God as Judge: Medieval Trials Great and Gruesome

The year is 897, and Pope Stephen VI has ordered the eight-month-old corpse of his predecessor removed from its vault at St. Peter’s. The former, and very dead, pope is clad in his old pontifical vestments, placed on a throne in a Roman basilica, and put on trial. A few decades later, at least if you believe the Annals of Winchester, King Edward the Confessor accuses his mother of adultery. But Edward’s mother proves her innocence by walking barefoot and unharmed over red-hot ploughshares. Fast forward to 1386, in Paris, where the King and Parliament decide to resolve charges of rape and defamation by having the accused and his accuser mount horses for a jousting battle. The two men will go at it until one or the other is dead. Whoever wins the battle, all agree, will be vindicated as a matter of law.

Strange doings. Medieval trials seem very curious to the modern mind. And today we’re going to survey three of these peculiar trials—three great and gruesome trials, spanning roughly a half millennium. Our goal is to make sense--if sense can be made--of the unusual means for resolving conflicts and punishing bad actors in The Middle Ages. What were these people thinking? How did it come to this? Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome each had pragmatic and evidence-driven methods for resolving disputes and criminal charges. What happened?

What happened, in the first half of the sixth century, was that a curtain fell on the ancient world. In the 530s, the Black Death swept through much of Europe. Soon marauding barbarians entered the continent. They killed, conquered, and converted. And, in the process, the invaders transformed Europe’s systems of justice. The relatively sensible approach to crime found in Ancient Rome gave way to something much different.

The Cadaver Synod of 897

Our tour of the strange world of medieval justice starts with The Cadaver Synod of 897. Or, as many have come to call it, “The Dead Pope Trial.”

The mid to late 800s was a bad time for popes. Charlemagne’s empire had crumbled and Europe had split into smaller and smaller fiefdoms. Many of these fiefdoms eyed Rome’s treasury and sought protection money. Because of Rome’s weakened condition, popes in the late 800s depended on the support of secular leaders to hold office and to achieve goals. It was a time of political factions. A pope had to be aligned with the right faction to accomplish much of anything.

In this turbulent time, Bishop Formosus of Portus—Portus being a western suburb of Rome—was making a name for himself in Catholic circles. In the 860s, the Pope called on Formosus to manage important Church matters in Bulgaria, France, and Trent. Each time he received high marks for his work, so much so that people began mentioning Formosus as a candidate for pope when the next vacancy opened up.

But when an opening occurred in 872, the papacy went to a rival, Pope John VIII. And then when Formosus found himself on the wrong side of the issue of who should be crowned the new emperor, he fled Rome. Pope John VIII convened a synod and charged Formosus with a laundry list of crimes under Church law. Among the charges were deserting his diocese without permission, opposing the crowning of the emperor, and (quote) “conspiring with certain iniquitous men and women for the destruction of the papal see.” Formosus was convicted, defrocked, and excommunicated.

You might think that would be the end of Formosus’s papal ambitions, but you’d be wrong. Six years later, the excommunication was lifted. In return, Formosus promised never to return to Rome or execute priestly duties. And for a while, he didn’t.

But then, in 882, Pope John VIII was clobbered over the head with a hammer, thus becoming the first pope to be assassinated.

Newly installed Pope Marinus didn’t share his predecessor’s grudge with Formosus. So he released Formosus from his oath, and restored him to his old diocese.

Three more popes came and went—they seemed to drop dead with alarming regularity around this time—until at last, in 891, Formosus became the first former ex-communicant to be elected Pope.

But the job came with a host of thorny problems. The most important concerned the messy politics of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. The previous pope had made a commitment to crown as Roman emperor the very young Guy Spoleto III. But Formosus had his own idea as to who should be emperor.

And so Formosus persuaded one Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Italy and liberate it from the control of Emperor Spoleto. Arnulf crossed the Alps and seized the city of Rome by force in February 896. A day later in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Formosus crowned Arnulf as the new emperor. Although Spoleto died suddenly and was no longer in the picture, nothing about what the Pope had done sat well with his influential relatives.

Two months later, Pope Formosus died of a stroke, and for eight months his corpse rested peacefully in its vault at St. Peters.

But in January 897, power shifted again in Rome. Arnulf suffered a stroke and left Rome. Once again, Spoleto’s relatives were riding high—and they hadn’t forgotten what Formosus did to them. They didn’t mean to let a little thing like his death get in the way of revenge.

Spoleto’s relatives put pressure on the new Pope, Stephen VI, to put Formosus on trial for a list of alleged crimes. It might not have taken a lot of pressure. Stephen VI and Formosus had been on opposite sides in disputes involving Rome’s aristocracy.

In any case, Pope Stephen calls a meeting of bishops and cardinals, the notorious Cadaver Synod. At this meeting, it is decided to remove the rotting corpse of Pope Formosus from its vault. Church aides remove the shroud from the corpse, dress it in pontifical vestments, put a crown on its skull, and prop what’s left of Formosus up on a throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The bishops and cardinals called as witnesses stare in shock at the sight. One can imagine them struggling to deal with the overwhelming stench.

Pope Stephen appoints himself prosecutor. He also appoints an 18-year-old deacon to serve as counsel for Formosus. What happens next is described by E. R. Chamberlain in his entertaining book The Bad Popes: “The council wisely kept silent while Stephen raved and screamed his insults” at the corpse.

The charges against Formosus include performing the functions of a bishop after he promised not to, assuming the papacy, and conspiring against a previous Pope. Among the list of questions Pope Stephen has for the corpse are: “Why did you usurp the universal Roman see in such a spirit of ambition?” Why did you exercise the office of bishop after you took an oath to remain a layman? Why did you commit perjury?

Apparently, dead Pope Formosus has no good answers for these questions. So Pope Stephen proposes that Formosus be found guilty. The bishops present don’t see any reason to disagree. They all shout, “So be it!”

Guards step forward to carry out the sentence. The three fingers of the corpse that Formosus once used for blessings are hacked off. The papal crown is removed and the papal garments stripped off. A short while later, the body is unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber River.

But dead popes don’t just fade away. And the aftermath of the trial had many twists and turns. For example, monks sympathetic to Formosus fetched the corpse from the river, and rumors even began to circulate that the corpse was performing miracles on the banks of the Tiber.

Moreover, bishops appointed by Formosus and still loyal to him staged a Vatican coup. A mob tossed Pope Stephen into a dungeon, where he was strangled.

Subsequently the decrees of the Cadaver Synod were first annulled and then reinstated by different popes. Formosus’s corpse was first returned to its vault and then exhumed and tossed into the Tiber again. Eventually, however, Formosus’s bones found their way back to St. Peter’s, where he was laid to rest for a third—and one would hope final—time.

The Cadaver Synod succeeded in dampening enthusiasm for trying corpses. Indeed, in 898 Pope John IX even issued a decree prohibiting future trials of the dead.

Even so, Pope Formosus was not the last person to show up dead for his trial. Over the next half millennium, scores of other cadavers had their unwanted days in court. So what was behind these trials? Why, in the Middle Ages would one try a dead pope? Or anyone else? In part, such trials reflect medieval beliefs about death—death is not the end; people move on to their rewards and punishments in the next world.

And a good part of the interest in trying dead people can be attributed to laws that allowed the confiscation of property of persons convicted—dead or alive--of serious crimes. As late as 1591, Judge Pierre Ayrault argued in a treatise that convicting the guilty after death made every bit as much sense as posthumous exonerations of the innocent. Perhaps. But is it really necessary for the dead defendant to show up in court?

The Trial of Emma

The Cadaver Synod was something of a special case. What about trials of non-popes, including ordinary people, accused of committing ordinary crimes? In these cases, most of Europe turned to systems of justice that produced just results only if God took enough interest in a case to provide it.

Briefly put, there were two techniques, each semi-rational at best, that came into use. The earliest trial form to develop was trial by oath—or more precisely, trial by compurgation. In these trials, a person accused of a crime tried to round up people willing to swear to his or her innocence—people called compurgators. The number of oath-takers required to prove innocence varied with the seriousness of the charge and one’s place in society. These trials were not fact-based inquiries; the oaths were the evidence. Even the high and mighty had to seek out compurgators. For example, in 899 BC, Queen Uta of Germany stood accused of adultery. She won acquittal, however, when 82 knights lined up to confirm her chastity. If that seems like a high burden for Queen Uta, consider that a person accused of poisoning in Dark Ages Wales had to find 600 compurgators to prove his innocence.

Queen Uta

Trials by oath made sense for people who believed God would strike dead anyone who swore falsely. But objections to the system—people understood perjury was possible--led to another form of trial process, trial by ordeal. At first, ordeals were employed as a way of producing a result in intractable cases, but its use spread and in many places replaced compurgation altogether.

Let’s leave Rome and travel to eleventh-century England for the trial, if we can call it that, of Queen Emma of Normandy. But first a bit of background on “Trials by Ordeal.”

Trial by Ordeal

Trials by Ordeal bear almost no resemblance to modern trials. They were proceedings designed to attract God’s attention and have Him make the call: Guilty or Innocent. If a defendant was truly innocent, the thinking went, God would step in and perform a miracle to save the defendant from a grievous wrong. Trials by ordeal were not, mind you, some wink-wink proceeding. People of the medieval world, for the most part, actually believed that God would ensure a just outcome. For most people of the time, God was ever-watchful—they could scarcely imagine Him just sitting by and let an innocent person be found guilty.

In a trial by ordeal the defendant was subjected to a challenge, usually an unpleasant one causing serious injury. A typical ordeal might involve walking over hot irons or retrieving a stone from boiling water. The defendant was found innocent if the injury sufficiently healed within a specific time—3 days was typical--and guilty if the injury still festered. In the more bizarre ordeal of the cold water, bound suspects were thrown into a convenient body of water to see whether they sank or floated. Because water was believed to be pure and have the power to repel sin, anyone who sank persuasively enough was acquitted—and, with luck, might be resuscitated and live to see another day.

Emma of Normandy being led over hot ploughshares

No contemporaneous records exist for the trial by ordeal of Emma of Normandy. The earliest surviving record comes from The Annals of Winchester, written in about 1200. As with any account written over a century after the fact, it is best to assume the story as we have it contains a mixture of fact and and a large dose of fiction.

According to the Annals, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded King Edward the Confessor to charge his own mother, Emma of Normandy, with adultery. The charge claimed that Emma had engaged in sexual relations with Bishop Elfwine of Winchester. Emma insisted she was innocent—and that she willing undergo the ordeal of hot iron to prove it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury agreed—but only with rigorous conditions. (Quote): “Let the ill-famed woman walk nine paces, with bare feet, on nine red-hot ploughshares—four to clear herself and five to clear the bishop. If she falters, if she does not press one of the ploughshares fully with her feet, if she is harmed the one least bit, then let her be judged a fornicator.” Now that’s one tough test.

So here’s the scene. The nine red-hot ploughshares are laid across the pavement in a church. Emma enters and entreats God to save her. Led by the hand by bishops, she starts to walk. Miraculously, according to chroniclers, Emma passes the test with flying colors. According to one account, Emma “senses nothing.” She even turns to a bishop and asks, “When shall we come to the ploughshares?” The bishops, no doubt shocked by her question, tell her she just passed over them. Her feet are examined, or so the report goes, and they are found to be uninjured. All around proclaim a miracle. Emma is innocent of the charge and free to go, with all her confiscated property restored.

There is reason to take this account with a grain of salt. Perhaps the ploughshares were not as hot as the archbishop ordered, perhaps Emma’s feet were toasted, but less so than expected. Perhaps the ordeal never even occurred at all. Separating fact from fiction can be difficult in a period without much record-keeping. It is beyond question, however, that the ordeal of hot iron was one of the more common forms of ordeal during this time period.

Note also the involvement of the Church in these trials. The Catholic Church took to trials with gusto. The use of ordeals actually expanded in the ninth through eleventh centuries along as Latin Christendom spread in Europe. The Church found trials by ordeal to be a handy way of dealing with heretics. “Want to prove you are a good Catholic?—take the ordeal of the hot irons!” The Church realized another benefit from the system. Priests frequently were paid to supervise ordeals.

If chroniclers are to be believed, trials by ordeal had a fairly high exoneration rate. Priests had a great deal of latitude to make judgments, even assuming the ordeals themselves were not manipulated, as of course they could be. Has the wound healed enough to prove innocence? That can be a question without a clear answer. Perhaps a bribe might influence the final call? Given the discretion here, woe to the poor defendant undergoing an ordeal who had crossed the priest in some way.

Meanwhile in Iceland: The Burnt Njal Trial (circa 1012)

Isolated from the rest of Europe, Iceland developed a unique culture and legal system. One of the treasures we have from the medieval world are Icelandic sagas. And the greatest of all Icelandic sagas, The Saga of Burnt Njal (written in about 1280), tells of a remarkable trial that took place at Iceland's Law Rock in about 1012. (Of course, given time between the trial and when the story was put into writing, again one must assume the account is a mix of fact and fiction.)The trial grew out of a long-lasting feud of monumental proportions. One group of feuders, led by a chieftan named Flosi with a hundred men, descend on the farmhouse of one of the key feuders on the other side, Njal. With Njal and his son inside, trying as best they can to mount a defense, the house in set on fire. All inside die except for Njal’s nephew, Kari Solmundarson, who climbs to the rafters and leaps from the roof with his hair and clothes ablaze. Kari plunges into a nearby stream, but is left disfigured and in pain from severe burns. Kari’s mission becomes seeking revenge for the deaths of Njal and his other relatives.

Law Rock in southwestern Iceland

Feuds can be destructive of society. At the turn of the millennium, religious and secular authorities in Iceland hoped that a legal system might break, or at least slow, the tide of violence. When Kari spreads the news of the awful fire, he gets surprising advice from a foster son of Njal, Thorhall Asgrimsson. He tells Kari they should take the murderers to court.

When Flosi receives notice of the suit, he considers settlement, but is persuaded by another member of the gang of arsonists that they should instead hire their own lawyer. Flosi visits Eyjolf Bolverksson, the most highly-regarded lawyer in all of Iceland, and asks him if he will take their case. Eyjolf, described in the saga as bedecked in a scarlet cloak and gold headband, initially turns down Flosi’s request. But Flosi’s offer of a splendid gold chain for his services causes him to reconsider. He tells Flosi that he will take the case. At the time, however, accepting compensation for legal services was considered improper—so one could guess where the saga might be going. Eyjolf will come to regret his decision to defend Flosi and his gang.

Trials in Iceland took place at Law Rock, a beautiful spot between a lava cliff and a wide valley sliced by a shining river. On the actual rock, once each summer, the Law Speaker recites to everyone present one-third of Iceland’s legal code. (The next summer, he will recite a different third of the code, and in the third year, he will complete his recital before starting over again the next year.) When a case was to be heard, lawyers would gather in their respective booths, while around them circulated jurors and interested spectators.

In Kari’s trial, Kari’s nine jurors seated themselves on the ground. They are present not to weigh facts, but rather to swear that Kari followed proper legal procedures in bringing his suit. All become silent when Kari’s lawyer, Mord Valgardsson, stepped up to Law Rock. In what we might call his “opening statement,” Mord announced that he will plead truly, fairly, and in accordance with the law. He then asked witnesses to swear he had been lawfully appointed and that the defendants had been given notice of the suit. He then asked if anyone had any objections.

Eyjolf Bolverksson was ready. He argued that two of the jurors should be disqualified on the ground they are related to him. Mord had no answer to the objection and the suit seemed on the verge of dissolving. But one man might have the answer: Thorhall Asgrimsson. Thorhall, to his great consternation, could not attend the court proceedings because of an ugly leg inflammation that had left him bedridden.

Messengers rushed to Thorhall’s home, got his legal advice, and then passed it on to Mord. Mord stood to refute Eyjolf’s argument for disqualification. He said that only kinship with the accuser, not with a defense attorney, required a juror to step down.

Sadskat Kadri, in his lively account of the trial, notes that all around considered Mord’s response “brilliant,” but that Eyjolf “pulled another arrow from his quiver.” Eyjolf argues that home ownership is a requirement for jurors, but that two of Kari’s jurors are not homeowners. Once again, messengers ride off to Thorhall and come back with his rejoinder: ownership of a cow is sufficient to establish eligibility to serve as a juror. This claim turned out to be a matter of dispute, and so the question is put to the Law Speaker, Skapti Thoroddsson. He emerged from his booth to announce his decision. A cow, indeed, will do.

Eyjolf has one last trick up his sleeve. Jurors, in Iceland, are the men living closest to the scene of the crime. (Note that in Medieval Iceland, the legal system expected jurors to be the people most knowledgeable about a crime, not—as seems the preference in our system—people with almost zero knowledge of the crime.) Eyjolf argued for disqualification of four jurors who, he said, lived more distant to the scene of the crime that others not asked to serve as jurors.

Yet again Mord had an answer. He said cases could be decided by a majority of the nine jurors, and five still remain. The Law Speaker seemed stunned. He believed he was the only person in all of Iceland who knew this fine legal point, but—yes—five jurors would suffice.

With issues of juror eligibility finally behind him, Eyjolf proceeded to his next argument, a jurisdictional claim. He argued that the case had been brought before the wrong division of the Law Rock. This turned out to be true, but resulted in only a short delay as Kari’s team refiled the case.

The prosecution (that is, Kari’s side) now took to offense, contending that Eyjolf was guilty of bribery for accepting the gold bracelet as payment for his services. But what could have been a knockout blow became irrelevant in light of a serious legal error by Mord. Mord demanded that six of the 36 judges in the case stand down and that the remaining judges award Kari’s side the verdict. But for reasons that only the best scholar of Medieval Icelandic jurisprudence might fathom, this was a mistake. Mord should have asked to remove twelve judges, not six. The legal blunder meant that Kari and the other of Njal’s kinsmen, far from winning their case, faced exile!

Kari Solmundarson

Even Thorhall had no remedy for this problem. Instead, he roused himself from his bed and, blood pouring down his leg, made way for Law Rock. Thorhall, despite being an admired jurist, evidently had had it with legal maneuverings. When he encountered Grim the Red, a member of Flosi’s legal team, he plants a spear into the man, splitting his shoulder blades in two. Then all hell broke loose. The fact that such a gravely injured man as Thorhall was moved to action inspired other members of Kari’s side to fight. Soon, as Kadri describes it, “Across the Law Rock, weapons fly, bones crack, body parts are pierced, and at least one bystander is hurled headlong into a boiling cauldron.” When the Law Speaker proposed a cease-fire negotiation, his answer was a spear through both his calves. The action reached its climax when Eyjolf Bolverksson was spotted by one of Kari’s supporters. “Reward him for that bracelet,” the friend suggested to Kari. Kari launches a spear that cuts clean through the pleader’s waist.

The next morning, after the dead were buried and wounds bound, some of the trial participants returned to Law Rock. It was for one of Flosi’s team to state the obvious: “There have been harsh happenings here, in loss of life and lawsuits.”

No one could contend Kari v Flosi trial was typical of medieval trials, or even trials in Iceland. But the trial does suggest a time and place every bit as obsessed with legal formalities as our own legal system today. Sadakit Kadri observes in his excellent book, The Trial, that “so much as word out of place could cost the speaker a fine, the case, or his life.” Cases were as likely to be decided by the correctness (or incorrectness) of legal procedure as they were by actual testimony.

Trial by Combat: "The Last Duel"

One variation of ordeal still captures our imagination. You know it. It’s a form of ordeal played out on 21st-century fairgrounds by re-enactors in medieval festivals: Trial by Combat. Two things distinguish Trial by Combat from all the other varieties of ordeal used in the Middle Ages. First, most ordeals were unilateral, involving one party only. It takes two to duel. Second, for a defendant in most forms of ordeal to prove innocence, he or she had to hope that natural processes worked in a surprising way. Not so with Trial by Combat, where skill and cunning could make all the difference.

The last great example of trial by combat took place in 1386, at an abbey north of Paris, where royalty, dukes, and thousands of ordinary Parisians gathered to watch the bloody spectacle.

To say that the two combatants, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, had a history is a bit of an understatement. At one time, the two were close friends. So close, in fact, that Carrouges chose Le Gris to be the godfather of his first son. But things began to deteriorate. When both men were in the court circle of Count Pierre d’ Alençon, Le Gris became the Count’s favorite vassal. The Count rewarded Le Gris with a prized estate and other favors. Carrouges became jealous and the two became rivals.

Carrouges fell in love and married the daughter of a Norman lord. His new bride, Marquerite, was a pretty good catch. She is described as “young, beautiful, good, sensible, and modest.” It also turns out that Marquerite’s father used to own a valuable estate, which he had sold to Count Pierre three years before his daughter’s marriage. Pierre, in turn, handed the sought-after estate to Carrouges’ archrival, Le Gris.

So Carrouges launched a lawsuit against Le Gris. He alleged that the transfer of the estate to Count Pierre was null and void for reasons that need not occupy us here. The bottom line is, Carrouges argued the land in question still really belonged to his in-laws. But the lawsuit went nowhere.

Other land dis

putes followed—disputes that involved Carrouges on one side, and Le Gris and Count Pierre on the other. But in 1384, Carrouges and Le Gris had a chance meeting at a party and apparently agreed to bury the hatchet. Carrouges even introduced Le Gris to his beautiful wife Marquerite. Big mistake.

Two years passed, and then one day while Carrouges was on a trip to Paris, Le Gris visited a chateau where Carrouges had left his wife alone. Here’s one version of what happened next.

Marguerite answers a knock on the door. The door knocker is a man-at-arms named Adam Louvel. Louvel questions her about a loan for a minute. Then he announces--surprise!--Jacques Le Gris is waiting outside and hewould like to see you. Marguerite declines the offer. Louvel persists: “He loves you passionately, he’ll do anything for you. He really, really wants to see you.” Marguerite still says no. Le Gris barges in anyway. Then, according to Marguerite, he propositions her. He sweetens the offer by throwing in a goodly sum of money if they can just have sex and keep mum about it. Again, Marguerite says no. Le Gris, with Louvel helping, proceeds to rape Marguerite. Before he leaves, Le Gris threatens to kill Marguerite if she tells anyone, including her husband, about what just happened.

Carrouges returned several days later, and despite Le Gris’ threat, Marguerite could not keep silent. She tearfully told her husband that Le Gris raped her. We can assume that when Carrouges heard this news he became fighting mad. Worse yet, Marguerite told her husband that she was pregnant--and could not know who the father was.

Carrouges decided to press charges of rape against Le Gris. But the suit had a problem. First, there was the “he said-she said” aspect of it. Marguerite was the only witness. Le Gris would surely deny the rape. Second, the judge for the case would be none other than Count Pierre. The Count was assigned the duty of resolving disputes involving his vassals. And we can guess whose side HE would take.

In fact, the deck was stacked so steeply against them that Carrouges and Marguerite didn’t even bother to attend the proceeding. Predictably, the Count acquitted Le Gris of all charges and proceeded to accuse Marguerite of “dreaming” the attack.

But the Count’s verdict could be appealed to Court Pierre's overlord, King Charles VI. Guessing that a traditional appeal would fail, Carrouges came up with another plan. A plan that might prove attractive to the King and his Court’s lust for entertainment. Carrouge proposed that the rape charge be settled through trial-by-combat.

Trials by combat had once been a common means of resolving disputes in France. But by 1386 they had become very rare. A 1306 law limited trials by combat to only capital crimes involving noblemen. Carrouges probably expected his idea to be rejected. But the French court was intrigued. A good old-fashioned trial-by-combat might be fun.

In the second phase of legal process, Carrouges and Le Gris and their respective supporters showed up at the Palace of Justice to issue a formal challenge. Before the King's Court (The Parlement of Paris, a body of 32 magistrates), they each recited their accusations. Carrouges accused Le Gris of rape. Le Gris accused Carrouges of defamation. Then they each threw down the gauntlet. Literally. Throwing down a gauntlet was the formal indication of each man’s willingness to fight.

Interestingly, the King's Court decided to hold off on the judicial duel and to hear the case as an ordinary criminal one first. The criminal trial dragged on through much of the summer.

But, finally, the King's Court handed down its verdict--or non-verdict. The magistrates announced they could not reach a decision. A judicial duel to the death it would have to be.

When you hear the word “duel,” you might think of something like the Hamilton-Burr duel. A couple of men, deciding for their own foolish reasons, to settle scores in an old-fashioned and violent way. But this is a judicial duel, a form of ordeal that assumes God will be watching over and directing the outcome. In this judicial duel, not only would the survivor survive, he would be in the eyes of God, and the law, vindicated.

Now, it wasn’t just the lives of the two men that hung in the balance. Marguerite’s life did as well. For if her husband died, that could only mean that her rape accusation was baseless and that she had committed perjury. Perjury was a capital offense. So, Marguerite knew that if her husband lost the duel, she would be immediately burnt at the stake. If ever a wife had reason to cheer her husband on in battle, here it was.

And so the big day arrives: December 29, 1386. Thousands of spectators begin gathering at dawn, hours before the event. They flock to a jousting arena at an abbey in the north Paris suburbs. The king is there too, as well as an impressive collection of dukes. Marguerite, dressed in black, sits in a carriage overlooking the field.

Marguerite says goodbye to Carrouges moments before his duel with Le Gris (British Library)

The two combatants, dressed in full armor and each riding a horse, take the field. Each man has an impressive collection of weapons. They each carry a lance, a sword, a long dagger, and a heavy battle axe. Carrouges recites to the crowd his charges against Le Gris. Then its Le Gris’s turn, and he recites his charge of defamation. They each dismount their horses and give oaths to God and the Virgin Mary and St. George. The oaths, a key part of the process, ensure God’s judgment--and not just their own jousting skills--will determine the outcome of the duel.

The King’s instructions are read. Essentially the deal is this: anyone who runs onto the field and interferes with the duel will be executed and anyone who interferes with the duel by shouting will have their hand cut off. Effective crowd control measures, no doubt. Then it’s show time.

The horses square up at the proper distance. The marshal signals. The two men charge at each other. On the first pass, their lances strike, but no harm is done. On the second pass, they strike each other on their armored headpieces. They wheel around and charge at each other a third time, striking each other’s shields and shattering both lances. The axes come out in in round four. They slash at each other with axes until Le Gris manages to drive his through the neck of Carrouges’s horse, beheading it. The poor horse stumbles to the ground and Carrouges jumps off. He charges at Le Gris’s horse and disembowels it. (You have to feel for the innocent horses, if not the combatants.)

It’s time to pull out the swords and battle on foot. The two men thrust and parry and all those other things you do with swords. This goes on for several minutes. Le Gris gains the advantage after he manages to stab his rival in his right thigh. But Carrouges isn’t finished yet. He wrestles Le Gris flat to the ground, not a very good place to be if you’re wearing very heavy armor. Carrouges stabs his rival right and left, but he not getting anywhere--the armor is just too tough for the sword. So he tears Le Gris’s faceplate off and shouts at his old nemesis. Admit your guilt, you fiend. Le Gris cries out, “In the name of God and on the peril of damnation of my soul, I am innocent!” That does it. Carrouges takes out his dagger and drives it through Le Gris’s neck, killing him.

Marguerite, watching all this, is quite relieved. But before the victor can receive congratulations from his wife, he is bandaged up by his pages and walks over to the King. He kneels before the King and accepts his prize of a thousand francs. Carrouges limps off to bow and clasp his wife as the crowd shouts its approval. Finally, the happy twosome ride from the jousting field to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to thank God for securing them justice.

With that, the curtain comes down on trial by combat in France. Never again would the French government sanction a judicial duel.

Each of the trials we’ve examined in this lecture was exceptional. The Cadaver Synod exceptional in its grotesqueness, the trial by ordeal of Emma of Normandy exceptional for its reported outcome and the high status of the accused, and the trial by combat exceptional for what it represents, the last great example from a system of deciding cases based on the assumption that God cares enough about the outcome to produce a just result. Each trial appears crazy to the modern mind, but the mindsets of the men and women of the medieval age were decidedly not modern. They believed in a God who perpetually watched and tinkered with his creation.

The End of an Age

Even as early as the ninth century, trials by ordeal had its critics. Skeptics questioned whether God actually had much interest in stepping in to make sure every ordeal came out as it should. Charlemagne must have noted the criticism when he commanded, “Let all believe in the ordeal without doubting.” As historian Robert Bartlett observed, the commandment would scarcely have been necessary if there were no doubters.

By the late 12th century, criticism of ordeals grew louder. Couldn’t God secure justice if He wanted without ordeals—aren’t they just superfluous? Isn’t it presumptuous to assume we can determine God’s will from a test we make up? Might not a guilty person use magic and falsely win his innocence? Isn’t it possible God might simply choose to sit an ordeal out, and not intervene? If someone who is guilty confesses, shouldn’t that cleanse their guilt and result in the ordeal showing them to be innocent? What if 3 suspects are made in turn to walk over hot irons—doesn’t the third and last suspect to do the walk have a better chance of being found innocent? And where in the Bible, exactly, is support for this whole notion of ordeals?

These critical voices began to be heard at the highest levels. In 1199, Pope Innocent III approved a new way of proceeding in criminal cases: judges on their own motion could launch inquiries into crimes, even look into the minds of the accused. The new proceeding was called “the inquisition.” Sixteen years later, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council prohibited priests from blessing ordeals by fire or water. The age of the trial by ordeal was closing.

FAMOUS MEDIEVAL TRIALS HOMEPAGEFamous Medieval Trials
by Doug Linder (2017)
God as Judge: Medieval Trials Great and Gruesome

The year is 897, and Pope Stephen VI has ordered the eight-month-old corpse of his predecessor removed from its vault at St. Peter’s. The former, and very dead, pope is clad in his old pontifical vestments, placed on a throne in a Roman basilica, and put on trial. A few decades later, at least if you believe the Annals of Winchester, King Edward the Confessor accuses his mother of adultery. But Edward’s mother proves her innocence by walking barefoot and unharmed over red-hot ploughshares. Fast forward to 1386, in Paris, where the King and Parliament decide to resolve charges of rape and defamation by having the accused and his accuser mount horses for a jousting battle. The two men will go at it until one or the other is dead. Whoever wins the battle, all agree, will be vindicated as a matter of law.

Strange doings. Medieval trials seem very curious to the modern mind. And today we’re going to survey three of these peculiar trials—three great and gruesome trials, spanning roughly a half millennium. Our goal is to make sense--if sense can be made--of the unusual means for resolving conflicts and punishing bad actors in The Middle Ages. What were these people thinking? How did it come to this? Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome each had pragmatic and evidence-driven methods for resolving disputes and criminal charges. What happened?

What happened, in the first half of the sixth century, was that a curtain fell on the ancient world. In the 530s, the Black Death swept through much of Europe. Soon marauding barbarians entered the continent. They killed, conquered, and converted. And, in the process, the invaders transformed Europe’s systems of justice. The relatively sensible approach to crime found in Ancient Rome gave way to something much different.

The Cadaver Synod of 897

Our tour of the strange world of medieval justice starts with The Cadaver Synod of 897. Or, as many have come to call it, “The Dead Pope Trial.”

The mid to late 800s was a bad time for popes. Charlemagne’s empire had crumbled and Europe had split into smaller and smaller fiefdoms. Many of these fiefdoms eyed Rome’s treasury and sought protection money. Because of Rome’s weakened condition, popes in the late 800s depended on the support of secular leaders to hold office and to achieve goals. It was a time of political factions. A pope had to be aligned with the right faction to accomplish much of anything.

In this turbulent time, Bishop Formosus of Portus—Portus being a western suburb of Rome—was making a name for himself in Catholic circles. In the 860s, the Pope called on Formosus to manage important Church matters in Bulgaria, France, and Trent. Each time he received high marks for his work, so much so that people began mentioning Formosus as a candidate for pope when the next vacancy opened up.

But when an opening occurred in 872, the papacy went to a rival, Pope John VIII. And then when Formosus found himself on the wrong side of the issue of who should be crowned the new emperor, he fled Rome. Pope John VIII convened a synod and charged Formosus with a laundry list of crimes under Church law. Among the charges were deserting his diocese without permission, opposing the crowning of the emperor, and (quote) “conspiring with certain iniquitous men and women for the destruction of the papal see.” Formosus was convicted, defrocked, and excommunicated.

You might think that would be the end of Formosus’s papal ambitions, but you’d be wrong. Six years later, the excommunication was lifted. In return, Formosus promised never to return to Rome or execute priestly duties. And for a while, he didn’t.

But then, in 882, Pope John VIII was clobbered over the head with a hammer, thus becoming the first pope to be assassinated.

Newly installed Pope Marinus didn’t share his predecessor’s grudge with Formosus. So he released Formosus from his oath, and restored him to his old diocese.

Three more popes came and went—they seemed to drop dead with alarming regularity around this time—until at last, in 891, Formosus became the first former ex-communicant to be elected Pope.

But the job came with a host of thorny problems. The most important concerned the messy politics of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. The previous pope had made a commitment to crown as Roman emperor the very young Guy Spoleto III. But Formosus had his own idea as to who should be emperor.

And so Formosus persuaded one Arnulf of Carinthia to invade Italy and liberate it from the control of Emperor Spoleto. Arnulf crossed the Alps and seized the city of Rome by force in February 896. A day later in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Formosus crowned Arnulf as the new emperor. Although Spoleto died suddenly and was no longer in the picture, nothing about what the Pope had done sat well with his influential relatives.

Two months later, Pope Formosus died of a stroke, and for eight months his corpse rested peacefully in its vault at St. Peters.

But in January 897, power shifted again in Rome. Arnulf suffered a stroke and left Rome. Once again, Spoleto’s relatives were riding high—and they hadn’t forgotten what Formosus did to them. They didn’t mean to let a little thing like his death get in the way of revenge.

Spoleto’s relatives put pressure on the new Pope, Stephen VI, to put Formosus on trial for a list of alleged crimes. It might not have taken a lot of pressure. Stephen VI and Formosus had been on opposite sides in disputes involving Rome’s aristocracy.

In any case, Pope Stephen calls a meeting of bishops and cardinals, the notorious Cadaver Synod. At this meeting, it is decided to remove the rotting corpse of Pope Formosus from its vault. Church aides remove the shroud from the corpse, dress it in pontifical vestments, put a crown on its skull, and prop what’s left of Formosus up on a throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The bishops and cardinals called as witnesses stare in shock at the sight. One can imagine them struggling to deal with the overwhelming stench.

Pope Stephen appoints himself prosecutor. He also appoints an 18-year-old deacon to serve as counsel for Formosus. What happens next is described by E. R. Chamberlain in his entertaining book The Bad Popes: “The council wisely kept silent while Stephen raved and screamed his insults” at the corpse.

The charges against Formosus include performing the functions of a bishop after he promised not to, assuming the papacy, and conspiring against a previous Pope. Among the list of questions Pope Stephen has for the corpse are: “Why did you usurp the universal Roman see in such a spirit of ambition?” Why did you exercise the office of bishop after you took an oath to remain a layman? Why did you commit perjury?

Apparently, dead Pope Formosus has no good answers for these questions. So Pope Stephen proposes that Formosus be found guilty. The bishops present don’t see any reason to disagree. They all shout, “So be it!”

Guards step forward to carry out the sentence. The three fingers of the corpse that Formosus once used for blessings are hacked off. The papal crown is removed and the papal garments stripped off. A short while later, the body is unceremoniously tossed into the Tiber River.

But dead popes don’t just fade away. And the aftermath of the trial had many twists and turns. For example, monks sympathetic to Formosus fetched the corpse from the river, and rumors even began to circulate that the corpse was performing miracles on the banks of the Tiber.

Moreover, bishops appointed by Formosus and still loyal to him staged a Vatican coup. A mob tossed Pope Stephen into a dungeon, where he was strangled.

Subsequently the decrees of the Cadaver Synod were first annulled and then reinstated by different popes. Formosus’s corpse was first returned to its vault and then exhumed and tossed into the Tiber again. Eventually, however, Formosus’s bones found their way back to St. Peter’s, where he was laid to rest for a third—and one would hope final—time.

The Cadaver Synod succeeded in dampening enthusiasm for trying corpses. Indeed, in 898 Pope John IX even issued a decree prohibiting future trials of the dead.

Even so, Pope Formosus was not the last person to show up dead for his trial. Over the next half millennium, scores of other cadavers had their unwanted days in court. So what was behind these trials? Why, in the Middle Ages would one try a dead pope? Or anyone else? In part, such trials reflect medieval beliefs about death—death is not the end; people move on to their rewards and punishments in the next world.

And a good part of the interest in trying dead people can be attributed to laws that allowed the confiscation of property of persons convicted—dead or alive--of serious crimes. As late as 1591, Judge Pierre Ayrault argued in a treatise that convicting the guilty after death made every bit as much sense as posthumous exonerations of the innocent. Perhaps. But is it really necessary for the dead defendant to show up in court?

The Trial of Emma

The Cadaver Synod was something of a special case. What about trials of non-popes, including ordinary people, accused of committing ordinary crimes? In these cases, most of Europe turned to systems of justice that produced just results only if God took enough interest in a case to provide it.

Briefly put, there were two techniques, each semi-rational at best, that came into use. The earliest trial form to develop was trial by oath—or more precisely, trial by compurgation. In these trials, a person accused of a crime tried to round up people willing to swear to his or her innocence—people called compurgators. The number of oath-takers required to prove innocence varied with the seriousness of the charge and one’s place in society. These trials were not fact-based inquiries; the oaths were the evidence. Even the high and mighty had to seek out compurgators. For example, in 899 BC, Queen Uta of Germany stood accused of adultery. She won acquittal, however, when 82 knights lined up to confirm her chastity. If that seems like a high burden for Queen Uta, consider that a person accused of poisoning in Dark Ages Wales had to find 600 compurgators to prove his innocence.

Queen Uta

Trials by oath made sense for people who believed God would strike dead anyone who swore falsely. But objections to the system—people understood perjury was possible--led to another form of trial process, trial by ordeal. At first, ordeals were employed as a way of producing a result in intractable cases, but its use spread and in many places replaced compurgation altogether.

Let’s leave Rome and travel to eleventh-century England for the trial, if we can call it that, of Queen Emma of Normandy. But first a bit of background on “Trials by Ordeal.”

Trial by Ordeal

Trials by Ordeal bear almost no resemblance to modern trials. They were proceedings designed to attract God’s attention and have Him make the call: Guilty or Innocent. If a defendant was truly innocent, the thinking went, God would step in and perform a miracle to save the defendant from a grievous wrong. Trials by ordeal were not, mind you, some wink-wink proceeding. People of the medieval world, for the most part, actually believed that God would ensure a just outcome. For most people of the time, God was ever-watchful—they could scarcely imagine Him just sitting by and let an innocent person be found guilty.

In a trial by ordeal the defendant was subjected to a challenge, usually an unpleasant one causing serious injury. A typical ordeal might involve walking over hot irons or retrieving a stone from boiling water. The defendant was found innocent if the injury sufficiently healed within a specific time—3 days was typical--and guilty if the injury still festered. In the more bizarre ordeal of the cold water, bound suspects were thrown into a convenient body of water to see whether they sank or floated. Because water was believed to be pure and have the power to repel sin, anyone who sank persuasively enough was acquitted—and, with luck, might be resuscitated and live to see another day.

Emma of Normandy being led over hot ploughshares

No contemporaneous records exist for the trial by ordeal of Emma of Normandy. The earliest surviving record comes from The Annals of Winchester, written in about 1200. As with any account written over a century after the fact, it is best to assume the story as we have it contains a mixture of fact and and a large dose of fiction.

According to the Annals, the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded King Edward the Confessor to charge his own mother, Emma of Normandy, with adultery. The charge claimed that Emma had engaged in sexual relations with Bishop Elfwine of Winchester. Emma insisted she was innocent—and that she willing undergo the ordeal of hot iron to prove it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury agreed—but only with rigorous conditions. (Quote): “Let the ill-famed woman walk nine paces, with bare feet, on nine red-hot ploughshares—four to clear herself and five to clear the bishop. If she falters, if she does not press one of the ploughshares fully with her feet, if she is harmed the one least bit, then let her be judged a fornicator.” Now that’s one tough test.

So here’s the scene. The nine red-hot ploughshares are laid across the pavement in a church. Emma enters and entreats God to save her. Led by the hand by bishops, she starts to walk. Miraculously, according to chroniclers, Emma passes the test with flying colors. According to one account, Emma “senses nothing.” She even turns to a bishop and asks, “When shall we come to the ploughshares?” The bishops, no doubt shocked by her question, tell her she just passed over them. Her feet are examined, or so the report goes, and they are found to be uninjured. All around proclaim a miracle. Emma is innocent of the charge and free to go, with all her confiscated property restored.

There is reason to take this account with a grain of salt. Perhaps the ploughshares were not as hot as the archbishop ordered, perhaps Emma’s feet were toasted, but less so than expected. Perhaps the ordeal never even occurred at all. Separating fact from fiction can be difficult in a period without much record-keeping. It is beyond question, however, that the ordeal of hot iron was one of the more common forms of ordeal during this time period.

Note also the involvement of the Church in these trials. The Catholic Church took to trials with gusto. The use of ordeals actually expanded in the ninth through eleventh centuries along as Latin Christendom spread in Europe. The Church found trials by ordeal to be a handy way of dealing with heretics. “Want to prove you are a good Catholic?—take the ordeal of the hot irons!” The Church realized another benefit from the system. Priests frequently were paid to supervise ordeals.

If chroniclers are to be believed, trials by ordeal had a fairly high exoneration rate. Priests had a great deal of latitude to make judgments, even assuming the ordeals themselves were not manipulated, as of course they could be. Has the wound healed enough to prove innocence? That can be a question without a clear answer. Perhaps a bribe might influence the final call? Given the discretion here, woe to the poor defendant undergoing an ordeal who had crossed the priest in some way.

Meanwhile in Iceland: The Burnt Njal Trial (circa 1012)

Isolated from the rest of Europe, Iceland developed a unique culture and legal system. One of the treasures we have from the medieval world are Icelandic sagas. And the greatest of all Icelandic sagas, The Saga of Burnt Njal (written in about 1280), tells of a remarkable trial that took place at Iceland's Law Rock in about 1012. (Of course, given time between the trial and when the story was put into writing, again one must assume the account is a mix of fact and fiction.)The trial grew out of a long-lasting feud of monumental proportions. One group of feuders, led by a chieftan named Flosi with a hundred men, descend on the farmhouse of one of the key feuders on the other side, Njal. With Njal and his son inside, trying as best they can to mount a defense, the house in set on fire. All inside die except for Njal’s nephew, Kari Solmundarson, who climbs to the rafters and leaps from the roof with his hair and clothes ablaze. Kari plunges into a nearby stream, but is left disfigured and in pain from severe burns. Kari’s mission becomes seeking revenge for the deaths of Njal and his other relatives.

Law Rock in southwestern Iceland

Feuds can be destructive of society. At the turn of the millennium, religious and secular authorities in Iceland hoped that a legal system might break, or at least slow, the tide of violence. When Kari spreads the news of the awful fire, he gets surprising advice from a foster son of Njal, Thorhall Asgrimsson. He tells Kari they should take the murderers to court.

When Flosi receives notice of the suit, he considers settlement, but is persuaded by another member of the gang of arsonists that they should instead hire their own lawyer. Flosi visits Eyjolf Bolverksson, the most highly-regarded lawyer in all of Iceland, and asks him if he will take their case. Eyjolf, described in the saga as bedecked in a scarlet cloak and gold headband, initially turns down Flosi’s request. But Flosi’s offer of a splendid gold chain for his services causes him to reconsider. He tells Flosi that he will take the case. At the time, however, accepting compensation for legal services was considered improper—so one could guess where the saga might be going. Eyjolf will come to regret his decision to defend Flosi and his gang.

Trials in Iceland took place at Law Rock, a beautiful spot between a lava cliff and a wide valley sliced by a shining river. On the actual rock, once each summer, the Law Speaker recites to everyone present one-third of Iceland’s legal code. (The next summer, he will recite a different third of the code, and in the third year, he will complete his recital before starting over again the next year.) When a case was to be heard, lawyers would gather in their respective booths, while around them circulated jurors and interested spectators.

In Kari’s trial, Kari’s nine jurors seated themselves on the ground. They are present not to weigh facts, but rather to swear that Kari followed proper legal procedures in bringing his suit. All become silent when Kari’s lawyer, Mord Valgardsson, stepped up to Law Rock. In what we might call his “opening statement,” Mord announced that he will plead truly, fairly, and in accordance with the law. He then asked witnesses to swear he had been lawfully appointed and that the defendants had been given notice of the suit. He then asked if anyone had any objections.

Eyjolf Bolverksson was ready. He argued that two of the jurors should be disqualified on the ground they are related to him. Mord had no answer to the objection and the suit seemed on the verge of dissolving. But one man might have the answer: Thorhall Asgrimsson. Thorhall, to his great consternation, could not attend the court proceedings because of an ugly leg inflammation that had left him bedridden.

Messengers rushed to Thorhall’s home, got his legal advice, and then passed it on to Mord. Mord stood to refute Eyjolf’s argument for disqualification. He said that only kinship with the accuser, not with a defense attorney, required a juror to step down.

Sadskat Kadri, in his lively account of the trial, notes that all around considered Mord’s response “brilliant,” but that Eyjolf “pulled another arrow from his quiver.” Eyjolf argues that home ownership is a requirement for jurors, but that two of Kari’s jurors are not homeowners. Once again, messengers ride off to Thorhall and come back with his rejoinder: ownership of a cow is sufficient to establish eligibility to serve as a juror. This claim turned out to be a matter of dispute, and so the question is put to the Law Speaker, Skapti Thoroddsson. He emerged from his booth to announce his decision. A cow, indeed, will do.

Eyjolf has one last trick up his sleeve. Jurors, in Iceland, are the men living closest to the scene of the crime. (Note that in Medieval Iceland, the legal system expected jurors to be the people most knowledgeable about a crime, not—as seems the preference in our system—people with almost zero knowledge of the crime.) Eyjolf argued for disqualification of four jurors who, he said, lived more distant to the scene of the crime that others not asked to serve as jurors.

Yet again Mord had an answer. He said cases could be decided by a majority of the nine jurors, and five still remain. The Law Speaker seemed stunned. He believed he was the only person in all of Iceland who knew this fine legal point, but—yes—five jurors would suffice.

With issues of juror eligibility finally behind him, Eyjolf proceeded to his next argument, a jurisdictional claim. He argued that the case had been brought before the wrong division of the Law Rock. This turned out to be true, but resulted in only a short delay as Kari’s team refiled the case.

The prosecution (that is, Kari’s side) now took to offense, contending that Eyjolf was guilty of bribery for accepting the gold bracelet as payment for his services. But what could have been a knockout blow became irrelevant in light of a serious legal error by Mord. Mord demanded that six of the 36 judges in the case stand down and that the remaining judges award Kari’s side the verdict. But for reasons that only the best scholar of Medieval Icelandic jurisprudence might fathom, this was a mistake. Mord should have asked to remove twelve judges, not six. The legal blunder meant that Kari and the other of Njal’s kinsmen, far from winning their case, faced exile!

Kari Solmundarson

Even Thorhall had no remedy for this problem. Instead, he roused himself from his bed and, blood pouring down his leg, made way for Law Rock. Thorhall, despite being an admired jurist, evidently had had it with legal maneuverings. When he encountered Grim the Red, a member of Flosi’s legal team, he plants a spear into the man, splitting his shoulder blades in two. Then all hell broke loose. The fact that such a gravely injured man as Thorhall was moved to action inspired other members of Kari’s side to fight. Soon, as Kadri describes it, “Across the Law Rock, weapons fly, bones crack, body parts are pierced, and at least one bystander is hurled headlong into a boiling cauldron.” When the Law Speaker proposed a cease-fire negotiation, his answer was a spear through both his calves. The action reached its climax when Eyjolf Bolverksson was spotted by one of Kari’s supporters. “Reward him for that bracelet,” the friend suggested to Kari. Kari launches a spear that cuts clean through the pleader’s waist.

The next morning, after the dead were buried and wounds bound, some of the trial participants returned to Law Rock. It was for one of Flosi’s team to state the obvious: “There have been harsh happenings here, in loss of life and lawsuits.”

No one could contend Kari v Flosi trial was typical of medieval trials, or even trials in Iceland. But the trial does suggest a time and place every bit as obsessed with legal formalities as our own legal system today. Sadakit Kadri observes in his excellent book, The Trial, that “so much as word out of place could cost the speaker a fine, the case, or his life.” Cases were as likely to be decided by the correctness (or incorrectness) of legal procedure as they were by actual testimony.Trial by Combat: "The Last Duel"

One variation of ordeal still captures our imagination. You know it. It’s a form of ordeal played out on 21st-century fairgrounds by re-enactors in medieval festivals: Trial by Combat. Two things distinguish Trial by Combat from all the other varieties of ordeal used in the Middle Ages. First, most ordeals were unilateral, involving one party only. It takes two to duel. Second, for a defendant in most forms of ordeal to prove innocence, he or she had to hope that natural processes worked in a surprising way. Not so with Trial by Combat, where skill and cunning could make all the difference.

The last great example of trial by combat took place in 1386, at an abbey north of Paris, where royalty, dukes, and thousands of ordinary Parisians gathered to watch the bloody spectacle.

To say that the two combatants, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, had a history is a bit of an understatement. At one time, the two were close friends. So close, in fact, that Carrouges chose Le Gris to be the godfather of his first son. But things began to deteriorate. When both men were in the court circle of Count Pierre d’ Alençon, Le Gris became the Count’s favorite vassal. The Count rewarded Le Gris with a prized estate and other favors. Carrouges became jealous and the two became rivals.

Carrouges fell in love and married the daughter of a Norman lord. His new bride, Marquerite, was a pretty good catch. She is described as “young, beautiful, good, sensible, and modest.” It also turns out that Marquerite’s father used to own a valuable estate, which he had sold to Count Pierre three years before his daughter’s marriage. Pierre, in turn, handed the sought-after estate to Carrouges’ archrival, Le Gris.

So Carrouges launched a lawsuit against Le Gris. He alleged that the transfer of the estate to Count Pierre was null and void for reasons that need not occupy us here. The bottom line is, Carrouges argued the land in question still really belonged to his in-laws. But the lawsuit went nowhere.

Other land disputes followed—disputes that involved Carrouges on one side, and Le Gris and Count Pierre on the other. But in 1384, Carrouges and Le Gris had a chance meeting at a party and apparently agreed to bury the hatchet. Carrouges even introduced Le Gris to his beautiful wife Marquerite. Big mistake.

Two years passed, and then one day while Carrouges was on a trip to Paris, Le Gris visited a chateau where Carrouges had left his wife alone. Here’s one version of what happened next. Marguerite answers a knock on the door. The door knocker is a man-at-arms named Adam Louvel. Louvel questions her about a loan for a minute. Then he announces--surprise!--Jacques Le Gris is waiting outside and he really would like to see you. Marguerite declines the offer. Louvel persists: “He loves you passionately, he’ll do anything for you. He really, really wants to see you.” Marguerite still says no. Le Gris barges in anyway. Then, according to Marguerite, he propositions her. He sweetens the offer by throwing in a goodly sum of money if they can just have sex and keep mum about it. Again, Marguerite says no. Le Gris, with Louvel helping, proceeds to rape Marguerite. Before he leaves, Le Gris threatens to kill Marguerite if she tells anyone, including her husband, about what just happened.

Carrouges returned several days later, and despite Le Gris’ threat, Marguerite could not keep silent. She tearfully told her husband that Le Gris raped her. We can assume that when Carrouges heard this news he became fighting mad. Worse yet, Marguerite told her husband that she was pregnant--and could not know who the father was.

Carrouges decided to press charges of rape against Le Gris. But the suit had a problem. First, there was the “he said-she said” aspect of it. Marguerite was the only witness. Le Gris would surely deny the rape. Second, the judge for the case would be none other than Count Pierre. The Count was assigned the duty of resolving disputes involving his vassals. And we can guess whose side HE would take.

In fact, the deck was stacked so steeply against them that Carrouges and Marguerite didn’t even bother to attend the proceeding. Predictably, the Count acquitted Le Gris of all charges and proceeded to accuse Marguerite of “dreaming” the attack.

But the Count’s verdict could be appealed to Court Pierre's overlord, King Charles VI. Guessing that a traditional appeal would fail, Carrouges came up with another plan. A plan that might prove attractive to the King and his Court’s lust for entertainment. Carrouge proposed that the rape charge be settled through trial-by-combat.

Trials by combat had once been a common means of resolving disputes in France. But by 1386 they had become very rare. A 1306 law limited trials by combat to only capital crimes involving noblemen. Carrouges probably expected his idea to be rejected. But the French court was intrigued. A good old-fashioned trial-by-combat might be fun.

In the second phase of legal process, Carrouges and Le Gris and their respective supporters showed up at the Palace of Justice to issue a formal challenge. Before the King's Court (The Parlement of Paris, a body of 32 magistrates), they each recited their accusations. Carrouges accused Le Gris of rape. Le Gris accused Carrouges of defamation. Then they each threw down the gauntlet. Literally. Throwing down a gauntlet was the formal indication of each man’s willingness to fight.

Interestingly, the King's Court decided to hold off on the judicial duel and to hear the case as an ordinary criminal one first. The criminal trial dragged on through much of the summer.

But, finally, the King's Court handed down its verdict--or non-verdict. The magistrates announced they could not reach a decision. A judicial duel to the death it would have to be.

When you hear the word “duel,” you might think of something like the Hamilton-Burr duel. A couple of men, deciding for their own foolish reasons, to settle scores in an old-fashioned and violent way. But this is a judicial duel, a form of ordeal that assumes God will be watching over and directing the outcome. In this judicial duel, not only would the survivor survive, he would be in the eyes of God, and the law, vindicated.

Now, it wasn’t just the lives of the two men that hung in the balance. Marguerite’s life did as well. For if her husband died, that could only mean that her rape accusation was baseless and that she had committed perjury. Perjury was a capital offense. So, Marguerite knew that if her husband lost the duel, she would be immediately burnt at the stake. If ever a wife had reason to cheer her husband on in battle, here it was.

And so the big day arrives: December 29, 1386. Thousands of spectators begin gathering at dawn, hours before the event. They flock to a jousting arena at an abbey in the north Paris suburbs. The king is there too, as well as an impressive collection of dukes. Marguerite, dressed in black, sits in a carriage overlooking the field.

Marguerite says goodbye to Carrouges moments before his duel with Le Gris (British Library)

The two combatants, dressed in full armor and each riding a horse, take the field. Each man has an impressive collection of weapons. They each carry a lance, a sword, a long dagger, and a heavy battle axe. Carrouges recites to the crowd his charges against Le Gris. Then its Le Gris’s turn, and he recites his charge of defamation. They each dismount their horses and give oaths to God and the Virgin Mary and St. George. The oaths, a key part of the process, ensure God’s judgment--and not just their own jousting skills--will determine the outcome of the duel.

The King’s instructions are read. Essentially the deal is this: anyone who runs onto the field and interferes with the duel will be executed and anyone who interferes with the duel by shouting will have their hand cut off. Effective crowd control measures, no doubt. Then it’s show time.

The horses square up at the proper distance. The marshal signals. The two men charge at each other. On the first pass, their lances strike, but no harm is done. On the second pass, they strike each other on their armored headpieces. They wheel around and charge at each other a third time, striking each other’s shields and shattering both lances. The axes come out in in round four. They slash at each other with axes until Le Gris manages to drive his through the neck of Carrouges’s horse, beheading it. The poor horse stumbles to the ground and Carrouges jumps off. He charges at Le Gris’s horse and disembowels it. (You have to feel for the innocent horses, if not the combatants.)

It’s time to pull out the swords and battle on foot. The two men thrust and parry and all those other things you do with swords. This goes on for several minutes. Le Gris gains the advantage after he manages to stab his rival in his right thigh. But Carrouges isn’t finished yet. He wrestles Le Gris flat to the ground, not a very good place to be if you’re wearing very heavy armor. Carrouges stabs his rival right and left, but he not getting anywhere--the armor is just too tough for the sword. So he tears Le Gris’s faceplate off and shouts at his old nemesis. Admit your guilt, you fiend. Le Gris cries out, “In the name of God and on the peril of damnation of my soul, I am innocent!” That does it. Carrouges takes out his dagger and drives it through Le Gris’s neck, killing him.

Marguerite, watching all this, is quite relieved. But before the victor can receive congratulations from his wife, he is bandaged up by his pages and walks over to the King. He kneels before the King and accepts his prize of a thousand francs. Carrouges limps off to bow and clasp his wife as the crowd shouts its approval. Finally, the happy twosome ride from the jousting field to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to thank God for securing them justice.

With that, the curtain comes down on trial by combat in France. Never again would the French government sanction a judicial duel.

Each of the trials we’ve examined in this lecture was exceptional. The Cadaver Synod exceptional in its grotesqueness, the trial by ordeal of Emma of Normandy exceptional for its reported outcome and the high status of the accused, and the trial by combat exceptional for what it represents, the last great example from a system of deciding cases based on the assumption that God cares enough about the outcome to produce a just result. Each trial appears crazy to the modern mind, but the mindsets of the men and women of the medieval age were decidedly not modern. They believed in a God who perpetually watched and tinkered with his creation.

The End of an Age

Even as early as the ninth century, trials by ordeal had its critics. Skeptics questioned whether God actually had much interest in stepping in to make sure every ordeal came out as it should. Charlemagne must have noted the criticism when he commanded, “Let all believe in the ordeal without doubting.” As historian Robert Bartlett observed, the commandment would scarcely have been necessary if there were no doubters.

By the late 12th century, criticism of ordeals grew louder. Couldn’t God secure justice if He wanted without ordeals—aren’t they just superfluous? Isn’t it presumptuous to assume we can determine God’s will from a test we make up? Might not a guilty person use magic and falsely win his innocence? Isn’t it possible God might simply choose to sit an ordeal out, and not intervene? If someone who is guilty confesses, shouldn’t that cleanse their guilt and result in the ordeal showing them to be innocent? What if 3 suspects are made in turn to walk over hot irons—doesn’t the third and last suspect to do the walk have a better chance of being found innocent? And where in the Bible, exactly, is support for this whole notion of ordeals?

These critical voices began to be heard at the highest levels. In 1199, Pope Innocent III approved a new way of proceeding in criminal cases: judges on their own motion could launch inquiries into crimes, even look into the minds of the accused. The new proceeding was called “the inquisition.” Sixteen years later, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council prohibited priests from blessing ordeals by fire or water. The age of the trial by ordeal was closing.

FAMOUS MEDIEVAL TRIALS HOMEPAGE