From Combat to Torture: Pain and Proof in the Middle Ages

One of my favorite events every spring is the annual Medieval Fair over at Reaves Park. While yes, I am biased as a medieval European history major and yes, I did dress up in a sweet “Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail” costume last time, I think Medieval Fairs — and any “living history” recreations — are some of the most potent and effective ways that we can make history accessible and engaging to the public.

One has to know these things being king.

But that’s tangential right now.

Dr. Jane Wickersham, faculty member of the history department at OU, came to the Norman Public Library to deliver a talk over the aspects of “”pain as proof” in medieval judiciary proceedings. These can be most generally broken down into three key categories:

  1. Trial by Combat — Your run-of-the-mill Dark Ages justice in pop culture and probably what comes to mind when you envision legal battles in the 1100s. Popularized by such tropes as “Game of Thrones,” but not as commonplace as fantasy would lead you to believe.
Image result for tyrion lannister trial by combat

2. Trial by Ordeal — This was Joe Everyman’s solution to his courtroom foibles; no fiddling with expensive swordsmanship training, armor, noble steeds, champions by proxy, etc. The most common would be the aptly-named “Trial by Hot Iron.” Two feuding serfs would each carry a red-hot bar of [Fe] a specified distance in their bare hands. Afterwards, the wounds would be bandaged and left to fester heal. At the end of a week or so, whosoever had healed better was deemed the winner of the case, as God had taken pity on them and aided their plight.

Image result for trial by hot iron

3. Trial by Torture — made famous by the Spanish Inquisition, torture was deemed a surefire way of determining guilt in the lack of concrete evidence. Now, before you go protesting any “lack of human decency inherent to the process of systematically-inflicted pain,” let’s take a second to acknowledge the human rights policies that underscored mandated torturings: Victims could only be submitted to 2-3 sessions; sessions could only last 1-2 hours; any confessions had to be ratified 24 hours later. Courts no longer showed preference to those who could produce large numbers of witnesses (i.e. the wealthy); cases were now based entirely on the number of accusations leveled against you. In this way, there was a subtle “democratization of the legal process” even if the means of extracting confessions were sub-optimal.

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