Sink Or Float: The Ordeal By Water

Well-written history often reminds us that although people in the past lived differently than we do, their lives moved in many of the same spheres with many of the same motives as ours do. They managed sex, children, and an economy; they punished cheaters, criminals, and often the vulnerable; they praised those who provided for them, or promised to. Their circumstances and societies were different, but they coped with their needs and with each other in recognizable ways.

Compelling examples of this appear in Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe (2015). The history traces the rich complexities of northern Europe, often neglected, during what we think of as the Dark Ages, from about 500 to 1300.


In his chapter on the gradual emergence of law, Pye describes the “trial by ordeal” that preceded trial by judge or jury. We are familiar with one ghastly version of such justice. Suspects are bound and lowered into water. If they float, they are guilty and are executed. If they sink, they are innocent, and are pulled out. The ordeal was is use for over a thousand years, early on for charges ranging from murder to land ownership claims but later and most famously for suspected witchery, sorcery, and heresy.

I’ve always thought of the ordeal by water as an outstandingly stupid method for establishing innocence or guilt. Its absurdity seems epitomized in the Monty-Pythonesque craziness that the “fortunate” person who floated was found guilty and often executed.

But as Pye vividly explains, the appeal of the ordeal was that it claimed “the direct participation of God.” The water was holy water (or was supposed to be), and if the guilty party floated it was because the holiness of the water rejected the corrupt body. God’s participation seemed essential at a time when the state provided “no judge or jury [to] sort out facts and decide who is right… and wrong.” Written archives, files, paper trails, and law books were few.

In addition, “God’s verdict is unanswerable,” an irrefutable decision at a time when everyone in small communities knew each other’s business too well. The command announced by priests at the beginning of each ordeal–“Judge not that ye be not judged”–served as a stern reminder of the community’s fallibility. But the growth of trial by law book, judge, and jury, along with the withdrawal of the Church’s approval of ordeals, gradually shifted the responsibility for verdicts from God’s hands to people’s.

For me, uncovering the thinking behind such alien customs, even the cruel ones, helps me put people from the past into the stream of history that I too am swimming in, where we all make the best of our circumstances. This is a consolation of history; we are less alone in time and more at home on the planet when we understand a little of what prompted the strange behaviors of the past.


2 thoughts on “Sink Or Float: The Ordeal By Water

  1. I wonder if our judicial system and punishment, filled with legal loopholes, solitary confinement, executions, etc., will seem as bizarre to the future family of man as the water test seems to us.


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