Trial by ordeal: an interdisciplinary approach yields fresh insights

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


At its simplest, trial by ordeal is a physical test for an accused person which invokes supernatural or magico-religious forces where there is a question as to guilt or innocence. Desperately cruel and apparently irrational, its use as a means of decision-making transcends national borders and historical periods. Adopting a novel, interdisciplinary, approach in drawing on historical and anthropological materials from the ancient Near East to medieval Europe and twentieth century Africa, this paper examines the practice of trial by ordeal to offer fresh insights into how this apparently irrational mode of proof worked.

Those tried by ordeal were often – but not always – people on the margins of society. Ordeal was sometimes and someplaces a formal instrument of law, in other times and places a customary form of decision-making operating outside the legal machinery of state. Ordeal was often used as a mode of proof in relation to allegations of witchcraft or sorcery. This is paper explores these grey areas to analyse why this may be more comprehensible in, say, medieval Europe where sorcery would have been in direct contravention of Christian norms; in the African material the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate use of magic is more difficult to discern as magic was often a generally accepted part of life with a multiplicity of uses. The paper concludes by exploring accounts of trial by ordeal to consider the border between human influence and the apparent supernatural involvement in the ordeal, arguing that the apparent appeal to the supernatural to make a decision was not always entirely as it seems.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventSLSA Annual Conference 2016 - Lancaster, United Kingdom
Duration: 5 Apr 20167 Apr 2016


ConferenceSLSA Annual Conference 2016
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom

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