The Ancient Alternatives to Trial-By-Jury

Today, the idea of being tried and convicted or acquitted by a jury of your peers seems obvious, but for most of human history, guilt or innocence was decided by more unusual means. Here are a few ancient precursors to today’s jury trials:

Trial by Ordeal

In this type of trial, the accused person was subjected to some dangerous experience and his or her survival served as proof of innocence. There were many different ordeals used by cultures all over the world, including trial by fire, trial by boiling water or oil, being submerged in water and trial by poison, among many others.

Trial by Combat

Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones are very familiar with this one, but it has its origins in real history as well. A trial by combat, also known as a “wager of battle” or “judicial duel,” was a legally sanctioned combat in which the two parties to the dispute would fight in single combat and the winner was proclaimed to be right. Trial by combat was a specialized form of trial by ordeal used primarily in Germanic cultures.

Hue and Cry

This is a typical legal doublet in which the two terms are near-synonyms; the phrase literally means “shout and cry out.” The idea was that anyone who witnessed a crime would cry out, and all able-bodied men who heard the shots were required to pursue and apprehend the criminal. This served as a form of collective punishment.

Blood Feuds

Feuds might be society’s most ancient form of large-scale dispute resolution, although “resolution” is probably a misnomer. One group of people, whether a family, clan, tribe or other social group, would retaliate against another due to some real or perceived attack. The other group, of course, would retaliate in turn, and so on. Blood feuds are common throughout history and even extend to relatively recent American history, including the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Of course, to our modern eyes, all of these forms of trial seem bizarre and counterproductive, but they speak to how far we have come. Our modern system of trial by jury may still have its flaws, but it is far and away the clearest path to justice that humanity has yet reached, and that’s why we see it as a fundamental right.