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Where a defendant was not oath-worthy or could find sufficient oath-helpers, he/she could attempt to prove their innocence by an ordeal. Essentially this placed the outcome in the hands of God, who would look into the defendant's heart and judge the case accordingly.

Several varieties of ordeal are described in early medieval law-codes:

  • A single combat, either to the death or to first blood.
  • Throwing you in water and seeing if you sink up to three ells deep proves your innocence (you’re then hauled out before you drown).
  • Being made to pick up a very hot object (iron bar or hot stone) and carrying it for ten paces. Your hand is then bound up; if after three days the wound is healing, you’re innocent; if it festers, you’re guilty.
  • Eating bread consecrated by a priest after a period of fasting and prayer; if you choke, you are guilty. This ordeal was used for clergy (and perhaps also those whose health prevent other ordeals being feasible). It may have been a very clever psychological trick designed to play upon the latent guilt (or righteous confidence) of the defendant.

Credits: with thanks to Benedict Coffin