During the Middle Ages, there was a peculiar way of determining whether someone was guilty of murder.

Known as cruentation, this ritual involved the accused standing before the body of the victim and placing their hands on it. If the wounds of the corpse then bled or other abnormal visual signs emerged, it was thought to be a divine judgment, announcing the accused’s guilt to all who were present.

Cruentation was used in various Germanic legal systems and spread to other countries such as Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Scotland, and North America. It was utilized as a method of finding evidence of guilt until the mid-18th century, even though early modern trials usually preferred explicit human testimony over forensic evidence. In situations where it was difficult to determine guilt or innocence through conventional means, the accused would be subjected to a trial by ordeal, which could take many forms. In the case of cruentation, the accused was brought before the corpse of the murder victim and made to put their hands on it. If the wounds of the corpse then bled or other unusual visual signs appeared, it was believed to be a sign from God, indicating the accused’s guilt.

However, cruentation alone rarely convicted a suspect; more often, the psychological impact of the test caused the suspect to confess. The practice was so popular that it continued to be judicially sanctioned for some time even when that meant disregarding the official teachings of the Church. Nevertheless, the rise of anatomical approaches to sanguine emissions also coincided with a disruption in the theological foundations of cruentation. Despite this, the practice continued to be used well into the 18th century, and its outcome continued to be accepted as evidence by courts of law – in fact, in a few cases, the ordeal was overseen or even organized by clergymen.

Thus, cruentation was a peculiar and superstitious practice used in the Middle Ages to determine the guilt of a suspected murderer. While it was eventually abandoned in favor of more scientific methods, it was used for several centuries and even continued to be sanctioned by the legal system. The idea that the body of a murder victim could spontaneously bleed in the presence of the killer was a powerful one, and it was used as a means of obtaining confessions and convictions.

However, in the end, it was replaced by more reliable and accurate methods of forensic evidence, bringing an end to this strange and unsettling practice.

Photo credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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