The Weight of Love and the Anglo-Saxon Cold Water Ordeals
By Thomas D. Hill
Reading Medieval Studies, Vo.40 (2014)
Introduction: The Old English Cold Water Ordeals, which prescribe how an accused person was to be immersed in water and required to ‘prove’ his or her innocence by being accepted by the water, by sinking rather than floating, are very strange documents from the perspective of modern readers. Trial by ordeal generally is a practice which most modem scholars find strange and repugnant and while Cold Water Ordeals do not involve burning the accused as the Boiling Water or Hot Iron ordeals do, the idea that the life of an accused person might hang on whether they sink or float in a pool or other body of water seems very problematic to modern rationalists.
One fairly extended scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, concerns a debate about whether a water ordeal might prove the guilt or innocence of an accused witch. However repugnant, irrational and strange the logic of the Cold Water Ordeal might seem, such rituals were quite common in medieval and early modern Europe and persisted in folk belief at least until quite recently.