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American Dictionary of the English Language

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Ordeal


OR'DEAL, noun [The last syllable is deal, to divide or distribute. The sense of the prefix is less obvious. But the real sense is not obvious. The practice of ordeal however seems to have had its origin in the belief that the substances used had each its particular presiding deity that had perfect control over it.]

1. An ancient form of trial to determine guilt or innocence, practiced by the rude nations of Europe, and still practiced in the East Indies. In England, the ordeal was of two sorts, fire-ordeal and water-ordeal; the former being confined to persons of higher rank, the latter to the common people. Both might be performed by deputy, but the principal was to answer for the success of the trial.

Fire-ordeal was performed either by taking in the hand a piece of red hot iron, or by walking barefoot and blindfold over nine red hot plowshares laid lengthwise at unequal distances; and if the person escapes unhurt, he was adjudged innocent, otherwise he was condemned as guilty.

Water-ordeal was performed, either by plunging the bare arm to the elbow in boiling water, or by casting the person suspected into a river or pond of cold water and if he floated without an effort to swim, it was an evidence of guilt, but if he sunk he was acquitted.

Both in England and Sweden, the clergy presided at this trial. It was at last condemned as unlawful by the canon law, and in England it was abolished by an order in council of Henry III.

It is probably our proverbial phrase, to go through fire and water, denoting severe trial or danger, is derived from the ordeal; as also the trial of witches by water.

2. Severe trial; accurate scrutiny.