Thursday, April 2, 2009

Compurgation and Ordeal

A new difficulty was introduced when a person who was charged with crime denied his guilt. As there were no trained lawyers and there was no knowledge of the principles of evidence, the accused person was required to bring twelve men to be his compurgators—that is to say, to hear him swear to his own innocence, and then to swear in turn that his oath was true. If he could not find men willing to be his compurgators he could appeal to the judgment of the gods, which was known as the Ordeal. If he could walk blindfold over red-hot ploughshares, or plunge his arm into boiling water, and show at the end of a fixed number of days that he had received no harm, it was thought that the gods bore witness to his innocency and had as it were become his compurgators when men had failed him. It is quite possible that all or most of those who tried the ordeal failed, but as nobody would try the ordeal who could get compurgators, those who did not succeed must have been regarded as persons of bad character, so that no surprise would be expressed at their failure.

When a man had failed in the ordeal there was a choice of punishments. If his offence was a slight one, a fine was deemed sufficient. If it was a very disgraceful one, such as secret murder, he was put to death or was degraded to slavery, in most cases he was declared to be a 'wolf's-head'—that is to say, he was outlawed and driven into the woods, where, as the protection of the community was withdrawn from him, anyone might kill him without fear of punishment.

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