An ancient test of guilt or innocence, especially among Germanic peoples, by subjection of the accused to severe pain, survival of which was taken as divine proof of innocence. In Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, until its abolition in 1215, it took four forms: fire ordeal, hot water ordeal, cold water ordeal, and trial by combat; later applied to analogous modes of determining innocence or guilt found in other societies.
Recorded in Old English and of Germanic origin, the word is related to German urteilen ‘give judgement’, from a base meaning ‘share out’. The word is not found in Middle English (except once in Chaucer's Troilus); the modern use begins in late 16th-century accounts of these traditional tests.
Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).