Where does the word “ordeal” originate and What does ordeal mean in Old English?

To this day in parts of the world, as among some African tribes, persons suspected of a crime are tested with a red-hot iron.

He who can have it pressed against his flesh without a blister forming is adjudged innocent; he upon whom a blister forms is guilty.

Such a test, or one of similar nature, has been known among primitive races from early ages. Among Teutonic tribes an accused person might be compelled to walk barefooted and blindfolded among a number of red-hot plowshares.

He was declared innocent if, by chance, he did not step against one. Or the test might be that he was compelled to step on each of the plowshares, or to carry a glowing iron bar a certain distance; his innocence was thought to be clearly proved if he were uninjured.

Sometimes an accused person was tested by having his arm thrust into boiling water. Or the test might be with cold water; a guilty person would float, rejected by the water; the innocent would sink. Among the Germans of old, any such test was called urdeli.

The Saxon term became ordel in Old English, and ultimately ordeal. Many of these ordeals were carried into Christian times and adopted by the clergy. Persons accused of witchcraft were sometimes compelled to undergo the ordeal of cold water.

She thus adjudged was first stripped, rendered powerless by having her right thumb tied to her left toe and the left thumb to the right toe, and was then tossed into the water. If a witch, she floated.

In the ordeal of the bier, known in England until the seventeenth century, a person suspected of murder was obliged to approach or touch the body of the victim.

If the wounds bled at his touch, or if foam appeared at the mouth, or if the body altered its position, the accused was declared guilty.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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