Trial by ordeal was a form of judgment used by the Medieval church to use god's will to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused party, often rigged in ways so that the judged had no real chance of acquittal.

Trial by Iron

There were at least three forms of trial by iron used:

1) (sometimes attributed as trial by fire) The accused would have to hold a red-hot iron bar and carry it a set distance. If, after three days, the hand was healing and not festering (or, in some cases, if the hand was not hurt at all (!)) the accused was set free. Otherwise, s/he was hanged.
2) The accused would have to lick a similarly heated bar of iron and not burn his/her tongue.
3) Several ploughshares were heated red-hot and placed unevenly on the ground. The accused was made to walk across them blindfolded and barefoot and was hanged if s/he suffered any injury in so doing.

Trial by Water

This was made familiar by the stories of the Salem Witch Hunt. The accused would be dropped into a cold river. If s/he floated, s/he would be considered guilty and hanged. If s/he sank, s/he was declared innocent.

This was not always as fatal as it sounds; at times, those who sank were fished out and set free. Of course, there were times when this method simply became an easy way of disposing of one's (usually political) enemies.

In 1215, the Pope forbade the ordeals of iron and of cold water, ruling that it be replaced by the already existing (and not always more merciful) method of trial by jury.

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Editor's note: As outlined by Lucy-S at SFF Net, the site referenced above has gone offline. As of March 2017, you can find Jo Beverly at, and the linked article seems to now be at: