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Reblogged:Medieval Cynicism

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ordeal.jpg
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Over at Aeon is an article (that doesn't take one to read) about how trial by ordeal was actually used. This in no way legitimizes the practice, but it does answer a practical question faced by the mystics in charge: Essentially everyone believed in eternal damnation for the unrepentant, but that wasn't always an effective deterrent to actual crime. At the same time, a perceived inability on their part to render reliable verdicts would cast doubt on them as cognitive and moral authorities. The Church needed a way to achieve some level of certainty about innocence or guilt, but the priests knew on some level that they weren't going to get any help from their imaginary friend. What to do?

Capitalize on ignorance and rig the result:
... Did you catch the trick? Because of your belief in iudicium Dei, the spectre of the ordeal leads you to choose one way if you're guilty -- confess -- and another way if you're innocent -- undergo the ordeal -- revealing the truth about your guilt or innocence to the court through the choice you make. By asking God to out you, the legal system incentivises you to out yourself...
The piece goes on to elaborate on how the instruction manual for the priest who ran the "trial" should proceed:
A "miraculous" result was thus practically assured. For example, in the early 13th century, 208 defendants in VĂ¡rad in Hungary underwent hot-iron ordeals. Amazingly, nearly two-thirds of defendants were unscathed by the "red-hot" irons they carried and hence exonerated. If the priests who administered these ordeals understood how to heat iron, as they surely did, that leaves only two explanations for the "miraculous" results: either God really did intervene to reveal the defendants" innocence, or the priests made sure that the iron they carried wasn't hot. [minor format edits]
So the Church found a way to both preserve its credibility by delivering a fair verdict often enough for that purpose -- and yet to maintain complete control over the result of any given trial. Even if, as the author claimed, this yielded "improved criminal justice," it served its true purpose, of maintaining the power of the Church over society, far better. The superstitious rabble were kept from utter lawlessness and any uppity heretics were put on notice, too, even if they saw through the ruse. Clever.

-- CAV

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