First Catch Your Toad: Medieval Attitudes to Ordeal and Battle
By Richard Ireland
The Cambrian Law Review, Vol 2 (1980)
Extract: In Saxon times and for some time after the Conquest ordeals were used to test the truth in a variety of causes, civil as well as criminal. Emma, the mother of Edward the Confessor, had walked over hot iron ploughshares to disprove an allegation of intimacy with Alwyn Bishop of Winchester, while Curthose, the Conqueror’s son, is reputed to have undergone the ordeal to prove his paternity. The author of the Leges Henrici Primi, which probably dates from between 1114 and 1118, gives the ordeal in a number of instances apart from simple accusations of crime. The nationality of a man who had been killed, a matter of course of considerable importance in that it determined whether the special ‘murder fine’ was payable, might be proved in default of other evidence by the ordeal of iron. If a person gives his oath that he is related to a dead man but is not believed then here too the ordeal might be employed. The intervention of the Diety might be invoked in criminal cases not only to establish the veracity of the accused’s denial of an act but also the issue of justification of that act if admitted. In this respect ordeal might be used to establish a plea of self-defence, although doubtless the accused would prefer to employ the alternative means of proving this defence which the author of the Leges allows him, namely the production of witnesses.