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Trials And Proofs Of Guilt In Superstitious Ages
by [?]

These ordeals probably originate in that one of Moses called the “Waters of Jealousy.” The Greeks likewise had ordeals, for in the Antigonus of Sophocles the soldiers offer to prove their innocence by handling red-hot iron, and walking between fires. One cannot but smile at the whimsical ordeals of the Siamese. Among other practices to discover the justice of a cause, civil or criminal, they are particularly attached to using certain consecrated purgative pills, which they make the contending parties swallow. He who retains them longest gains his cause! The practice of giving Indians a consecrated grain of rice to swallow is known to discover the thief, in any company, by the contortions and dismay evident on the countenance of the real thief.

In the middle ages, they were acquainted with secrets to pass unhurt these singular trials. Voltaire mentions one for undergoing the ordeal of boiling water. Our late travellers in the East have confirmed this statement. The Mevleheh dervises can hold red-hot iron between their teeth. Such artifices have been often publicly exhibited at Paris and London. Mr. Sharon Turner observes, on the ordeal of the Anglo-Saxons, that the hand was not to be immediately inspected, and was left to the chance of a good constitution to be so far healed during three days (the time they required to be bound up and sealed, before it was examined) as to discover those appearances when inspected, which were allowed to be satisfactory. There was likewise much preparatory training, suggested by the more experienced; besides, the accused had an opportunity of going alone into the church, and making terms with the priest. The few spectators were always distant; and cold iron might be substituted, and the fire diminished, at the moment.

They possessed secrets and medicaments, to pass through these trials in perfect security. An anecdote of these times may serve to show their readiness. A rivalship existed between the Austin-friars and the Jesuits. The father-general of the Austin-friars was dining with the Jesuits; and when the table was removed, he entered into a formal discourse of the superiority of the monastic order, and charged the Jesuits, in unqualified terms, with assuming the title of “fratres,” while they held not the three vows, which other monks were obliged to consider as sacred and binding. The general of the Austin-friars was very eloquent and very authoritative:–and the superior of the Jesuits was very unlearned, but not half a fool.

The Jesuit avoided entering the list of controversy with the Austin-friar, but arrested his triumph by asking him if he would see one of his friars, who pretended to be nothing more than a Jesuit, and one of the Austin-friars who religiously performed the aforesaid three vows, show instantly which of them would be the readier to obey his superiors? The Austin-friar consented. The Jesuit then turning to one of his brothers, the holy friar Mark, who was waiting on them, said, “Brother Mark, our companions are cold. I command you, in virtue of the holy obedience you have sworn to me, to bring here instantly out of the kitchen-fire, and in your hands, some burning coals, that they may warm themselves over your hands.” Father Mark instantly obeys, and, to the astonishment of the Austin-friar, brought in his hands a supply of red burning coals, and held them to whoever chose to warm himself; and at the command of his superior returned them to the kitchen-hearth. The general of the Austin-friars, with the rest of his brotherhood, stood amazed; he looked wistfully on one of his monks, as if he wished to command him to do the like. But the Austin monk, who perfectly understood him, and saw this was not a time to hesitate, observed,–“Reverend father, forbear, and do not command me to tempt God! I am ready to fetch you fire in a chafing-dish, but not in my bare hands.” The triumph of the Jesuits was complete; and it is not necessary to add, that the miracle was noised about, and that the Austin-friars could never account for it, notwithstanding their strict performance of the three vows!


[Footnote 1: These curious passages, so strikingly indicative of the state of thought in the days of their authors, are worth clearly noting. Pilate’s challenge to the Saviour is completely in the taste of the writer’s day. He was Adam Davie, a poet of the fourteenth century, of whom an account is preserved in Warton’s History of English Poetry; and the passage occurs in his poem of the Battle of Jerusalem, the incidents of which are treated as Froissart would treat the siege of a town happening in his own day.

The second passage above quoted occurs in the Vision of Piers Plowman, a poem of the same era, where the Roman soldier–whose name, according to legendary history, was Longinus, and who pierced the Saviour’s side–is described as if he had given the wound in a passage of arms, or joust; and elsewhere in the same poem it is said that Christ,

“For mankyndes sake,
Justed in Jerusalem,
A joye to us all.”

And in another part of the poem, speaking of the victory of Christ, it is said–
“Jhesus justede well.”]