon the mercies of a husband, or her liege, to defend her in a trial. But Aislin had no husband. And Parlan, the Earl of Edurne, sought to defend her only to gain further control. A cauldron bubbled in the courtyard, ready for her trial by ordeal. Aislin had one more option that even Parlan did not anticipate.
An ancient judicial practice carried on through the Salem witch-hunts and ending as late as the 1700s, trials by ordeal were surprisingly effective. They followed a simple premise: God would save the innocent. The effectiveness also followed another simple premise: The guilty, who had as much faith as the accusers in the premise that God would save them, knew they would fail and declined the trial, thus automatically condemning themselves. Church and judicial officials could often rig ordeals so the participants could pass them, if the authorities so wished. If they did not rig them, the innocent still suffered.
Several trials existed, some crueler than others:
Trial by Combat
Regularly used in Germanic law, trial by combat let men settle accusations without witnesses. Both parties fought in a single dispute, and the winner was proclaimed to be right. Trial by combat appears to have been introduced into common law in England following the Norman Conquest and remained through the high and late Middle Ages. This judicially sanctioned duel disappeared gradually throughout the 16th century. Hans Talhoffer, in 1459, names seven offences which warrant a judicial duel: murder, treason, heresy, desertion of one’s lord, abduction, perjury/fraud, and rape. Peasants had to present their case to a judge before dueling, but nobles had the right to challenge each other to duels without involving higher powers. Trials by combat were abolished by Emperor Maximilian I, but evolved into gentlemanly duels, which were only outlawed in the 19th century.
A one-sided ordeal of combat included “running the gauntlet,” though this was more commonly used as a form of public punishment much more dignified than the pillory or the stocks. Stripped to the waist, the condemned or accused had to pass between a double row of men holding cudgels, whips, switches, or blades. Someone walked in front of him, to keep him from running, and sometimes the accused was dragged or prodded along. Sometimes rules banned edged weapons, or required the two sides to each keep a foot in place, or allowed the accused to protect his head with his hands. He did not always die; sometimes he simply could not walk afterward. “The gauntlet” began in Roman times, as a form of execution by cudgeling, and ended in Russia and Sweden as late as the 19th century.
Ordeal of Fire
The ordeal of fire typically required that the accused walk a certain distance, usually about nine feet, over a red-hot surface such as ploughshares. Or they carried red-hot iron for the same distance. Complete lack of injury proved innocence but, more commonly, a priest bandaged the wound and re-examined it three days later. If the wound had healed in those three days, God had intervened for the innocent. If the wound festered, exile or execution followed.
Cunigunde of Luxembourg and Emma of Normandy, both women in history accused of adultery, proved their innocence by walking barefoot over red-hot ploughshares without incurring injury.
Ordeal of Water
Several ordeals of water were employed: boiling water, cold water, and use of water to condemn witches.
In the trial by cold water, people accused of sorcery were submerged in streams. Survivors were acquitted. In the 6th century, pagans cast Gregory of Tours into a river with a millstone tied to his neck. According to record, divine miracle saved him, and the water did not suck him down. This law was abolished by Louis the Pious in 829, but reappeared in the Late Middle Ages. Men guilty of poaching could be submerged in a barrel three times, and be considered innocent if he sank and guilty if he floated.
In the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th century, the scenario reversed: those who sank were innocent, and witches floated. Believers claimed witches floated because they had renounced baptism. In the Historia Litteraria, Jacob Rickius claimed they were supernaturally light, and recommended weighing them as an alternative to dunking them. James VI of Scotland claimed that water was such a pure element that it repelled the guilty. Witch trials by water occurred as late as 1728.
Aislin faced the ordeal of boiling water, in which Warrick tossed a ring into a cauldron. She had to recover the ring and prove her innocence.
In history, the boiling water had to be deep enough to cover the wrist of the accused if he was charged with one accusation, and up to the elbow for three. Afterwards, as with the trial by fire, the arm was bound and examined three days later. If the wound had healed within three days, God had intervened.
The Tir Athair series occurs in a medieval-based world, which has a basic belief in the singular God. However, since this is a fantasy world, instead of medieval Europe, there is no Christianity and no Catholic Church. The people face holy wars, inquisitions, trials by ordeal, and forced religion, but accuracy to the tenets of Catholicism is not used. Instead I use artistic license. In addition, Tir Athair has the presence of natural magic, referred to as “the gift” in Athairan and Saoiran societies. Gifted people can harm, heal themselves, and heal others with the natural magic residing within them. Opinions about this magic vary from land to land; in some lands, they are considered cursed, and are burned for witchcraft. In others, the gift is feared and revered at the same time.
As Aislin faces her trial by boiling water, Warrick is ready to take her back as his ward and to control her as he desires. He offers her the opportunity to submit instead of undergoing the trial. The thing is… Aislin is guilty. But she knows she will be burned. In defiance of the judicial system and the Earl of Edurne, she plunges her arms into the cauldron.
Ordeal of the Cross
To discourage ordeals by combat among Germanic peoples, the church introduced ordeals of the cross. In this trial, the accuser underwent the ordeal with the accused. They stood on either side of a cross with their arms outstretched. The first to lower his arms lost. Charlemagne prescribed this ordeal in 779 and in 806, before Louis the Pious and Lothar I abolished it to avoid the mockery of Christ.
Ordeal of Ingestion
A priest blessed dry bread or cheese and gave it to the accused. If he choked on the food, he was considered guilty. This developed into the ordeal of the Eucharist, wherein the accused professed his innocence by oath before partaking of the sacrament. It was believed that if the oath had been false, the accused would die within the same year.
The ordeals involving ingestion of sacred food were unusually safe and merciful, but the ordeal of poison wasn’t always so.
Ordeal of Poison
Castor beans contain ricin, and paternoster peas contain abric acid. Both are toxins of the highest ranking. From medieval Europe to western Africa, these two seeds were used by trials of ordeal. The accused had to swallow them without dying. There was one caveat to the trial: the accused often lived if someone tipped them off and told them to swallow, not chew, to keep the poison contained within the seed’s hard coating.
In the 1800s, residents of Madagascar used the tangena nut, causing about 3,000 annual deaths between 1828 and 1861. Even in present-day Nigeria calabar bean is used to determine guilt. Innocent defendants vomit; the guilty become ill or die.
Ordeal of Boiling Oil
Similar to the trial of boiling water in Europe, the trial of boiling oil occurred in India and West Africa, requiring the accused to retrieve an item from a container of boiling oil. Those who refuse the task are guilty. Those who emerge unscathed are declared innocent. Though many “boil them in oil” jokes exist regarding medieval Europe, this rarely occurred. Oil was precious in those parts, and far too expensive for an ordeal that could be easier executed with holy water or hot iron. Similarly, oil was rarely poured through murder holes onto invading armies. Instead, they used boiling water or burning debris.
Aislin’s plot thickens as she plunges her hands into the water. Will she face execution for harboring Darrion, though Warrick tries to convince the jury that she is innocent and led by fear, so he can regain control over her? Will the water even burn her, and will she retrieve the ring, which has its own emotional history throughout the novel? And what of Shaila, who accused Darrion of the sin which got him ejected from Aislin’s house? She’s sitting on a bench, watching the entire thing. As is Sully, who orchestrated the entire arrangement between Darrion into Aislin. Gael also watches, the soldier who was left for dead by the Athairan army and has risen again to fight for justice. Oh yeah… and what about Darrion, who’s hanging above the square in a gibbet, forced to watch the entire trial as she throws herself into the cauldron?