The Ordeal of Bread and Cheese

Trial by ordeal (iudicium dei) was a means of obtaining evidence in a trial by appeal to the direct action of God in circumstances where guilt or innocence could not be determined by ordinary means. The ordeal was grounded in the belief that God would not permit and innocent person to suffer as a malefactor and would intervene supernaturally to manifest the innocence of the accused. An ordeal could be imposed by a judge, but it was often requested by the parties themselves.

Ordeals were quasi-liturgical functions; they were generally preceded by the celebration of Mass and reception of Holy Communion. Liturgical books of the day contained fixed prayers to be said on the occasion of the ordeal. They were primarily used among the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon peoples, their heyday lasting from the early Middle Ages until the 12th century. By the 13th century the popes began concerted efforts to suppress the ordeals, with the effect that they died out by the 15th century.

When we think of trial by ordeal, we likely think of painful affairs like the trial by boiling water, by hot iron, or by duel, as depicted in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Not all ordeals were such arduous experiences, however. One form of ideal preferred by the Anglo-Saxons involved simply administering a morsel of bread and a piece of cheese to the accused. This was the ordeal of the blessed morsel (iudicium offae), called in Anglo-Saxon the orsnaed, or nedbread. The essence of this ordeal consisted in feeding the accused a piece of bread and cheese and seeing whether he could swallow it.

The practice is mentioned in the laws of Etherled II (d. 1013) and the ecclesiastical laws of King Canute (d. 1035), but we know the details of this ordeal from Carolingian-era texts called ordines iudiciorum dei. The ordines contained all the prayers necessary for administering ordeals. The ordines state that the suspect was to be given nine denarii worth of unleavened barley bread, and one denarius worth of cheese (either of a goat or sheep); the cheese had to be aged and hard.

A special ordeal Mass would be said on the occasion. The bread and cheese would be left on the altar during the liturgy, wrapped in a linen cloth or sometimes resting upon a silver paten. Verses of the Pater Noster would be inscribed upon the bread, or a passage from the Psalms written upon the cheese. The name of the suspect would also be written on a parchment and placed between the bread and cheese upon the altar. The Mass would continue as usual, at the end of which the priest recited a specil formula over the bread and cheese, as found in the whatever copy of the ordines iudiciorum dei he was working from. The prayers consisted of recitations of biblical stories relating to God’s deliverance of the innocent, such as the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, or Susanna and the elders.

The specific stories varied, but the prayers generally ended with a reference to the fiery pillar thay prevented the Egyptians from pursuing the Israelites. The invocation of the fiery pillar was an example of medieval belief in the principle of correspondance, that “like produces like.” In this case, just as God had obstructed the Egyptian’s access to the Israelites, so He was asked to obstruct the throat of the accused, causing him to choke if he was guilty. In preparation for the ordeal, the accused would stand before the altar with a cross of poplar wood beneath his foot.

After the prayers were complete, the priest would hold a cross over the accused’s head while the bread and cheese would be administered to the accused with the other hand. The priest would recite the following prayer:

I conjure thee, O man, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost and by the four-and-twenty elders, who daily sound praises before God, and by the twelve patriarchs, the twelve prophets, the twelve apostles, the evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and virgins, by all the saints and by our Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our salvation and for our sins did suffer His hands to be affixed to the cross; that if thou wast a partner in this [name of crime] or didst know of it, or hadst any fault, that bread and cheese may not pass thy gullet and throat, but that thou mayest tremble like an aspen-leaf, Amen; and not have rest, O man, until thou dost vomit it forth with blood, if thou hast committed aught in the matter of the aforesaid theft. Through Him who liveth. (1)

As the accused received the bread and cheese, the priest would recite the following:

Holy Father, omnipotent, eternal God, maker of all things visible, and of all things spiritual, who dost look into secret places, and dost know all things, who dost search the hearts of men, and dost rule as God, I pray Thee, hear the words of my prayer; that whoever has committed or carried out or consented to that [name of crime], that bread and cheese may not be able to pass through his throat.

I exorcize thee, most unclean dragon, ancient serpent, dark night, by the word of truth, and the sign of light, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the immaculate Lamb generated by the Most High, conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary—Whose coming Gabriel the archangel did announce; Whom seeing, John did call out: This is the living and true Son of God—that in no wise mayest thou permit that man to eat this bread and cheese, who has committed this [name of crime] or consented to it or advised it. Adjured by Him who is to come to judge the quick and the dead, so thou close his throat with a band—not, however, unto death. (2)

Interestingly, the texts of the ordines use the Latin word communicare (“communicate”), rather than manducate (“eat”), obviously reminiscent of the reception of Holy Communion. As the bread and cheese were also placed on the altar and prayed over during the liturgy in the expectation that God would endow them with special properties, the practice may be seen as a kind of extension of the Eucharistic judgment St. Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 11—just as he who receives the Body and Blood of the Lord unworthily eats and drinks judgment upon himself (cf. 1 Cor. 11:29), so the criminal who attempts to eat the bread and cheese would condemn himself by the act. If he was able to swallow the morsels, he was deemed innocent; if guilty, God would obstruct his throat, stopping him from swallowing the elements or causing him to vomit them up shortly after ingesting them. In some situations, the accused might even die; according to Aelred of Rivaulx, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, died in this manner after swearing he had no role in the death of Alfred, brother of St. Edward the Confessor (though many historians dismiss the story as Norman propaganda).

The ordeal of bread and cheese seems to have been practiced from the 11th through the 13th centuries. The popes increasingly spoke out against the ordeals in the 12th century; in 1215, the Fourth Latern Council attempted to distance the Church from the ordeal, forbidding clerics from offering prayers or blessings to participants. Later regional synods would anathematize the ordeal and penalize it with excommunication. Civili legislation (such as Frederick II’s 1231 Constitution of Melfi) similarly prohibited ordeals. The result was the gradual elimination of the ordeal of bread and cheese and all similar instances of the iudicium dei. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes—

a clearer recognition of the false ground for belief in ordeals, a more highly-developed judicial system, the fact that the innocent must be victims of the ordeal, the prohibitions of the popes and the synods, the refusal of the ecclesiastical authorities to cooperate in the carrying out of the sentence—all these causes worked together to bring about, during the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the gradual discontinuance of the practice. (3)

For more sources on this and other ordeals, see

Lea, Henry C., The Ordeal (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973)

Bartlett, Robert, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Clarendon Press, 1986)

Kirsch, Johann Peter. “Ordeals.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 23 Apr. 2023 <

Maraschi, Andrea, “The Ordeal a Bread and Cheese: A Trial Like No Other, ” The Medieval Magazine, April, 2023.

(1) Frederick John Snell, “The Judgment of the Morsel”. The Customs of Old England (2006), 137-138.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Kirsch, Johann Peter. “Ordeals.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 23 Apr. 2023 <

Phillip Campbell, “The Ordeal of Bread and Cheese,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, April 23, 2023. Available online at: