EUROPE, BEFORE 1258
Moses, Oedipus, Gilgamesh, Romulus and Remus, Siegfried… All these children were abandoned according to an ancient principle that God will provide for their destinies. What has been called the exhibition of the child is in a way a eugenic ordeal in use since Antiquity. Abandoning children was made less harsh by the fact that if God saw fit, He would see to it that they were taken in.
Current expressions of the French language are still living references to these ancient legal trials. To put his hand in the fire obviously comes from the ordeal by fire, to stay across the throat of a principle of ordeal in which the accused was stuffed with bread. His guilt related to his ability to swallow or choke. Lowering the arms comes from a form of ordeal used under Charlemagne: the accused had to keep the pose of the cross of Christ, arms horizontal. Whoever gave up first was the culprit.
The principle of the initiatory or judicial test was in use in many cultures. We find ordeals by poison, by crocodiles, by fire, by drowning…
In Madagascar, in the 1820s, a thousand people died each year by ingesting a poisonous nut given during trials to test the guilt of an accused. In Nigeria, Calabar beans, a poisonous bean, were used.
A LATE BAN
The principle of ordeals was condemned in Europe by Pope Innocent III during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and then banned by Saint-Louis in 1258. Duels remained tolerated until 1626, when Cardinal Richelieu had them banned, hence the famous passages from the novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas where the characters must hide to cross swords.
The last known official duel in France was held in 1967 between two deputies.