Associate 2007-08

Danuta R. Shanzer



In Europe in the early Middle Ages, ordeals were widely used as methods of judicial “proof.” In the ordeal by iron, for example, the subject held a heated metal object for a prescribed amount of time. The burn was then bandaged and reexamined after a few days; a clean wound without infection meant vindication. Ordeal by hot water involved retrieving an object from a cauldron of boiling water. Ordeal by oath involved swearing parallel oaths on the relics of a saint. In the lump ordeal, the subject was fed a lump of dry bread or cheese that had to be swallowed whole without choking.

To date, the scholarly consensus has been that adoption of these irrational methods of proof came about under the influence of Germanic law. Professor Shanzer is positing a new thesis arguing for Roman and, specifically, Christian origins. She believes that some Christians took the judicial tortures and tests inflicted on them in times of persecution and hijacked them for their own probative purposes. By the fifth and sixth centuries, for example, the Christian context for ordeal by fire had shifted from martyrdom to heresy.

Professor Shanzer is approaching this study from a late antique classicist’s point of view. During her Center appointment, she will continue compiling a broad catchment of case studies, many from hagiographical and theological sources, and exploring historical situations, religious and judicial practices, and texts that contributed to the canonization of the ordeal. Among the areas she plans to study more deeply are the use of oaths in Roman law and Christian reception of oaths; the rules and practices of Roman judicial torture and execution; and the problem of whether (as has been argued) and, if so, why the Eastern Empire (also Christian) only adopted the practice of judicial ordeal as a much later import from the barbarian West. The research is expected to result in an historical monograph.