Wednesday, 1 June 2005

In an Anglo-Saxon Church Eleven Hundred Years Ago

Anglo-Saxon church-goers had little in common with contemporary worshippers. A crowd of them would regularly assemble in the nave in order to witness God's 'judgement' of someone accused of evil. How did they do that you may ask. Well, they would bring the unfortunate person to the church while an iron rod was placed in the fire until red hot. When the priest decided the iron rod was ready, the accused man would have to pick it up and hold it in his hand. As if this was not bad enough he was required to carry the rod over a prescribed distance, usually nine paces. In the meantime his hand was being literally roasted, while the faithful observed in utter fascination. The screams and groans of this man contrasting strongly with the pious mutterings of the priest in the background. As soon as he had walked the nine paces, the man would drop the rod and his blistered, burnt hand would be immediately bandaged.

Three days after his ordeal, the accused would be taken back to the church. The bandage would have to be taken off and if the wounds were healing he was protected by God and therefore had done no evil, whereas if his hand had become infected he had clearly been up to no good and had to be punished (it was thought that God would only heal the pious).

With the almost primitive knowledge of medicine in those days, one can only imagine how many people must have been falsely accused, as the number of people whose hand got infected and did not heal must have been pretty high.

5 comments:

Daldianus said...

This reminds me a bit of other weird ways to prove someone's guilt or innocence. Like the witch trials for example: Handcuff a suspected witch and throw her in the river. If she, against all odds, survives, she's been helped by the devil and therefore needs to die. If she drowned, she didn't get helped by the devil and so she was innocent. Unfortunately she died proving that ...

Alterior said...

Either way the poor woman died. Yes, once accused of any wrong-doing in those days, you got punished anyway...

Aginoth said...

Is this anything to do with the root of "Going the whole nine yards?"

Alterior said...

It may well be, but nine yards is not the same as nine paces. However, you might find this link interesting:

http://216.239.59.104/search?q=cache:CVavmfG_2l8J:plateaupress.com.au/wfw/nineyard.htm+going+the+whole+nine+yards&hl=en

(sorry it is so long! :-)))

Larry Lamb said...

cf. Sellar and Yeatman's "The Ideal form of trial consisted in making a man plunge his head in boiling ploughshares".