‘May this water be a test for you’: trial by cold water in 9th-century Francia

One of the distinctively post-Roman things about post-Roman Europe was the emergence of a new kind of legal procedure, the trial by ordeal. In its various different forms – the main ones were hot iron, boiling water, cold water, and trial by battle – the ordeal comes particularly into view in the ninth century, when there was something of a debate about its ethics and efficacy. One of its staunchest defenders was Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, who in his De Divortio (available in all good bookshops etc) justified it at some length.

Practical instructions on how to carry out an ordeal are quite common in ninth- and tenth-century manuscripts, often inserted as aide-memoires. Below is an English translation of one of these texts, associated with ninth-century Rheims – so, the kind of text that priests in Hincmar’s diocese might have come across. It gives instructions on how to carry out the ordeal by water on a group of men suspected of theft.

There are several interesting things about this text. First, although the role of the priest is essential, the text doesn’t seem to be addressed to the priest himself. Perhaps it was meant for a count or other judicial officer. Secondly, it’s a very elaborate procedure: throwing the suspects into the water is merely the last stage in a whole string of actions, designed to pile the pressure on the guilty/guarantee God’s intervention (depending on your point of view). These include public communion, blessing with holy water, holy incantations, and the fasting of the immediate participants.

Finally, the text has a notably defensive tone. The possibility that witchcraft could distort the outcome is acknowledged (this was something that bothered Hincmar too). And the text ends with the assertion that the ordeal was devised by God, had been confirmed by papal sanction, and was to be used instead of alternative procedures, such as swearing an oath on the high altar. Clearly whoever wrote down this text was aware of contemporary criticisms – and that attack is the best form of defence!

Translation: Instructions for the ordeal of cold water*
*Please don’t try this at home

Update 17.1.17: I still haven’t located the manuscript from which this text comes (the edition isn’t clear). But a very similar ordeal text was present in a manuscript that was almost certainly made by Hincmar c. 874. This manuscript is now lost BUT the ordeal text happily survives in an early modern transcription in Duchesne 64, at f.49v (or so it seems: I’ll check the next time I’m in Paris,  since it doesn’t seem to be online). For all the details, see R. Pokorny, ‘Sirmonds verlorener Luetticher Codex der Hinkmar-Schriften’, Deutsches Archiv 66 (2010), esp. p. 532.

Image: Lambach, Stiftsbibliothek Codex 73: a 12th-century liturgical manuscript (Wikipedia)

6 thoughts on “‘May this water be a test for you’: trial by cold water in 9th-century Francia”

  1. If fact, sorry to double post, but I do have a question for you,

    Do you think this would apply to 9th century or later Anglo-Saxon England (the ritual described in the translation), in lieu of an actual Anglo-Saxon source?

    I’m teaching secondary at the moment (trying to get QTS before embarking on a PhD) – the module is ‘Crime and Punishment Through Time’ – and I’m trying to put as many real sources in front of them as possible, and I though that this might make a good task.


    1. Yes, it’s actaully very similar to an English ordeal text, which in fact is probably based on this earlier Frankish one. Edition of English one here (no traslation that I know of, oddly) http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/laws/texts/iud-dei-i/
      See also Wormald’s unpublished papers, now online http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/media/cms_page_media/49/Papers%20Preparatory%20to%20MEL2.pdf (esp. pp. 72 onwards for the ordeal). And I can’t recommend Bartlett’s book on the ordeal highly enough. Good luck with the teaching – lucky kids!

      1. Thanks, Charles, those resources are fantastic, especially the Wormald papers.

        I actually taught the ordeals to a group of Year 10s today (14 year olds) using the Frankish source.

        The nature of the text (very difficult to understand for teenagers, even high ability ones) is such that they get a sense of the sheer religious dread that must have been felt by the accused: a ‘learned’ priest (relatively speaking) reciting wordy rituals and invoking the powers of heaven to judge them. They don’t understand what they’re reading, and that’s the point.

        How the ordeals are usually taught at secondary is almost in a mocking tone: to make fun of past societies and their silly primitive superstitions. With a source like this, however, we’re able to suggest things like, ‘are the rituals designed to intimidate the accused into a confession?’ Or, ‘what effects do such rituals have on the power of the Church within the wider community?’

        I’m not sure of the ‘correct’ answer myself (would it have been ‘designed’ to intimidate with religious dread, or does this just represent an ideal of thoroughness or ‘correctness’ for whomever wrote it?), but it certainly places the students in a different mindset than they are used to: we’re not here to condescend to the past, but to respect it and understand the people who lived it.

        Anyway, I think that without proper academic historians doing things like this blog, overworked schoolteachers might have a much harder time engaging their students with ‘real’ history rather than the theme park version presented in textbooks. So again, cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

twelve + six =