Trial by Ordeal, Combat, and the Hound’s Fight

Episode: Season 3, Episode 5 “Kissed by Fire”

The Hound

The Hound when he decides to desert the flame-soaked Battle of Blackwater Bay. Source: Wikia.

In last night’s episode, “Kissed by Fire,” the Hound is accused of murder and the red priest sentences him to trial by combat. If the Hound kills his combatant, it means the Lord of Light deemed him innocent. However, for the Hound to save his own life, he must face his greatest fear, fire. By pitting the Hound against a flaming sword, George RR Martin combines both trial by combat and trial by ordeal, since the Hound’s wooden shield would inevitably ignite.

But, did such trials ever really exist? Surprisingly, yes, they did.

In the early middle ages, priests might order alleged criminals to be tried by ordeal or combat. People believed that God judged these trials and would strike down the guilty but allow the innocent to survive unscathed. Examples of trial by ordeal include requiring people to perform a task that would injure them and, subsequently, inspecting them for wounds. For example, the accused might hold a red-hot iron or grab a ring or stone from a pot of boiling water. Afterward, if the priests found burns, the accused was declared guilty.

Previously, I thought trials by ordeal were a Catch 22. For example, in an ordeal by cold water people threw the accused into a stream or river. If he was guilty, the water would reject him and he would float to the top. If the accused was innocent, the water would “accept” him and he’d sink (and drown). Consequently, I was quite surprised when I read economist Peter Leeson’s argument that trials by ordeal may have been fairer and more accurate than the modern jury trials.

Based on Leeson’s sample, too many people survived trials by ordeal unscathed for them not to be rigged. Leeson argues that priests rigged the ordeals so that the iron bars weren’t actually red hot and the boiling water wasn’t truly boiling. Medieval people truly believed the verdicts were God’s judgment. Because the ordeals were so awful, Leeson argues that guilty people would confess rather than undergoing an ordeal.

Leeson comes to this conclusion not only based on the number found innocent but also by looking at the types of ordeals priests assigned the accused. He found that men, who typically have less body fat, were often ordered to perform ordeals of cold water wherein if the water “accepted” them and they sank, they were found innocent. However, in Leeson’s sample, women who typically float due to higher body fat, were usually ordered to perform trials by hot iron.

Historian Sean McGlinn argues in a History Today article that trials by battle had a posher status so they became more popular than trials by ordeal. McGlinn also argues that in trials by battle, combatants wrestled and bludgeoned each other typically armed with a staff. Champions were rare. Swords and other lethal weapons weren’t used since that would prevent the judges from administering justice if the accused lost.

In thirteenth-century England, jury trials replaced trials by ordeal after the Church stopped supporting ordeals in 1215. However, trials by ordeal and battle occasionally surfaced into the late middle ages.

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Ordeals” by Peter T. Leeson

“Violence and the Law in Medieval England” by Sean McGlynn. Published in History Today Volume: 58 Issue: 4 2008.

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Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

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