Sunday, November 7, 2010

Trial by drowning

Trial by drowning is a medieval ordeal allegedly used on women suspected of witchcraft. The idea was that witches would float. As part of the trial the accused was thrown into a lake or river. If the accused sank, she was innocent and presumed not to be a witch. If the accused floated, she was presumed to be a witch and could be hanged or executed by burning. Either way, the accused faced death, and a no-win situation.

According to Frederick G. Kempin's Historical Introduction to Anglo-American Law in a Nutshell, a West legal text, the actual practice was to hurl the tied-up accused into a body of water. If the water received the accused, she was innocent and hopefully pulled out of the water and freed. Kempin notes that the historical record indicates a preponderance of acquittals. Also per Kempin, this was not a method of trial exclusive to charges of witchcraft, but was for villeins and other "unfree" people in medieval England. Kempin's description of the practice is congruent with a trial by ordeal of cold water.

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