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Medieval Ordeals

In Medieval times it was believed that people would only learn how to behave properly if they feared the consequences of breaking the law. Those accused of doing so were subjected to one of three ordeals:
Ordeal by fire. An accused person was made to carry a red hot iron bar in their hand for three paces. Afterwards the wound was bound up and left for three days. If it was healing after that time the person was innocent; if it was not getting better the person was declared guilty.
Ordeal by water. Here, an accused person was bound up and thrown into water. If they floated they were said to be guilty of the crime they were accused of.
Ordeal by combat. This was an ordeal reserved for noblemen. If one were accused of something he would fight his accuser. Whoever won was right. Whoever lost was usually killed in the process.
After 1215, when the Pope declared that priests in England were not allowed to help with ordeals, trial by jury was introduced, but one of the ordeals persisted in another form. Ducking, a modification of the ordeal by water, continued to be used as a punishment for scolds, prostitutes and minor offences committed by women until well into the nineteenth century. The woman was strapped to a ducking stool and lowered until submerged into water. It was not uncommon for the women to drown of die of a heart attack.


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