Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail remember the scene where a mob accuses a woman of being a witch and discusses ways to tell if she’s a witch – one of which is to toss her into a pond and see if she sinks or floats. This is the famous “swimming test” or “trial by water” or “dunking” which was banned in Europe in the Middle Ages, revived in the 17th century witch hunts and is only seen today in movie comedies. And the U.S. Congress. Really.
Before we look at the history of trial by water, let’s see what Democratic congressman Tony Cárdenas of California proposed for some politicians.
We are picking winners and losers, when it is clearly obvious that witches can only be found by dunking them in water. If they float they’re a witch. If they don’t, installing a pool will allow us to retrieve the non-witch before he or she drowns.
The idea of letting water decide someone’s fate is an old and surprisingly common one. Submerging a suspected sorcerer in a stream and letting them go if they float is mentioned in the Code of Ur-Nammu, which dates back to 2100–2050 BC. In the 6th century, Gregory of Tours writes about the accused having millstone placed around their neck before the submerging. In the late Middle Ages, it’s reported that the accused was placed in a barrel first before being dunked three times. The practice is also mentioned in the Vishnu Smriti book of Hinduism.
The “logic” of trial by water was reversed in witch hunts, where it was believed that an innocent person would sink while a witch would float. This is derived from the idea that witches renounced baptism so the baptismal river would expel them. The Salem witch trials held in colonial America in 1692 and 1693 used both dunking and submersion – with the accused bound at the hands and feet and tied to a rock. Needless to say, none of the twenty accused witches, mostly women, survived.
Was Mr. Cárdenas just joking when he called for a revival of trail by water? That’s what they thought in Monty Python and the Holy Grail … until they brought out the duck.