ordeals

Means used to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person, in early medieval times. They were used in the belief that God would interpose to vindicate the innocent or to punish the guilty. They were resorted to when the ordinary means had failed, or when the contesting parties were unable to bring forth further necessary evidence. Ordeals were practised among many ancient people, but the medieval ordeals had their rise principally in the legal customs of the ancient Germanic pagans, and were in use among the newer Teutonic nations and in the old provinces of the Roman Empire, over which they held sway, lands comprised by the modern states of Germany, France, and England. They were never made use of by the tribunals of Rome. Among the ordeals were: The Christian missionaries and Churchmen generally were somewhat tolerant of the ordeals, excepting the duel. Their opposition would have been well-nigh fruitless; many of them were children of their age, and the ordeals were closely entwined with the legal customs of the Teutonic peoples. On the other hand, the popes always opposed these practises, and at an early date they began their efforts to suppress them. These prohibitions culminated in the general decree of Pope Innocent III, at the Council of the Lateran, 1215. In the course of the 14th and 15th centuries the last vestiges of the ordeals disappeared.

New Catholic Dictionary

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