“The magistrate calls for silence. He clears his throat and speaks. ‘From what has been said, I cannot determine the truth of this matter. Therefore, either you may plead guilty and accept just punishment, or you will be consigned to a cleric of Saint Cuthbert for a Trial by Ordeal. And may the gods spare you if you are innocent.'”
So this week’s word has an odd story behind it. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts about economics and the word came up and I found myself wondering why the word never actually made its way into D&D. Specifically, why it never made its way onto clerics’ spell lists.
The word is ordeal. When we hear the word ordeal, we usually think of a terrible, harrowing experience. But ordeal actually has Germanic roots and it comes from the word “to judge” or “to give what is deserved.” An ordeal was actually a form of divine judgment. And it goes back a long way. Early legal codes like the Code of Hammurabi included the ordeal as a way of determining guilt. So, what was an ordeal?
Well, let’s jump ahead to European law in the Middle Ages. When the guilt or innocence of a person accused of a crime could not be determined, they could either settle the case (by pleading guilty and making compensation or suffering the punishment) or they could opt for a Trial by Ordeal. They would undertake some sort of injurous act and if they were unharmed or if their injuries showed signs of healing normally and not festering, they were found innocent. The idea was that G-d knew if you were guilty or innocent and would protect you if you were innocent.
Different ordeals existed at different points in history and in different parts of the world. Some of the most common included plunging your hand into boiling water, walking across hot irons, grasping a hot iron, consuming poison, and so on. There were a lot of creative trials by ordeal all over the world.
Now, interestingly, an economist named Peter Leeson discovered some records from Hungary which indicated that some two-thirds of people who underwent trials by ordeal involving grasping searing hot iron bars were found innocent. And he explains that the trials were probably rigged in those cases. Once the defendant agreed to the trial, Leeson reasoned, rather than simply settling or pleading guilty, that told the priests that the defendant truly believed in his or her own innocence and that G-d would deliver them from harm. The act of accepting the ordeal and potentially having your arm or legs boiled or dying from poison or whatever was a sign of innocence, so the priests would rig the trial to exonerate you. Is that true? Who knows. But you can read about it in his book, Anarchy Unbound or listen a really nifty episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast about this and other ways of getting the guilty and innocent to reveal themselves without knowing it.
Early Germanic law was actually quite fascinating. In addition to Trials by Ordeal, it also included Trails by Combat, in which the accuser and the defendant would duel to determine guilt or innocence (again on the assumption that some divine power would intervene to protect the innocent). More interestingly, though, it actually had some very neat ideas about compensation and damages and lawsuits. Some Germanic laws included the concept of a weregeld (literally: the cost of a person). If harm was done to a person or their property, they had to be compensated whether that damage was intentional or accidental. The base price was the weregeld and it was multiplied based on the social status of the individual. People with families were worth more than loners. Nobles were higher than commoners. Professionals higher than laborers and so on. If you couldn’t pay the compensation, you were declared an outlaw which meant you no longer enjoyed the protection of the law. That meant anything anyone did to you was nice and legal. It was usually a death sentence.
Now, I could talk about my recent D&D campaign in a society that followed a legal system heavily inspired by Germanic law traditions and a group of outsider adventurers who were stunned by some of the seemingly barbaric practices, but it was that ordeal thing that stuck with me. Trials by Ordeal were common, not just in the western world, but in many different cultures. There were all sorts of divine or magical ways to seperate the guilty from the innocent. And, if you believe in divine intervention, it just makes sense that stuff would be possible. So where, in this fantasy world where the gods are objectively real and grant magical powers, is the ordeal spell? You’ve got the Zone of Truth and you’ve got the Detect Evil and you’ve got the Atonement. But where is Ordeal. Where is a blessing that will protect the innocent heart from some harmful trial but not the guilty? How did this get overlooked?!
More to the point, what is the deal with the law in your D&D game? Every DM eventually does that game where the PCs are on trial or they have to investigate a crime or prove someone innocent of something, but the trials and the investigations are always filled with these modern ideas of evidence and forensics and fact-finding. And all of that completely ignores the fact that D&D includes an objective alignment system, a set of deities that really exist and really grant magic to help the faithful, and wizards and divination and mystical truth-telling skulls. Why is the law in D&D so f$&%ing boring?! Where are the Trials by Ordeal? The Trials by Combat?
And while we’re on the subject, why aren’t divine spells more selective in who they will work on and who they won’t? Why won’t cure spells just fail on people of the wrong alignments or people with two many checkmarks in the sin column? That’d turn every clerical spell into a trial by ordeal, right? Imagine this for a trail. The defendant is scorched with a hot iron and then a cure spell is cast. If the spell fails, the dude is guilty. The end.