Varieties of Ordeal and Torture
Water(sm) Trial by Water

Trial by water was the oldest form of ordeal in medieval Europe. There were two forms, hot and cold. In a trial by hot water (judicium aquae ferventis), also known as the “cauldron ordeal,”a large kettle of water would be heated to the boiling point and a ring or jewel placed at the bottom. The accused person reached in to grab the object; if he seized it and removed his arm without injury, he accused was deemed innocent. In a trial by cold water, the accused would be tied, thrown into a river, and found innocent if she sank, guilty if she floated.

The image to the left depicts a trial by cold water, from a liturgical manuscript in the monastic library in Lambach, in Austria, dating from the end of the 12th century.

Source: Rituale Lambacense, Stiftsbibliothek Lambach Cml LXXIII (1190-1200), fol. 64v. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bahrprobe The Bleeding Ordeal

This form of ordeal was meant to ascertain the guilt or innocence of a person accused of murder. The suspect would be taken to the exposed body of his alleged victim. The accused placed his hand on the mortal wound, then swore an oath to his own innocence. If the corpse bled, the accused was guilty; if it did not bleed, he was innocent. The bleeding ordeal was predicated on the assumption that the soul of the deceased continued to reside inside the body and wished to revenge the loss of its body against the killer.

This image depicts a bleeding ordeal conducted against a Swiss mercenary named Hans Spiess, who according to the Bernese Chronicle of Valerius Anselm (1475-1547) was accused in 1503 of murdering his wife, Margret. No sooner had she been buried than rumors circulated that Spiess was the culprit; Spiess attempted to clear his name by the bleeding oath. He is shown here, naked and shorn, placing his left hand on Margret's exhumed corpse. Unfortunately for Spiess, the corpse bled, and he was found guilty. This image is from the Lucern Chronicle of Diebold Schilling (<1460-1515?), one of several contemporary texts that recorded the event.

Source: Eidgenössische Chronik des Luzerners Diebold Schilling (1513). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Spiess Strappado, Estrapade

The method of strappado involved tying the suspect's hand behind her/his back, then suspending the victim in the air by means of a rope tied to the wrists. This procedure often disolocated both shoulders. To intensify the pain this inflicted, the patient might be bounced by the rope; or weights might be tied to the victim's ankles. One advantage of this method was that it left no external mark on the body of the accused.

Depicted here is the interrogation under torture given to the Swiss mercenary, Hans Spiess, who had been accused of murdering his wife, Margret. In this scene, A judge reads the interrogatoria to Spiess and records his answers. At the left, an executioner stands at the ready to hoist him up a notch. At Spiess's feet are weights to aggravate the pain of stappado. As we saw last week, Spiess maintained his innocence throughout the trial and was found guilty only after he failed a bleeding corpse ordeal. This image is from the Lucern Chronicle of Diebold Schilling (<1460-1515?).

Another torture device—the “rack—was a more controlled variation of the same technique. A page from the Constitutio criminalis Theresiana—shows the culprit tied by his wrists to a ladder-like structure, in the same manner as strappado, with the legs attached by rope to a roller with a rachet mechanism that enabled the executioner to increase or decrease more precisely the level of pain and bodily dislocation.

Source: Eidgenössische Chronik des Luzerners Diebold Schilling (1513). Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Boot Screws

Screws were another common torture implement, all of which were designed inflict pain by applying pressure to the bony extremities—fingers, thumbs, shins, and feet. Most of the devices in this group consisted of two plates, studded with knobs or spikes which were applied to the finger or leg and then progressively squeezed by means of screws to inflict the desired measure of pain.

Pictured here is a shin- or leg-screw from the Constitutio criminalis Theresiana, published in 1769, a code of criminal procedure for the lands subject to the Habsburg monarchy—a sprawling territory comprising the modern territories of Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and parts of Romania. Its purpose was to standardize judicial torture throughout the Habsburg lands.

Source: Constitutio criminalis Theresiana oder der Römisch-Kayserl. zu Hungarn und Böheim etc. etc. Königl. Apost. Majestät Mariä Theresiä Erzherzogin zu Oesterreich etc. etc. peinliche Gerichtsordnung (Vienna: Edlen von Trattnern, 1569). Image source:

Water Water Torture

The use of water torture was less widespread than either strappado or the screws, and appears to have been employed primarily in France, Spain, and the Low Countries. This image of the so-called “French Torture (tortura gallica) or “Water Torture (question de l'eau) comes from the Praxis criminis persequendi (1541), a manual for the criminal procedure, including the application of judicial torture, by Jean Milles de Souvigny who dedicated the treatise to King François I. In 1576, the Flemish Anabaptist, Raphael van de Velde, included included in a prison-letter to his son the following account of his own experience with water torture:

“And as they did still not obtain anything from me, to the implication of my neighbor, Master Hans took water (during the entire time a cloth had lain on my face), and holding my nose shut with one hand, began to pour water on my abdomen and thence all over my breast, and into my mouth; even as one should drink when he is very thirsty. I think that the can from which he poured out – the water held about three pints. And when I was at the end of my breath, and wanted to fetch such, I drew the water all into my body, whereupon I suffered such distress, that it would be impossible for me to relate or describe it.

Van de Velde was subsequently found guilty of heresy and was burned at the stake in Ghent on July 14, 1576.

Source: Jean Milles de Souvigny, Praxis criminis persequendi, elegantibus aliquot figuris illustrata (Paris: Simon Colin, 1541). Image source: The European Library.