Many of us I’m sure remember this elementary school taunt. Often you would be unknowingly baited in some way, i.e., “What do you think of Cheetos?” and then declare that you thoughts Cheetos were pretty great. The “Then why don’t you marry it?!” response is of course colossally dumb, but I admit that it often had its intended unsettling effect on me. Be careful of declaring that you liked something! I believe C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves that loving anything at all, even a plant or a sunset, opens oneself up to pain and loss.
Historians of a traditional mindset such as myself often express admiration for the past. We may even pine for a return of the past in some way, and this naturally opens us up to the old school taunt: if you like knights and cathedrals and gilds so much, why don’t you marry medieval society? It is easy to “date” any civilization and pick out just the things you like. But all of what you like, about medieval civilization, for example, also came with a near total lack of indoor plumbing, and no mouth wash either. You have to accept everything, and if you are not willing to do so, one’s admiration is stupid fancy at best, dangerous idealism at worst.
This charge has some of the same flaws as the old schoolyard taunt. The past surely can offer some salutary guidance even if reliving it remains obviously impossible. Aren’t we allowed to like things? But I acknowledge that one must not selectively pick, choose, and romanticize. One must “marry” the civilizations we study.
Books on the Middle Ages almost always fall into one of three camps:
- Look at how dumb, superstitious, and oppressive they were. Aren’t you glad you didn’t live then?*
- Look at how smart, chivalrous, beautiful they were. Don’t you wish you lived then?
- Look at this culture. I examine it thoroughly, and discover that they did things, upon which I pronounce no judgments whatsoever.
Of the three, most fall into the first two, but I like the last the least. The first two types of authors at least strike me as human beings with something to say. The temptation to try and avoid is that of swinging entirely into the other camp. Henry Charles Lea’s The Ordeal, written in an era when the progressive ascent of democratic modernism seemed the only future, falls into the first camp. He examines the medieval practice of trial by various ordeals to illuminate the progress we have made since then. He comes not to praise, but bury.
We can admire much about this book. It is not an uninformed screed, nor is it a hit-piece on the Middle Ages itself, for he mentions that trial by ordeal happened in many other ancient cultures. He has a lot of primary source texts and reports things with some air of detachment. If his overall point is clear, as I said earlier, at least he has a point. Like Chesterton, Lewis, and other of my literary heroes, I like the Middle Ages but need to contend with the fact that they did have trials by ordeal, and do I really want to substitute a jury for a hot piece of iron?
In what follows, then, I hope to fall into neither of the three aforementioned camps.
I appreciated that Lea took time to show that other cultures also used trial by ordeal, such as Hindu and Islamic civilizations, as well as many ancient cultures. Lea also used a lot of primary sources–indeed most of his book involves simply recounting the sources and commenting on them briefly. I also admired the fact that he included a section on the eucharist as an ordeal, for every other treatment I have seen ignores this aspect of medieval life, focusing on the more sensational ordeals by fire, water, and so on. Lea buries his treatment of this towards the back, but I feel this is where one should start if we want to have some understanding of the practices of ordeal in general.
If the central aspect of medieval life was the church, then the pearl within the oyster was the eucharist, where the faithful feed upon God Himself. Certainly I make no attempt here to develop any theology of the eucharist. But we may gain more insight if we pan out further to the last judgment. Many today have the idea that God’s final judgment involves Him declaring some fit and others unfit, and then banishing the unfit. Rather, the picture the early church gives us is that God’s love (and the presence of God is the love of God) both saves and condemns. God’s showers His love upon all, but His love is so strong that it resembles a refining fire. For some made strong, made holy, the love of God warms and comforts. For others who reject the love of God, God’s love leads to their further destruction, for the hate the love of God, and it burns them. As St. Isaac the Syrian stated,
. . .those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God . . . But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.
An icon of the Last Judgment shows forth this same idea:
Salvation in a Christian context means that one is not so much declared righteous but made righteous through the grace of God–made able to receive the love of God as blessing and not as curse (I acknowledge that both terms have their place, however, in discussing the meaning of salvation).
So too communion, when even thought about for a moment, takes on monumental proportions. As Fr. Schmemman stated in his classic For the Life of the World, Fuerbach’s “you are what you eat,” quip, meant as a materialistic taunt, actually expresses a profound religious truth. To eat anything means to take the life of the fruit, meat, etc. into oneself. So too, in the eucharist God offers us the chance to take His life into our own. But this free gift does not come cheap. Scripture warns us about taking communion unworthily. We must realize that the presence of God can heal and transform or destroy us. As one prayer from perhaps the 8th century states,
Though I am hindered by so many and such great evils, I now add to them by approaching holy mysteries so heavenly and divine that even the angels desire to understand them. . . . Because of my unworthiness, I fear that, rather than receive divine enlightenment and a share of grace, I will be condemned . . . What am I to do? By partaking of the awesome mysteries, I subject myself to these and greater punishments. By abstaining from them, I shall fall into greater evils . . .Mother of the Light, pp. 27-28
Lea’s work has many merits, but his leaving this background out of the discussion can lead one to a more superstitious understanding of the practice then is warranted. As an example we can take the ordeal of boiling water. Before the ordeal the water would be prayed over by a priest:
O creature of water, I adjure thee by the living God, by the holy God, who in the beginning separated thee from the dry land; I adjure thee by the living God who led thee from the fountain of Paradise, and in four rivers commanded thee to encompass the world; I adjure thee by Him who in Cana of Galilee by His will changed thee to wine, who trod on thee with His holy feet . . . water which washes away the dust and sins of the world, I adjure thee . . . to make manifest and bring to light all truth . . .
This prayer, quite similar to the prayers said for baptism, ask that God make the water a revealer of truth in the same way that water is used to fashion the world. That is–water must serve truth, which is a manifestation of God Himself, who is Truth.** The 3rd century bishop St. Gregory the Wonderworker stated, “The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water),” with Christ imparting to all water, “a sign of heavenly streams” of grace.”
For the early medievals, the same held true for the ordeal of fire/the hot iron. Prayers recalled how fire revealed much in Scripture–Fire found Sodom guilty but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego innocent, and the burning bush of Horeb reveals God Himself. Again, I don’t think we should see the verdict’s rendered by the fire ordeal as merely forensic. The fire, the water (and other types of ordeals) manifest God to men. Some by their holiness and innocence are able to stand, some by their sin cannot. Lea writes with a seemingly exclusive legal bent, and so misses the theological import.
Lea stated that, “The History of Jurisprudence is the History of Civilization.” The sentiment has nobility but is misplaced. One must go deeper at least to culture, and preferably to religion, to see its influence on jurisprudence. This too means that he overemphasizes looking at the technical matters of the law and misses some important caveats to the use of ordeals, two of which are worth noting.
First–Lea gives the impression that the medievals used ordeals willy-nilly at the drop of a hat. Rather, I believe they used ordeals usually as a last resort when they exhausted other means of determining the truth of the matter. Perhaps it is easier for modern, depersonalized society to let matters such as hung-juries or mistrials stand. For those in a pre-modern, more personal and local context, having a unresolved verdict on a matter of great importance might put an unbearable strain on the community.
Second–Lea misses something of the “objectivity” of the ordeal. With no such measure justice might tend toward the “justice” of the strong and powerful. It was not always the case that ordeals vindicated the weak against the strong, but it seems to me that it happened much more often than Lea cared to admit or notice.^
Lea’s anti-religious cards come into full display with certain choice vocabulary words like “superstition,” and “fetish.” Indeed, when the Catholic church issued a general condemnation of ordeals in 1215, Lea does not see the triumph of a more reasonable religion, but a political power play. So Lea blames the church for fostering and encouraging ordeals (including a quip about how they preferred the ordeal of fire, no doubt for its impressive aesthetic qualities), then fails to credit them for dramatically curtailing the practice.
By now the reader may assume that in seeking to explain ordeals more fully and expressing guarded appreciation, I now should “marry” them. I object to such a burden placed on the historian. A practice may have been less onerous than some suppose, but that wouldn’t mean that the practice has no issues. No Church today (with the exception of the snake-handler cult), indeed no churchman I am aware of for basically the last 500 years has recommended the practice. I don’t feel the need to do so either.
Historians usually come in absolutist or relativist garb. The absolutist would say that, “If ordeals are wrong now, it was wrong then. The stories of people emerging unscathed from ordeals are either lies, exaggerations, or works of the devil, for no good can come from such an unjust practice.” A relativist might tell us that we should not judge the past–and indeed cannot judge anyone ever for anything. The historian should work for “understanding” and should avoid “judgment.”
One should use from both perspectives to a degree, but embracing either one in its totality leads to incoherence. Will Durant posed a generous means of interpreting people and cultures from the past. If a man shares the vices of the past, that was unfortunate, but does he have virtues that cut against the grain of his society? How does a culture compare relatively to other cultures of its time? I find the medievals did not so badly on the relative scale, but on the absolute scale, I would not want to bring them back.
I have the feeling that Lea would dismiss all of the accounts of God working through the ordeals as fabrications and propaganda. I will not so glibly dismiss numerous testimonies, and so that leaves me the position of believing that God used an imperfect and “arbitrary” means to achieve His ends. But this is hardly a problem–He has done this since the beginning of time.
The Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which attempted to ban trial by ordeal, gave as one reason the fact that ordeals “tested God.” That is, God pledges Himself to act in certain ways in the sacraments of the Church, but we cannot take this pledge and extrapolate it to any sticky situation we face. We have not the power to call God down and demand He reveal Himself when we are stuck. As C.S. Lewis famously noted regarding Aslan–“He is not a tame Lion.” It may be, then, that the story of trial by ordeal involves not so much the folly of men, but the humility of God, who accommodated Himself to our weakness patiently for a time.
*It is interesting that no one really writes about the ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Mayans, etc. in the way that we write about the Middle Ages.
**To his credit Lea cites several instances from saints lives of people putting their arms in boiling cauldrons, either to test obedience or another point of dispute, and emerging unscathed.
^As an example, see Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel, which chronicled the plight of a woman who accused another prominent nobleman of raping her. The issue could not be definitively resolved at trial, and her husband agreed to fight the accused to the death to determine the verdict. He won, and the accused was pronounced guilty.
We should pause for a moment and flip the script, putting jury trials under a touch of scrutiny. One can read online a plethora of articles about the fairness of juries, the random nature of verdicts, and so forth. Again, I would not suggest replacing jury trials with medieval ordeals, but for someone like Lea, who believed that ordeals were entirely arbitrary, modern evidence about juries does not give us as much separation from the past as we might wish. And yet, we too have to invest the jury trial with a kind of sacredness if we are to have any kind of society at all.