episode 13

The wrath of God

Europe, before 1258

published the 18 november 2016


Infant exposure

Moses, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, Romulus and Remus, Siegfried… Exposing infants to the elements, leaving their fate in the lap of the gods, goes a long way back – all the way to Antiquity. It was a kind of ordeal by eugenics. Strong faith made abandoning children easier: believing in a benevolent God meant believing He would make sure the innocent little soul was rescued.


A number of expressions derive from traditional ordeals. To haul someone over the coals refers to trial by fire. Ordeal by water was commonly used as proof in witch hunts. Throwing down the gauntlet was a way of challenging someone to trial by combat.

Ordeals in the tropics

Similar trials by ordeal were in practice in many cultures, where people had to brave poison, crocodiles, fire, and drowning.
In 1820s Madagascar, a thousand or so people died every year from eating toxic nuts as part of their trial. Poisonous Calabar beans were used in Nigeria.

Banned, but not forgotten

In Europe, the principle of trial by ordeal was condemned by Pope Innocent III at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, then outlawed by Saint Louis in 1258.
Duels were tolerated in France until 1626, when they were outlawed by Cardinal Richelieu, inspiring Dumas for his Three Musketeers. The last official duel in France took place in 1967.



  1. wikipedia (Trial by ordeal article)


  1. L’ordalie, épreuve érigée en preuve judiciaire, La France Pittoresque, N°21, march 2007
  2. David Deroussin, Passé et présent du droit, n° 3, Ed. Le Manuscrit, 172 p., 2008