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Ordeals

A form of trial whereby, according to God's will and judgment, the guilt or innocence of an accused person was determined by some feat of physical endurance. The practice predates the biblical era and was almost universal in scope. The ordeal by water is mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi (nos. 2, 132) and the bitter-water ordeal is recorded in Numbers 5:11-31. The ordeal was commonly used in medieval Europe and held the favor of the church until 1215 (Fourth Lateran Council), when the clergy was forbidden to take part in the practice. Up to that time the ordeals were usually preceded by Mass. There were many canonists who had opposed it before 1215, but they had been unable to have it abolished. The ordeal took many forms: ordeals by poison, by water, by hot iron, by fire, and by combat. The ordeal by poison is used particularly by the peoples of West Africa. Europeans often required the accused to carry a ball of hot iron in his hand for a certain distance or to plunge his arm to the wrist or elbow into a caldron of boiling water. Festering on the third day proved guilt.