Sunday, April 30, 2017

Shadows in a Timeless Myth Presents The Trial By Fire of Queen Emma of Normandy

For the fire ordeal an excavation is made in the ground, and filled with burning pippal wood. Into this a person must walk bare-footed without hurt in order to prove his innocence. Hot oil ordeals are also in force, when the accused has to thrust his hand into the liquid without being burned; and chewing a grain of consecrated rice, which, if it comes from the man’s mouth dry or stained with blood, is considered proof of his guilt. At other times a silver image of the Genius of Justice, called Dharma, is thrown with an image of iron or clay, called Adharma, into an earthen jar; and the accused is acquitted if he bring out the silver image, but condemned if he draw forth the iron.

The history of the middle ages furnishes numerous examples of ordeals employed in the settlement of disputes, which in the absence of a strong and impartial system of law-giving, found great favour with the people of all ranks. They were peculiarly distinguished by the appellation of Judicium Dei, or judgments of God, and sometimes called vulgaris purgatio. The law of the Church sanctioned the ordeal throughout Europe for a considerable period, and faculties were freely given by the clergy for the performance of these strange ceremonials. Indeed, the whole business, as a judgment of God, was frequently conducted by the servants of the Church, always in consecrated ground, and the sacred edifice itself was occasionally requisitioned in order to add greater solemnity to the proceedings. The ordeal of fire, practised, curiously enough, by the Greeks in the time of Sophocles, was allowed only to persons of high rank. The accused was required to carry a piece of red-hot iron for some distance in his hand, or to walk nine feet, bare-footed and blind-fold, over red-hot ploughshares. The hands or feet were then immediately bound up, and inspected three days afterwards. If, on examination, no injury was visible, the accused was considered innocent; if traces of the burning remained, he was reckoned guilty, and received punishment commensurate with his offence, without any discount for the harm he had already suffered.

The most allegedly notable historic instance of this form of ordeal is that of Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor. She was accused of a criminal intrigue with Alwyn, Bishop of Winchester, and condemned to the ordeal of fire, which, on this particular occasion, took the form of nine red-hot ploughshares, laid lengthwise at irregular intervals, over which she was required to walk with bandaged eyes. She passed successfully through the severe trial, and at the conclusion innocently asked when the ordeal was about to begin. The Queen’s innocence was, to the popular mind, established more substantially than would have been possible in any existing court of law. She was not the only gainer by the restoration of her reputation, for in consideration the success which had attended her, she settled twenty-one manors on the Bishopric and Church of Winchester.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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