The Ordeal of Bread and Cheese: A Trial Like No Other

By Andrea Maraschi

Although their origins were older, ordeals were still practiced in medieval Europe. Usually, they were aimed at verifying an individual’s innocence or guilt by subjecting him/her to extremely painful trials. In Christian Europe, they were practiced in order to invoke God’s judgement: the idea being that the innocent would miraculously survive any experience, no matter how dangerous or grievous it was.

Among such iudicia Dei, one finds the ordeals of fire and of water, and judicial duels, for instance. One specific ordeal, however, does not seem as cruel as the others, for it was based on administering a piece of bread and a piece of cheese to suspects of theft. No excruciatingly painful tests, in this case: just two simple morsels of food.


Clearly, it was not that simple at all. Even though this kind of ordeal was endorsed by Christian authorities and was performed by Church officials, as we shall see, it was based on an ancient principle, according to which it was possible to attribute special powers to food via verbal and/or written formulas. Although one would associate this idea with magic – rather than religious – practice, the reality could not be further from this: in fact, in medieval times “magic” and “religion” were not as distinct as one may think. In many sources the use emerges of accompanying the ingestion of certain foods with verbal formulas, or of inscribing the food with written formulas that would be eaten or drunk. In this way, their powers would be transferred to the food and then into the eater’s body. This could certainly be called “magical thinking,” yet such principles were also applied within a religious and a medical context as well.

This is exactly the case of the bread and cheese ordeal, also known as iudicium offae or corsned. The sources that feature precise details about this ordeal (ordines iudiciorum dei) were produced in continental Europe within the Carolingian empire, and the ordeal was particularly widespread from roughly the tenth to the beginning of the thirteenth century. The procedure was the following: the suspect was to be given nine denarii of unleavened barley bread, and one of goat or sheep cheese (well hard and aged). During Mass, the bread and the cheese were to be presented to the altar on a linen cloth or a silver paten. Furthermore, the Pater Noster was inscribed on the bread and, sometimes, Psalm verses were written on the cheese. The names of all the suspects were also written down on a little sheet of parchment, which was placed between bread and cheese. Then, a Mass was celebrated, at the end of which the priest recited a ritual formula before the suspects: the ordeal could now begin.


Such formulas consisted of biblical stories in which a given suspect was eventually declared innocent thanks to God’s judgement. Besides, the priest would also make reference to the fiery pillar that stopped the Egyptians from crossing the Red Sea in order to let the Israelites continue their exodus. This was aimed at invoking God and asking him to obstruct the culprit’s throat, so as to have the latter choke as he was trying to ingest the bread and the cheese. Here, in spite of the religious context, the logic behind the ordeal is connected with the laws of sympathy: like produces like. Just as the fiery pillar stopped the Egyptians, so the thief’s throat would be blocked by God’s intervention. At that point, the suspects were given the bread and the cheese, and the culprit would soon vomit the food because he would not be able to ingest it.

It goes without saying that the ordeal put considerable psychological pressure on the suspect, and it is well known that the stomach and throat are among the body parts that are more deeply affected by feelings such as anxiety and fear. One has also to take into account that the ordeal took place within a religious context, inside a church, in the presence of a priest, and implied ingesting food that was inscribed with religious formulas or prayers.

The origins of this specific ordeal are very interesting as well. Scholars have singled out many continuities between the bread and cheese ordeal and the eucharistic liturgy: in some sources, for instance, one reads that the suspects were to communicare (“communicate”) rather than manducare (“eat”) the elements. After all, the bread and cheese were presented at the altar during Mass as if they were eucharistic elements. Furthermore, as Augustine notes in his De haeresibus, an early Christian sect known as Artotyrites (from artos, “bread”, and tyros, “cheese”) celebrated the eucharist with bread and cheese, instead of bread and wine. There would be many reasons, then, to think that the iudicium offae had much more ancient origins and was linked with the eucharistic context.

Children being given the Eucharist – British Library MS Royal 2 B VII fol. 207v

However, the story of this ordeal may be even more complex. As noted above, even though the religious liturgy and the role of the priest were certainly important, the very mechanism that “activated” the powers of the bread and the cheese was based on an oral invocation and on the verses that were written on the food. This, all things considered, is not really a religious technique, but rather a magical one. In fact, the iudicium offae has an important precedent in the famous Greek magical papyri: that is, a body of papyri that dates from the second century BC to the fifth century AD and comes from Graeco-Roman Egypt. Their contents consist of charms, rituals, and hymns that were most likely written by practitioners of magic, and which combine Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Jewish, and Christian traditions. Among the others, the papyri feature a certain “formula of bread and cheese”, which reads:


Come to me, LISSOIN MATERNA MAUERTĒ PREPTEKTIOUN INTIKIOUS OLOKOTOUS PERIKLYSAI; may you bring back to me what is lost and point out the thief today. I call upon Hermes, finder of thieves, Helios and the pupils of Helios, / two who bring to light lawless deeds, and Themis, Erinys, Ammon, and Parammon, to take control of the thief’s throat and to single him out today, in this hour.

Here, Greek deities were invoked in order to obtain the same effect as the aforesaid ordeal, that is, to obstruct the culprit’s throat. Instead of the religious context, this time the bread and cheese were presented during a purificatory sacrifice of water, myrrh, calf’s-snout plant, and other elements. The ritual was then concluded by the recitation of the following formula: “Master IAŌ, light-bearer, / hand over the thief whom I see.”

Same logic, same purposes, different context, different gods. This precedent suggests that the Christian bread and cheese ordeal may have simply represented a Christianized version of an ancient charm, which would attest to the continuity of magical and sympathetic thinking. Still in the fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio would feature a similar ordeal in a novella of his Decameron, and called it incantagione (lit.: “enchantment”). In that case, the ordeal takes place in a completely non-religious context and does not include any religious component, let alone the presence of a priest.


Still, the peasants who take part in the ordeal have no doubt as to the efficacy of the ritual: this must be due to the fact that the ordeal was based on a more ancient and enduring logic, which common people perfectly grasped. People from many ancient cultures had believed that food could be imbued with powers by means of oral and written formulas and that those who ate it would absorb such powers. This idea, as in many other cases, was not erased by Christianity, but simply “translated”, at least until the Church decided to identify it as nothing more than an old superstition.

Andrea Maraschi holds a BA degree in Modern Humanities (2008), an MA degree in Medieval History (2010), and a Ph.D. in Medieval History from the University of Bologna (2013). From 2014 to 2017 he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Iceland. From 2018 to 2021 he taught Medieval History and Social and Economic History of the Middle Ages at the University of Bari. He has published on many aspects connected with food in medieval times such as banqueting, religious symbolism and magic practice, and his research interests include gender, astrology, astronomy, cultural memory and mythology.

Further Readings:

Lea, Henry C., The Ordeal (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973)

Bartlett, Robert, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Clarendon Press, 1986)

Betz, Hans Dieter (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1996)

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine. Click here to learn more about it.

Top Image: Baskets of cheese. British Library MS Sloane 2435   fol. 68r