This ancient test has a variety of names, among them: Bier’s Test, Bier-Right, Trial by Touch, Ordeal of Blood, Blood-test, and Covenanting by Blood. The ancient practice has origins so far back that no original foundation is known. It was practiced across civilized nations as far back as Richard the Lionhearted. Many Arabic documents mention a similar ritual dating back to 800 AD. The test is also alluded to in the ancient Teutonic epic poem the Nibelungerlied, as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Bier’s Test is simple in theory. The body of a murder victim is placed atop a small platform, or bier. Any suspected murderer was ordered to touch the body. If the true murderer touches the corpse, it will bleed fresh blood. Some believed the blood appeared to accuse the culprit, while others believed it was a divine demand for justice.
Germanic peoples called it the Bahr-Recht, or the Law of the Bier. It became accepted as fact, even among intellectuals of the period of Charles I. His chief physician, Dr. Walter Charleton, believed the test was always accurate.
The practice has appeared in old ballads, such as Earl Richard and Young Huntin’ from the Eighteenth Century. 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.”
Many experts through history have attributed this custom to Jewish people, for they held human blood in the highest regard. Blood was believed to hold the soul and functioned as the life force within the body. It was reverently used for the most important contracts, sealing kinships, and various other imperatives.
The Book of Jewish Ceremonies, by Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur, published in 1738, mentions an old Jewish custom observed by those in mourning. Loved ones and acquaintances of the deceased lay a hand on the corpse’s largest toe and pleaded 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. Another author named Manasoch Ben Israel also 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.
As the ritual became established, observers wrapped corpses in bright white linens so any traces of blood would be noticed. 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 Irish artist Daniel Maclise depicted a scene of the ordeal of touch in the 1800s.
The Ordeal was one of countless Old World customs to cross the Atlantic with the settlers. The Ordeal of Blood has been observed in a number of states, including New York, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.