Truth or dare: the medieval ordeal

DSC_0415Finding a title for a book can be surprisingly difficult. Finding the right name for my first book The Devil Dancers was a protracted agony. It took hours of jotting names on scraps of paper and pestering friends for their opinions. As time progressed, my jottings drifted off the desk and hid behind the radiator and friends avoided my increasingly frantic phone calls.

In desperation, I consulted the Internet – today’s equivalent of the Delphic oracle – paying a visit to Lulu’s Titlescorer site which estimates the potential popularity of your title as a percentage. It is an intriguing pastime but not very helpful for cheats like me who quickly learn how to increase their score by changing the parameters rather than their title!

It turned into an ordeal that took weeks to resolve.

Not so my second book. The title Barley Bread and Cheese simply presented itself as I was researching background for one of the short stories that have been inspired by Rochester Cathedral and its treasures.

This particular treasure consisted of an ancient book – the Textus Roffensis – written by a 12th century scribe who lived in the priory of St Andrew, then adjacent to the Cathedral.

While the Textus is some 900 years old, its contents are even more ancient. These include one of the most complete sets of Anglo-Saxon laws, some dating back to the early 7th century and the reign of Kent’s first Christian king, Aethelbert.

I was drowsily trawling through a list of these laws when I came across a section entitled ‘Iudicia Dei’ or the Judgements of God. These relate to various ordeals used as a primitive truth test in criminal cases.

They included: the Exorcismus aquae – the ordeal of boiling water in which the accused was required to immerse his arm in boiling water; the Exorcismus ferri in which the accused was required to carry a quantity of red-hot iron and the Exorcismus panis, an ordeal in which the accused had to eat a portion of barley bread and cheese.

Wait a minute!

How could barley bread and cheese constitute an ordeal? Despite their brutality, there was a kind of cruel logic to the other ordeals. But bread and cheese! What kind of test was that?

Intrigued, I began to dig a bit deeper. I discovered a number of scholarly works by both lawyers and historians that mentioned the ordeal of barley bread and cheese. Initially, a number of points emerged upon which all seemed to agree.

In Anglo-Saxon times, the ordeal of barley bread and cheese was called corsned. It appeared to consist of an ounce of bread and an ounce of cheese (possibly made from ewes’ milk) which underwent some kind of religious ceremony before being administered to the accused.

But who exactly was the recipient of this rather mild sounding ordeal? Was it really an ordeal or a convenient sham? The commentators could not agree and various conflicting theories emerged.

Some writers suggested that it was a get-out-of-jail card for clergy accused of a crime. Others countered with the story of a famous layman, Earl Godwin the father of King Harold (of Battle of Hastings fame).

Earl Godwin had been accused of killing his own brother. He opted for the barley bread and cheese ordeal and, being somewhat over-optimistic, declared: “May this bread choke me if I am guilty!”

What happened next provided a salutary warning to anyone viewing the Exorcismus panis as a safe option.

Earl Godwin took one mouthful of the bread, choked and dropped dead!

Apparently, medieval lawgivers believed that the angel Gabriel was responsible for administering justice through this ordeal, touching the throat of the guilty party and causing them to choke.

Experiencing some difficulty with this theory, some contemporary historians have offered alternative solutions ranging from the psychological to bacteriological. Fear or a bad conscience might make you confess, rotten bread could make you ill. But stress and bad hygiene are peculiarly modern concepts and, to my mind, neither offers a satisfying solution to this puzzle.

I was as unconvinced by the modern theories as the medieval ones. The enigma of the barley bread and cheese ordeal nagged at me for months.

However, it was only after the text of the book had been ‘put to bed’ that a new theory emerged from a discussion with my wise 92 year-old mother.

As we were discussing illustrations for the story Barley Bread and Cheese, my mother reminded me that ears of barley differ from wheat in that each grain has a quiff of sharp spikes.

Could this be the key to that apparently innocent ordeal? Was a handful of unrefined, prickly grains of barley introduced into the ordeal bread?

It was the reverse of the Christmas pudding principle where the lucky person finds a sixpence randomly dropped into the mix. In this case, did the ordeal-taker risk swallowing a mouthful of tickly grain which would cause him to cough and, in extreme cases, choke?

We shall probably never know.

But in my case at least, the ordeal of barley bread and cheese has proved a positive experience. It has spared me another ordeal: that of finding a title for my book!

Additional links:

Barley Bread and Cheese (Amazon) click here

The Devil Dancers (Amazon) click here

T. Thurai’s website click here

Lulu’s Titlescorer site click here

Rochester Cathedral click here

Medway Archive click here

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One Response to Truth or dare: the medieval ordeal

  1. As a youngster I used to do a lot of work with horses and a stint tidying up the hay or grain store always sent me into a coughing fit. Old grains gather dust, mould spores and all sorts of little bugs leaving your mouth, nose and throat feeling dry and sore so I imagine a mouthful of dry, sharp edged barley could have led to choking and then, due to the inability to swallow properly or grab air, suffocation. Nice!

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