It’s an ancient practice with roots so far back, no singular origin is known. It was practiced across civilized nations as far back as Richard the Lionhearted. Many Arabic documents make mention of a similar ritual as far back as 800 A. D. The test is also referred to in Nibelungerlied (an ancient Teutonic epic poem) as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Ordeal, also known as the Bier’s Test, is simple in theory. A murder victim is placed atop a small platform, or bier, and any suspects believed to have committed the crime are commanded to touch the body. One person touches at a time. If the corpse begins to bleed, the murderer has touched it. In some cases, it was believed the blood appeared to accuse the culprit. In others, the blood appeared in demand of vengeance.
German peoples began calling it the Bahr-Recht, or the Law of the Bier. It became accepted as fact, even among intellectuals of the period. One firm believer was Dr. Walter Charleton, chief physician of Charles the I.
It has appeared in old ballads, such as Earl Richard and Young Huntin’. One passage reads:
The maiden touched the clay-cauld [cold] corpse
A drop it never bled
The lady lay her hand on him
And soon the ground was red.
Origins of the Ordeal:
Most experts in history attributed the practice to the Jewish people, for they were known to hold human blood in the highest regard. It was believed to hold the soul and used exclusively for the most important contracts, sealing kinships and various other imperatives.
The Book of Jewish Ceremonies, by Pedahzur, published in 1738, mentions an old Jewish custom for those in mourning. Loved ones and acquaintances of the deceased lay a hand on the corpse’s largest toe and pleads for forgiveness from any offense they caused in life. If the offense was extreme, or the person was not forgiven, the nose of the corpse poured blood. An author named Manasoch Ben Israel mentioned the practice in his book, dated 1651. The Babylonian Talmud stated the ground refused to absorb Able’s blood until Cain had been punished.
On a side note, many who firmly believed in the Ordeal of Touch believed the Ordeal of Water (used during witch trials) was heathenish and ridiculous.
Famous Painter Maclise depicted a scene of the ordeal of touch. As the ritual became common, people wrapped corpses in bright white linens so any evidences of blood would be noticeable.