Trial by Fire: Modernity’s Response to Miracles

Dieric Bouts the Elder, Ordeal by Fire (detail), 1460. In this scene, a woman proves her innocence by holding a red-hot iron without suffering injury.
Dieric Bouts the Elder, Ordeal by Fire (detail), 1460.
In this scene, a woman proves her innocence by holding a red-hot iron, unharmed.

Perhaps no single image captures the popular conception of the “Dark Ages” than the idea of trials by ordeal. These infamous trials are the reason we refer to a difficult situation as an “ordeal,” or perhaps a “trial by fire.” One of the most famous depictions of a trial by ordeal is in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A woman is accused of witchcraft, and rather than gathering evidence or taking any but the most cursory of testimony, an elaborate test is designed to “objectively” determine if she’s a witch. While the scene is exaggerated for comic effect, it’s not far off the mark. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, writing in the Wall Street Journal, explain:

During the Middle Ages, if a court couldn’t determine whether a defendant was guilty, it often turned the case over to a priest who would administer an “ordeal” using boiling water or a smoking-hot iron bar. The idea was that God, who knew the truth, would miraculously deliver from harm any suspect who had been wrongly accused.

As Levitt and Dubner note, “as a means of establishing guilt, the medieval ordeal sounds barbaric and nonsensical.” This assessment seems half-correct. As a judicial process, they were an oft-bloody one, which is why canon 18 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) put an end to ordeals as part of a broader effort to disassociate clerics from bloodshed (a canon which, interestingly, banned priests from participating in everything from leading mercenaries to performing surgery).

But while the ordeals could be barbaric at times, they were perfectly sensible. The defendant is put into a position in which, barring a miracle, he’ll both be badly hurt and found guilty. God alone can save him. The logic — and the justice — of the process is rooted in the fact that both the judicial authorities and the accused believed in God (significantly, ordeals were only ever done to believers). According to George Mason’s Peter Leeson, this is rooted in “a medieval superstition called iudicium Dei (judgments of God). According to that superstition, God condemned the guilty and exonerated the innocent through clergy-conducted physical tests.”

How does this “superstition” hold up? You might be surprised. Levitt and Dubner, summarizing Leeson’s findings:

Dr. Leeson analyzed a set of church records from 13th-century Hungary; it included 308 cases that entered the trial-by-ordeal phase. Of these, 100 were aborted before producing a final result. That left 208 cases in which the defendant was summoned by a priest to the church, climbed the altar and was forced to grab hold of a red-hot iron bar.

How many of those 208 people do you think were badly burned? All 208? We’re talking about red-hot iron here. Maybe 207 or 206?

The actual number was 78. Which means that the remaining 130—nearly two-thirds of the defendants—were miraculously unharmed and thereby exonerated.

The “plea rolls” kept by English courts likewise reveal 19 cases of trial by ordeals, in which 17 of those accused were exonerated.  This is what Leeson refers to as “the peculiar puzzle of ordeals: trials of fire and water that should have condemned most persons who underwent them did the reverse. They exonerated these persons instead. Boiling water rarely boiled persons who plunged their arms in it. Burning iron rarely burned persons who carried it.”

And here we come to a fascinating point.

Leeson’s just uncovered records in two different countries revealing what certainly appears to be objective evidence of miracles. We’re not talking about a case or two in which somehow held a red-hot iron and walked away unharmed somehow. We’re talking about well over a hundred such incidents, just in the limited records that we know of. Yet Leeson can’t accept even the possibility that the ordeals might be what they claimed to be (miraculous). Instead, he offers this by way of explanation:

Examining the outcomes of the 208 cases in which defendants underwent ordeals is more instructive. The data are telling: probands failed their ordeals in only 78 cases, or 37.5 percent of the time. Probands passed their ordeals in 130 cases, or 62.5 percent of the time.33 Unless nearly two-thirds of ordeal-officiating priests did not understand how to heat iron, these data suggest priestly rigging intended to exculpate probands. Ordeals exonerated the overwhelming majority of probands tried in the basilica of Nagyva´rad.

Leeson, then, contemplates only two possibilities: either that “nearly two-thirds of ordeal-officiating priests did not understand how to heat iron,” or that priests were falsifying miracles in nearly two-thirds of these cases. Each of these options are ridiculous. Levitt and Dubner inadvertently show this, by describing what Leeson’s theory might actually look like:

Unless these 130 miracles were miracles, how can they be explained? Dr. Leeson thinks he knows the answer: “priestly rigging”—that is, the priest somehow tinkered with the setup to make the ordeal look legitimate while ensuring that the defendant wouldn’t be disfigured. Maybe the priest swapped out the hot iron bar for a cooler one, or—if using the boiling-water ordeal—dumped a pail of cold water into the caldron before the congregants entered the church.

Think of some of the elements involved in priestly rigging:

  • First, you need the witnesses to be stupid enough to believe that a piece of iron is smoldering hot when it isn’t. Also, it helps if they can’t tell the difference between boiling water and mildly warm water.
  • Second, you need a massive conspiracy of priests to fake miracles. We’re not talking about a bad priest here or there, but apparently the entire Catholic clergy cooperating to perpetuate this. And not just in Hungary, but in England, and everywhere else that trials were conducted by ordeals. Levitt and Dubner point out that this theory only works if we assume that virtually all Medieval priests were atheists: “If medieval priests did manipulate the ordeals, that might make them the only parties who thought an all-knowing God didn’t exist—or if He did, that He had enough faith in his priestly deputies to see their tampering as part of a divine quest for justice.”
  • Third, you need Catholic congregations docile (and gullible) enough that they’ll accept anything that these conniving priests tell them, no matter how ridiculous.
  • Fourth, you need a steady supply of seminarians who can immediately switch from being pious, stupid laypeople to evil, conniving priests. Remember: none of the laity are in on this conspiracy, but apparently all of the priests are. Leeson’s best explanation for this global conspiracy of blasphemous miracle-doctoring is that “According to the developing doctrine of in persona Christi, priests may have believed that they were acting in the person of Christ—that is, that God was guiding them—when they manipulated ordeals.” So apparently, you also need priests and seminarians who don’t understand what the doctrine of in persona Christi means.
  • Fifth, you’re left positing a global conspiracy that left no paper trail, and apparently raised no eyebrows. That is, we have plenty of matter-of-fact court and church records relating to ordeals, and plenty of documents even describing the precise conditions in which to perform them, but none of these documents (even the ones written by and for priests!) tell the priest when and how to doctor the miracle.
  • Sixth, you’ve got the problem of the exonerated guilty. Peter is tried by ordeal, “miraculously” found innocent, and set free. Subsequent evidence emerges showing that he was really guilty. Even if this evidence were never brought to court, Peter and everyone who knew him to be guilty would now recognize the miracle as a sham.
  • Seventh, you’ve got the problem of the condemned innocent.  This is particularly true is further evidence reveals his  innocence… or someone else’s guilt.
  • Eighth, you’ve got the defendant’s own experience. That is, even a genuinely-innocent man would realize that the reason he was found innocent was that the ordeal was rigged: that the iron wasn’t particularly hot, etc.

That’s just a start. This, by the way, is a 12th century image depicting trial by fire, the ordeal that Leeson apparently thinks can be easily and repeatedly faked:

Ordeal of Fire

Given all of this, Leeson hasn’t really given us much reason to think that there wasn’t something miraculous at work here. Of course, that doesn’t prove that it is. The Fourth Lateran Council’s willingness to put the kibosh on this judicial method reveals the Church’s own discomfort with ordeals, and there seem to have been cases of wrongly-condemned defendants when God didn’t perform miracles on demand. But we’re free to believe that, of the 147 exonerations Leeson analyzed, some or all of those results were miraculous.

Leeson, Levitt, and Dubner don’t have that same freedom. Because they view miracles as absurd (Leeson writes it off as “superstition” some 30 times in his article, while Dubner and Levitt list it as a method to “trick the guilty and gullible”), they can’t even consider the possibility of miracles, regardless of the evidence staring them squarely in the face. It’s not a matter of rejecting miracles because the evidence for them isn’t strong enough. It’s a matter of refusing to accept the evidence, no matter how strong, because of a prior commitment to rejecting miracles. I’m reminded of something I wrote about the USA Today demonic possession story:

As Christians, we’re free to disbelieve that this case was demonic. Just because we believe that demons exist doesn’t mean that everything blamed on demons is really demonic (as opposed to delusions, lies, mental illness, etc.). We don’t have a prior commitment to it being demonic or non-demonic, so we can simply evaluate the evidence as it comes to us.

But atheists who deny the existence of the spiritual realm can’t accept even the possibility that demonic forces were at work here. Their worldview forces them to pre-judge the case (no demonic activity), which results in commenters with some hilariously convoluted intellectual cop-outs to avoid the obvious conclusion.

Which brings us to a final irony: we moderns think of trial by ordeal as proof positive of the irrational dogmatism of our religious ancestors’ culture. In fact, the story seems to reveal a great deal more about the irrational dogmatism of our own irreligious culture.


  1. There are other spiritual phenomena such as ecstatic ‘levitation’ that has been documented throughout the centuries in the lives of the Saints, that one would think scientists such as Issac Newton or Albert Einstein would have been intrigued or interested in. Saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis of Paola, St. John Bosco (eye witness), St. Joseph of Cupertino, and many others were ones who either actually levitated from the ground in ecstasy, or were physically present when others had this experience.

    But that saints were physically levitated on occasion shouldn’t really surprise people, and especially faithful Christians, because we know that Jesus Himself walked on water, which is also an act defying the laws of gravity. I would think that these accounts would intrigue even secular minded people/scientists regarding the theory of Gravity?

    So too, the biblical account of Daniel, and his companions, entering unscathed the ‘fiery furnace’ in Nebuchadnezzar’s time, should help our unbelieving Christians today understand that the laws of nature can EASILY be suspended by the will of God at any time, but which I would think is probably effected through the means of ‘angels’ assigned to us by God for our spiritual, and physical, protection here on Earth.

  2. A quick review of the demographics of Hungary in about 1250 AD reveals a population of about 1.3 Million persons. So, 208 cases throughout the entire 100 years in the 13th Century, is actually quite a small number. How many serious crimes do you think that citizens of Oakland CA. have committed in 100 years? And their population is a lot less than 1.3 million. I think the number of murders and major felonies are about 208, or more, per year.

    Catholicism in Hungary, back then, must have done a pretty good job of teaching virtuous and peaceful living during that time. Maybe it’s time to bring back the ‘trial by ordeal’? 🙂

  3. Ok, great! Who wants to volunteer for a modern day trial? Reconcile with God first but after that you should be good.

    Apparently you have something like a 3/4 chance that your injury will befall you and if you are faithful presumably a much lower chance than that.

    I know it sounds crazy to talk about a massive church-wide conspiracy but it is not really that crazy. The following assumptions need be the only ones you hold:
    1. The church is just and the decisions of the church reflect God’s will. Apparently the majority of trials by ordeal led to exoneration so most priests could rightly feel that they were dispensing God’s mercy to members of communities which were likely being persecuted by they fellows.
    2. The crowd is large enough and disorganized (or intimidated) enough so that any skeptics find themselves unwilling to voice their concerns.

    Now you have the recipe for priests running around dispensing God’s “justice”.

    By the nature of Canon 18, which you mention as also baring priests from participating in other bloody practices such a leading mercenaries and crossbowmen as well as writing letters that would lead to punishment requiring the shedding of blood. This suggests that these practices were used by church members at that time.

    They paint a very different picture of what the church must have been like in those days (authoritarian, oppressive, etc.). This is consistent with the trial by ordeal narrative as being a mechanism that power seeking clergy of the time used to extend their power and influence.

      1. I have an Ethiopian friend who told me that he watched a hand being cut off of a thief, publicly, when he lived in Sudan. He said they sealed the wound with boiling oil and sent the man on his way. This is the way that some Moslem territories distribute justice, even today.

        So if we look back to the 13th century, and especially to Hungary, wherein the influence of Islam was close at hand, it is not hard to see why justice was distributed in this way. And again, the demographics point to a very low percentage of crimes being resolved in this manner, on the average of just about 3 cases per year out of a population of 1.3 million, or more. I think it is the ‘deterrence factor’ that most influenced this practice, as it is also used in ‘Sharia law’ areas of the world, today. These poor countries didn’t have the prisons, and other resources, that modern countries have today, wherein they could treat prisoners humanely for long sentences. So they used strong deterrences such as public amputations, or scaldings, or ‘tar and feathering’, for all the citizens to witness, and beware.

  4. It would almost be worth it to frame Joe Heschmeyer for a crime he didn’t commit so we could make him choose between trial by jury and trial by order, revealing what he really thinks about “the irrational dogmatism of our own irreligious culture.”

    1. I think you need to re-read Joe’s article. He states clearly that the trial by ordeals were done after a court trial if the court trial could not conclude one way or another the guilt of a person. So your point about him setting up a dichotomy between trials by jury and trial by ordeals is patently false. I interpret his last comment (which you quote) to mean that modern people view the trials by ordeals as being acts of barbarism rather than acts of faith/miracles. And yes, this should tell us something about us: that we as a culture irrationally no longer accept miracles even if statistically speaking they exist. Instead we should rationally believe that God does intervene. His article focuses on the trials by ordeals, but it could apply to any miracles for example medical ones.

    2. Rob,

      The “irrational dogmatism” in question is the prejudice that the miraculous can’t exist. You can’t say, “I don’t believe in miracle because there’s no evidence for them” and then reject all evidence for miracles on the grounds that you don’t believe in miracles.

      And no, you don’t get to claim trial by jury as a product of “our own irreligious culture.” The spread of jury trials can be traced (as Leeson does in his essay) directly to the Fourth Lateran Council.

  5. Since a few people read my comment about the ordeal system being barbaric-but-sensible as endorsing the system, let me clarify: I’m not. There were good reasons that the Church rejected ordeals. Not only were they violent, but the whole notion is a hair’s-width away from trying to force God to perform a miracle or else the innocent guy gets it.

    I was responding to Levitt and Dubner’s description of the ordeal system as “barbaric and nonsensical,” by agreeing with only the first half. You can disagree with an idea without considering it “nonsensical.” Likewise, you can recognize that an idea is coherent and sensible (according to its own internal logic) without endorsing it.

    So my argument isn’t “hey, let’s bring back the ordeal system!” but “here is documentary evidence of well over a hundred cases in which something apparently contrary to the natural order happened.”

    Those of you comfortable positing a global conspiracy to account for this evidence aren’t really doing any leg work to account for it. For example,

    How was this conspiracy organized? We have a total lack of any evidence for a conspiracy. Leeson actually quotes from internal documents explaining how to properly run an ordeal, and not even these give a hint that it’s all a bit set-up.

    How was this conspiracy executed? That is, even if every priest was rotten to the core, and everyone was on board with the idea, how in the world to pull it off? How do you go about convincing people that you’ve got a red hot iron… including the persons holding said iron and the assembled crowd?

    What possible motive was there to do this? The assumption seems to be that ordeals were critical for preserving the social order. In fact, they were a sort of last resort for difficult cases, and they were never applied to non-believers. After they were banned, societies continued to function just fine. So we’re to believe that countless priests betrayed their own religious principles for such a nebulous short-term social gain? Even if we grant that there are going to be some bad apples in the mix, this motive isn’t particularly coherent.

  6. My comments were not mean’t to support such early practices as ‘trials by ordeal, in any way, but rather to try to understand them in the possible context in which they might have occurred. It is very hard for those who live in a modern American culture, as we do today, to understand the culture of feudalism and even barbarism that encompassed a large part of the medieval world, and particularly ancient Hungary in the 13th Century. And also, if we think that 2 ‘trial by ordeals’ per year, over a period of 100 years in ancient Hungary, is particularly brutal and barbaric to our sophisticated, just, and pure, modern sensibilities….then what might you think those barbaric, and brutal, medieval Hungarians might think about us, modern and sophisticated Americans, ripping apart and thereby murdering 1,210,000 innocent unborn babies each year, in abortion mills such as Planned Parenthood? And then, also, selecting brains, hearts, and limbs of such babies to sell to our sophisticated, and modern, science laboratories? And how wide do you think their eyes then would open, and how much frothy lager would they spit from their mouths, and mugs, when you tell them that we, sophisticated and righteous modern’s, killed in totality, more than 57,762,169 of such babies in the last 40 years, which is about the equivalent to killing their entire population of that ancient country, over and over again, every single year, for more than forty years??

    So, I think, context is everything when judging the acts of other individuals, or other civilizations, be they ‘trials by ordeal’, or ‘crusades’, or ‘inquisitions’, etc… Or, then again, ‘fetal abortion mills’, or… ‘mass gas chambers for systematic, and highly efficient, genocide.

  7. An excellent article. Just one thing: there were no seminaries through the Middle Ages – they were gradually established by bishops from the mid-16th century onwards in obedience to the decrees of the Council of Trent.

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