Canon Law and the End of the Ordeal
AbstractIn 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council banned priestly involvement in the unilateral judicial ordeal, thus effectively bringing to an end the centuries-old practice of appealing to the judicium Dei as a means of resolving legal disputes. This article explores the reasons behind this seminal development in Western legal history; its principal theme is that they are more complex than modern scholars have allowed. Detailed consideration is given to the canonico-theological criticisms specifically aimed at the ordeal by contemporary critics, as well as to the sweeping reforms of ecclesiastical criminal procedure initiated by Pope Innocent III in the closing years of the 12th century. It will be argued that although these factors contributed to the demise of the ordeal, they do not account for the decision to abandon it. When placed in its proper legislative context, it will be seen that that decision was a product of a long-standing campaign by Church reformers to secure the spiritual mission of the clergy by establishing a clear division of labour between the ecclesiastical order and the secular world. Finally, it will be argued that the ordeal was abandoned because Church reformers regarded it as irrational and, consequently, that the claim that it only came to be seen as irrational because it was abandoned, should be rejected.