Law and Famous Trials

Roman Law

What was trial by ordeal?

It was an irrational way of determining someone’s guilt or innocence. After the fall of Rome (476), Roman law gave way to the laws of the various Germanic (also called barbarian) tribes in Europe. If someone was charged with a crime, he or she was deliberately injured in some way: If the injury (from a heated iron bar or immersion into hot water, for example) healed within a prescribed number of days (usually three), the person was declared innocent. If the wound failed to heal, the verdict was guilty. This method for determining innocence or guilt was also called divination, since the court was trying, through the ordeal, to divine (discover intuitively) whether the accused person was guilty.

Trial by ordeal gave way to a far more practical, and certainly more rational, form of trial, in which judge and jury presided over the presentation of a case and employed written code or precedent or both to arrive at a verdict. But divination (literally, to predict by supernatural means) was used as recently as the 1600s, when women in Puritan New England were charged with witchcraft. A suspect was bound up with rope and immersed in water. If she sank, she was innocent; if she floated, she was declared guilty (the “reasoning” being that only someone with supernatural power could float under the circumstances). Those found guilty by this form of trial were put to death.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App