Definitely my favorite Medieval trial by ordeal, the Trial by Cake involved swallowing a dry lump of consecrated bread, or “corsned,” without choking, turning pale or shaking.
If he failed to swallow, the Anglo-Saxon “judgement of God” was against the accused; he was condemned.
Trial by Cake
Unsurprisingly, the Trial by Cake was an easy A, although a story goes that Godwin, the Earl of Kent, choked on a lump of bread after solemnly swearing that he had had no hand in the assassination of the king’s brother.
Maybe take a grain of salt with that story.
The Trial by Cake or consecrated bread and cheese was the ordeal that clergy usually appealed to when they were accused of a crime.
Who can blame them, when the alternatives included the touching of a murdered corpse, the fire-ordeal, the water-ordeal, the poison-ordeal or the ordeal by a red-hot Iron ball or lance-head!
It’s possible that corsned bread may have originally been sacramental bread as used in the mass, but that later, the bishops and clergy forbade the communion bread for such superstitious purposes.
They did however allow the people to use other morsels of bread, blessed or cursed, for the same purpose.
They were exacting – the bread was to be made of unleavened barley and the cheese of ewe’s milk in the month of May.
Vomit it forth
In cases where there was not enough evidence to prove that a person was guilty, and the accused was lucky enough to be tried by cake, the ritual went like this.
The priest writes the Lord’s Prayer on the bread. He then weighs out ten pennyweights of bread and cheese. A cross of poplar wood is set under the right foot of the accused. With impressive co-ordination, the priest tosses a tablet containing the crime over his head while holding another cross over the man’s head.
He shoves the bread and cheese in the mouth of the defendant, and recites the following:
“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 theft 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.”
The following prayer and exorcism was repeated three times:
“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 theft, 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 theft 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.”
A witch’s cake was a (much later) stranger twist on the Trial by Corsned. By the Salem witch trials in 1692, a Witch’s Cake was key in the first accusations of witchcraft.
A cake or biscuit was made with rye flour and the urine of the afflicted person. The cake was then fed to a dog.
If the dog exhibited the same symptoms of illness, that proved the presence of witchcraft. Why a dog? A dog was believed to be a common familiar associated with the devil.
The dog then somehow pointed to the offending witches.
In any case, the custom of Trial by Cake was common enough in Medieval times that it gave rise to baked-in phrases like “May this piece of bread choke me!”, “I will take the sacrament upon it!” and “May this morsel be my last!”
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.