From every point of view, however, both as to date and as to consequences, the 동탄오피 most remarkable recourse to the fire ordeal was that which proved to be the proximate cause of the311 downfall of Savonarola. Long after the ordeal system had been superseded in European jurisprudence, and occurring in the centre of the New Learning, it was a most noteworthy illustration of the superstition which formed a common bond between sceptics and religious enthusiasts. In 1498 Savonarola had been silenced by command of Alexander III., his influence with the people was waning, and his faithful follower Fra Domenico da Pescia was desperately struggling in the pulpit to maintain the cause against the assaults of the Franciscans led by the eloquent Fra Francesco della Puglia. Domenico in a sermon offered to prove the truth of his leader’s utterances by throwing himself from the roof of the Palazzo de’ Signori, by casting himself in the river, or by entering fire. This burst of rhetoric might have passed unheeded had not Fra Francesco taken it up and offered to share the ordeal with Savonarola himself. Savonarola declined, except under impossible conditions, but Domenico accepted the challenge and affixed to the portal of Santa Croce a paper in which he offered to prove by argument or miracle the truth of sundry propositions bearing upon his teacher’s mission. To this Fra Francesco replied that he would enter fire with Fra Domenico; that he fully expected to be burnt, but that he would willingly suffer if he could disabuse the people of their false idol. Popular excitement rose to such a height that the Signoria sent for both disputants, and made them sign a written agreement to undergo the ordeal. In this Fra Francesco wisely provided that, although he was willing to enter fire with Savonarola himself, if Domenico was to act he would only produce a champion, who was readily found in the person of Fra Giuliano Rondinelli. On the side of the Dominicans the enthusiasm was so great that all the friars of Savonarola’s convent of San Marco, nearly three hundred in number, eagerly signed a pledge to submit to the ordeal, and he assured them that in such a cause they could do so without danger. In fact, when, on the day before the trial, he preached on the312 subject in San Marco, the whole audience rose as one man and offered to take Domenico’s place.

April 7th was the day fixed for the Sperimento del Fuoco. In the Piazza de’ Signori a huge pile of wood, plentifully reinforced with gunpowder, sulphur, oil, and spirits, was built with a gangway through which the champions were to pass; it was to be lighted at one end, and after they entered fire was to be set at the other to preclude retreat. All Florence assembled to witness the spectacle, and patiently endured the peltings of a terrible storm. The day was spent, however, in wrangling over questions skilfully raised by the Franciscans, the chief one being whether Fra Domenico should carry in his hand a consecrated host. It had been revealed to one of his brethren that this was indispensable, and Savonarola adhered to it firmly. When evening came the Signoria announced that the ordeal was abandoned. The crowd was enraged at the loss of the promised exhibition; the Dominicans had so confidently promised a miracle that the drawn battle was universally regarded as their defeat, an armed guard was required to protect their return to their convent, and Savonarola’s power over the Florentine populace was gone. His enemies lost no time in pushing their advantage. The next evening the mob assailed San Marco; he was seized and conveyed to prison, and after prolonged and repeated tortures he was hanged and burnt on May 23d.983

It will be observed that the ordeal of fire was principally affected by ecclesiastics in church affairs, perhaps because it was of a nature to produce a powerful impression on the spectators, while at the same time it could no doubt in many instances be so managed as to secure the desired results by those who controlled the details. In like manner, it was occasionally employed on inanimate matter to decide points313 of faith or polity. Thus, in the question which excited great commotion in Spain, in 1077, as to the substitution of the Roman for the Gothic or Mozarabic rite, after a judicial combat had been fought and determined in favor of the national ritual, the partisans of the Roman offices continued to urge their cause, and the ordeal of fire was appealed to. A missal of each kind was committed to the flames, and, to the great joy of all patriotic Castilians, the Gothic offices were unconsumed.984 More satisfactory to the orthodox was the result of a similar ordeal during the efforts of St. Dominic to convert the Albigenses. In a dispute with some heretics he wrote out his argument on the points of faith, and gave it to them for examination and reply. That night, as they were seated around the hearth, the paper was produced and read, when one of them proposed that it should be cast into the flames, when, if it remained unconsumed, they would see that its contents were true. This was promptly done, when the saintly document was unharmed. One, more obstinate than the rest, asked for a second and then for a third trial, with the same result. The perverse heretics, however, closed their hearts against the truth, and bound themselves by oath to keep the affair secret; and so glorious a victory for the true faith would have remained unknown but for the indiscretion of one of them, a knight, who had a covert inclination towards orthodoxy.985 A somewhat similar instance occurred in Constantinople as late as the close of the thirteenth century, when Andronicus II., on his accession, found the city torn into factions relative to the patriarchate, arising from the expulsion of Arsenius, a former patriarch. All attempts to soothe the dissensions proving vain, at length both parties agreed to write out their respective statements and arguments, and, committing both books to the flames, to abide by the result, each side hoping that its manuscript would be preserved by314 the special interposition of Heaven. The ceremony was conducted with imposing state, and, to the general surprise, both books were reduced to ashes. Singularly enough, all parties united in the sensible conclusion that God had thereby commanded them to forget their differences and to live in peace.986

About the same period as this last example, Samaritan tradition related that the comparative claims of Mt. Gerizim and Al-Qods (Jerusalem) as the sole seats of Yahveh-worship were settled before Nebuchadnezzar, by the ordeal of fire, applied respectively to the Pentateuch and to the later books of the Jewish canon, Sanballat appearing for Ephraim, and Zerubbabel for Judah. The later books were promptly consumed, but the law of Moses emerged twice from the flames unhurt. Zerubbabel, in despair, then spat upon some pages of the index, and cast the Law a third time into the fire, when the leaves thus polluted were burnt, but the book itself leaped unscathed into the bosom of the king, who promptly slew the representatives of Judah, and gave an unhesitating verdict in favor of the Samaritans.987

The genuineness of relics was often tested in this manner by exposing them to the action of fire. This custom, like the ordeal itself as a judicial process, finds its original home in the East. When, for instance, the sacred tooth-relic of Buddha was carried to the court of King Pandu at Patali-putta, and its holiness was questioned by the Niganthas, or worshippers of Siva, they tested it by casting it into a pit filled with glowing charcoal “bright and horrid as the hell Roruva”—when the tooth, in place of being consumed to ashes, rose out of the fiery mass resting on a lotus the size of a chariot-wheel.988 Even Roman unbelief accepted a similar faith respecting the superfluous thumb which ornamented the right foot of King Pyrrhus, the touch of which cured diseases315 of the spleen, and which remained unharmed on the funeral pyre which consumed the rest of his body to ashes. The indestructible supplementary member was thereupon inclosed in a casket, and reverently placed in a temple—the first relic, probably, on record in the western world.989 At how early an age Christianity adopted the belief which led to this is manifested by the story of the swaddling-cloth of Christ in one of the apocryphal Gospels. The Virgin, being unable, on account of poverty, to make a return for the offerings of the Magi who came to worship the infant Saviour, presented them with one of his swaddling-bands. On their return they placed it in the sacred fire of their altar, and though the flames eagerly embraced it, they left it unharmed and unaltered, whereupon the Magi venerated it, and laid it away among their treasures.990 On the conversion of the Spanish Arians the experiment was tried on a larger scale. It seems that doubts were felt by the orthodox as to the relics preserved in their churches, and a general regulation was adopted by the Council of Saragossa in 592 that they should be all brought before the bishops and tested by fire—with what result is not recorded.991

In such cases the ceremony of the ordeal was conducted with appropriate religious services, including the following prayer, which would seem to show that in its regular form it was not the relic itself, but the cloth in which it was wrapped that was exposed to the test—

Lord Jesus Christ, who art king of kings and lord of lords, and lover of all believers in thee, who art a just judge, strong and powerful, who hast revealed thy holy mysteries to thy priests, and who didst mitigate the flames to the Three Children; concede to us thy unworthy servants and grant our prayers that this cloth or this thread in which are wrapped those bodies of saints, if they are not genuine let them be burned by this fire, and if they are genuine let them escape, so that iniquity shall not prevail over injustice but falsehood shall316 succumb to truth, so that thy truth shall be declared to thee and be manifested to us, believers in thee, that we may know thee to be the blessed God in ages everlasting. Amen.992

Numerous instances of this superiority of relics to fire are narrated by the pious chroniclers of the middle ages. In 1015 some monastic pilgrims, hospitably received at Monte Cassino on their return from Jerusalem, offered at the shrine of St. Benedict a fragment of the towel with which the Saviour had washed the feet of his disciples. Some of the monks, being incredulous, placed it on burning coals, when it turned fiery red, but, on being removed, returned to its original color, and all doubts as to its authenticity were dispelled.993 When, in 1065, the pious Egelwin, Bishop of Durham, miraculously discovered the relics of the holy martyr King Oswyn, he gave the hair to Judith, wife of Tosti, Earl of Northumberland, and she with all reverence placed it on a raging fire, whence it was withdrawn, not only uninjured, but marvellously increased in lustre, to the great edification of all beholders.994 A similar miracle attested the sanctity of King Olaf the Saint, of Norway, when his hair was laid on a pan of live coals, consecrated by Bishop Grimkel, to satisfy the incredulity of Queen Alfifa.995 Guibert de Nogent likewise relates that, when his native town became honored with the possession of an arm of St. Arnoul, the inhabitants, at first doubting the genuineness of the precious relic, cast it into the flames; when it vindicated its sanctity, not only by being fireproof, but also by leaping briskly away from the coals, testimony which was held to be incontrovertible.996 The historian of the monastery of Andres informs us that when in 1084 the long-lost remains of the holy virgin Rotruda were miraculously found, and Baldwin I., Count of Guisnes, desired to take the317 sacred treasure to his town of Guisnes, it refused to be removed until he proposed to place it on a wagon and allow a team of oxen to be divinely guided to the spot where the saint desired to rest. This was accordingly done, and the oxen carried the relics to a little chapel dedicated to St. Medard, where steps were immediately taken to found an abbey. The Seigneur of Andres, however, Baldwin Bochard, on whose lands the chapel lay, foreseeing that a powerful monastery would be a troublesome neighbor, and being an irreligious man, circulated defamatory libels impugning the authenticity of the relics, and finally persuaded Count Baldwin to have them tested by the ordeal of fire. This was accordingly done, and the genuineness of the holy remains was proved to the satisfaction of all. Bochard and his descendants continued inveterately hostile to St. Rotruda and her monks, but all, without exception, were compelled, upon their death-beds, to contribute a portion of their substance to her honor.997 The custom continued even until the sixteenth century was well advanced. In the Jeronymite monastery of Valdebran in Catalonia, a piece of the true cross bears inscription that its genuineness was tested with fire by Archbishop Miralles on October 2, 1530.998

The persistency of popular belief in this method of ascertaining guilt or innocence is seen as recently as 1811, when a Neapolitan noble, suspecting the chastity of his daughter, exposed her to the ordeal of fire, from which she barely escaped with her life.999


The cold-water ordeal (judicium aquæ frigidæ) differed from most of its congeners in requiring a miracle to convict the accused, as in the natural order of things he escaped. The preliminary solemnities, fasting, prayer, and religious rites, were similar to those already described; holy water sometimes was given to the accused to drink; the reservoir of water, or pond, was then exorcised with formulas exhibiting the same combination of faith and impiety, and the accused, bound with cords, was slowly lowered into it with a rope, to prevent fraud if guilty, and to save him from drowning if innocent.1000 According to Anglo-Saxon rule, the length of rope allowed under water was an ell and a half;1001 in one ritual it is directed that a knot be made in the rope at a distance of a long hair from the body of the accused, and if he sinks so as to bring the knot down to the surface of the water, he is cleared;1002 but in process of time nice questions arose as to the precise amount of submergence requisite for acquittal. Towards the close of the twelfth century we find that some learned doctors insisted that sinking to the very bottom of the water was indispensable; others decided that if the whole person were submerged it was sufficient; while others again reasoned that319 as the hair was an accident or excrement of the body, it had the privilege of floating without convicting its owner, if the rest of the body was satisfactorily covered.1003

The basis of this ordeal was the belief, handed down from the primitive Aryans, that the pure element would not receive into its bosom any one stained with the crime of a false oath, another form of which is seen in the ancient superstition that the earth would eject the corpse of a criminal, and not allow it to remain quietly interred. The manner in which the church reconciled it to orthodoxy is clearly set forth by Hincmar: “He who seeks to conceal the truth by a lie will not sink in the waters over which the voice of the Lord hath thundered; for the pure nature of water recognizes as impure, and rejects as incompatible, human nature which, released from falsehood by the waters of baptism, becomes again infected with untruth.”1004 The baptism in the Jordan, the passage of the Red Sea, and the crowning judgment of the Deluge, were freely adduced in support of this theory, though these latter were in direct contradiction to it; and the most figurative language was boldly employed to give some show of probability to the results expected. Thus, in the elaborate formula which passes under the name of St. Dunstan, the prayer offered over the water metaphorically adjures the Supreme Being—“Let not the water receive the body of him who, released from the weight of goodness, is upborne by the wind of iniquity!”1005

In India the ordeal of cold water became simply one of endurance. The stream or pond was exorcised with the customary Mantras:—

“Thou O water dwellest in the interior of all things like a witness. O water thou knowest what mortals do not comprehend.


“This man being arraigned in a cause desires to be cleared from guilt. Therefore mayest thou deliver him lawfully from this perplexity.”

The patient stood in water up to his middle, facing the East, caught hold of the thighs of a man “free from friendship or hatred” and dived under, while simultaneously an arrow of reed without a head was shot from a bow, 106 fingers’ breadth in length, and if he could remain under water until the arrow was picked up and brought back, he gained his cause, but if any portion of him could be seen above the surface he was condemned. Yajnavalkya says this form of ordeal was only used on the Sudras, or lowest caste, while the Ayeen Akbery speaks of it as confined to the Vaisyas, or caste of husbandmen and merchants. According to the Institutes of Vishnu, it was not to be administered to the timid or those affected with lung diseases, nor to those who gained their living by the water, such as fishermen or boatmen, nor was it allowed during the winter.1006

Although, as we have seen (p. 268), the original cold-water ordeal in India, as described by Manu, was precisely similar to the European form, inasmuch as the guilty were expected to float and the innocent to sink, and although in this shape it prevailed everywhere throughout Europe, and its tenacity of existence rendered it the last to disappear in the progress of civilization, yet it does not make its appearance in any of the earlier codes of the Barbarians. The first allusions to it occur in the ninth century, and it was then so generally regarded as a novelty that documents almost contemporaneous ascribe its invention to the popes of that period. One story is that when321 Leo III. fled in 799 from his rebellious subjects to Charlemagne, and returned to Rome under the latter’s protection, the cold-water ordeal was introduced for the purpose of trying the rebels or recovering a treasure which they had stolen.1007 Another version asserts that Eugenius II., who occupied the pontifical throne from 824 to 827, invented it at the request of Louis le Débonnaire, for the purpose of repressing the prevalent sin of perjury.1008 It is further worthy of note that St. Agobard, Archbishop of Lyons, in his treatises against the judgments of God, written a few years before the accession of Eugenius, while enumerating and describing the various methods in use at that time, says nothing about that of cold water.1009 But for the evidence of its pre-existence in the East, we therefore should be justified in assuming that it was an innovation invented by the Church of the ninth century. That it was a novelty is proved by the necessity felt to adduce authority for its use.1010

At first, its revival promised to be but temporary. Only a few years after its introduction it was condemned by le Débonnaire at the Council of Worms, in 829; its use was strictly prohibited, and the missi dominici were instructed to see that the order was carried into effect, regulations which were repeated by the Emperor Lothair, son of Louis.1011 These interdictions were of little avail. The ordeal found favor with popular superstition, and Hincmar contents himself with remarking that the imperial prohibition was not confirmed by the canons of authoritative councils.1012 The trial by cold water spread rapidly throughout Europe, and by all the continental races it was placed on an equal footing with the other forms of ordeal. Among the Anglo-Saxons, indeed, its employment has been called in question by some modern writers; but the Dooms of Ethelstan sufficiently manifest its existence in England before the Conquest, while as late as the close of the twelfth century its use would seem to have been almost universal. The assizes of Clarendon in 1166, confirmed at Northampton in 1176, direct an inquest to be held in each shire, and all who are indicted for murder, robbery, harboring of malefactors, and other felonies are to be at once, without further trial, passed through the water ordeal to determine their guilt or innocence.1013

As we have seen in the case of the iron ordeal, those of water, both cold and hot, were variously described as patrician or plebeian in different times and places. Thus Hincmar, in the ninth century, alludes to the water ordeals as applicable to persons of servile condition;1014 a constitution of the Emperor St. Henry II., about A. D. 1000, in the Lombard law, has a similar bearing;1015 in the eleventh century an Alsatian document,1016 in the twelfth Glanville’s treatise on the laws of land,1017 and in the thirteenth the laws of all assume the same position. This, however, was an innovation; for in the earliest codes there was no such distinction, a provision in the Salic law prescribing the æneum, or hot-water ordeal, even for the Antrustions, who constituted the most favored class in the state.1019 Nor even in later times was the rule by any means absolute. In the tenth century, Sanche, Duke of Gascony, desirous of founding the monastery of Saint Sever, claimed some land which was necessary for the purpose, and being resisted by the possessor, the title was decided by reference to the cold-water ordeal.1020 In 1027, Welf II., Count of Altorf, ancestor of the great houses of Guelf in Italy and England, having taken part in the revolt of Conrad the Younger and Ernest of Suabia, was forced by the Emperor Conrad the Salic to prove his innocence in this manner.1021 About the same period Othlonus relates an incident in which a man of noble birth accused of theft submitted himself to the cold-water ordeal as a matter of course;1022 while in 1068, at the Council of Vich, in Catalonia, held for the purpose of enforcing the Truce of God, all persons accused of being directly concerned in its violation are directed to be tried by the cold-water ordeal in the Church of San Pedro, without324 distinction of rank. Nearly two centuries later, indeed, when all the vulgar ordeals were falling into disuse, the water ordeal was established among the nobles of Southern Germany, as the mode of deciding doubtful claims on fiefs, and in Northern Germany, for the settlement of conflicting titles to land.