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Short description: Medieval test for a suspected murderer
A body in its coffin starts to bleed in the presence of the murderer in an illustration of the laws of Hamburg in 1497

Cruentation (Latin: "ius cruentationis" or "Ius feretri sive sandapilae") was one of the medieval methods of finding proof against a suspected murderer. The common belief was that the body of the victim would spontaneously bleed in the presence of the murderer.

Cruentation was used in Germanic law systems as early as the medieval period, whence it spread to Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Scotland, and European colonies in North America.[1] In Germany it was used as a method to find proof of guilt until the middle of the 18th century.[2]

Early modern trials privileged explicit human testimony over forensic evidence, unless that evidence represented the testimony of a divine being (i.e., God).[3] But not all cases could be resolved simply by obtaining a confession; in cases where it was difficult for the jurors to determine whether someone accused of murder was guilty or innocent, the case could be solved by means of a trial by ordeal.[4] In the case of cruentation, the accused was brought before the corpse of the murder victim and was made to put his or her hands on it. If the wounds of the corpse then began to bleed or other unusual visual signs appeared, that was regarded as God's verdict, announcing that the accused was guilty.[5] At the same time, cruentation alone rarely convicted a suspect; more often, the psychological impact of the test caused the suspect to confess.[6]

Cruentation appears in many texts relating to criminal procedure: the Malleus Maleficarum, or King James' Daemonologie.[7][8] Nonetheless, contemporaries drew a distinction between cruentation and (to a modern observer) equally occult practices. Other forms of trial by ordeal vanished during the centuries before cruentation's demise, precisely because they (hubristically) effected divine judgement.[9]

As the practice of anatomical dissection became more prevalent, medical professions became increasingly aware of circumstances in which dead bodies could autochthonously emit fluids. Cruentative procedures became increasingly stringent,[10] and in 1545, Antonius Blancus was the first to question the reliability of cruentation as a practice.[11] Nonetheless, the first published refutation appeared in 1669, more than a century later.[12] Yet Alberti's Systema jurisprudentiae medicae [System of Forensic Medicine], published almost a century later, still encourages investigators to rely on torture and cruentation.[13]

The rise of anatomical approaches to sanguine emissions also coincided with disruption in the theological underpinnings of cruentation. After the Lutheran Reformation the practice of cruentation was unwarranted from a legal point of view in Denmark and Norway, and during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries leading theologians of the Danish Church condemned it several times. Nevertheless, cruentation continued to be used well into the eighteenth century, and its outcome continued to be accepted as evidence by law courts – indeed, in a few cases, the ordeal was overseen or even organized by clergymen. Apparently the practice was so popular that it continued to remain judicially sanctioned for some time even when that meant circumventing the official teaching of the Protestant state church.[14]



  1. Nemec 1976, pp. 15-6: "70. Before 1200—The first known indication of the existence of ius cruentationis (Baarrecht; bier-right; jus feretri sive Sandapilae) among the Germanic nations appears in a poem "Iwein", written by a German poet, Hartmann von Aue (fl. 1180-1210).... Ius cruentationis was originally an ancient custom of Germanic tribes, often invoked by the German courts and based on the firm belief that a cadaver would start to bleed when touched by the murderer. It was applied in the courts of Germany until 1750 but was known and practiced also in other countries (e.g. Bohemia, Poland, Scotland and even the North American Continent).
  2. Barend A. J. Cohen; "Forensische geneeskunde: raakvlakken tussen geneeskunst gezondheidszorg en recht" (in Dutch).
  3. Peterson, Nora (2016). Involuntary Confessions of the Flesh in Early Modern France. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press. pp. 47–51. ISBN 978-1-61149-625-3. 
  4. Ingram 2017, p. 33: "The bier right was not just a popularly-held belief in the early modern period; it was an actual judicial process that magistrates ordered to be performed when there was no other way of discovering the truth."
  5. Ingram 2017, p. 15: "Cruentation can be placed under the more broadly defined umbrella term 'trial by ordeal.'"
  6. Ingram 2017, p. 26: "Oftentimes the fact that the body bled was not the sole reason why the court condemned the suspect, but because the suspect would confess after seeing the body bleed. Therefore, the Law of the Bier was not only a visual test, but also a psychological test for the suspect."
  7. Engelhaupt, Erika (October 9, 2017). "How 'Talking' Corpses Were Once Used to Solve Murders". National Geographic. "In Daemonologie, the king wrote of his belief in cruentation as a way to mete out justice" 
  8. Owen Davies; Francesca Matteoni (19 July 2017). Executing Magic in the Modern Era: Criminal Bodies and the Gallows in Popular Medicine. Springer International Publishing. p. 22. ISBN 978-3-319-59519-1. 
  9. Ingram 2017, p. 17-8.
  10. Ingram 2017, p. 23: "His Dissertatio de Jure Feretri sive Cruentationis vom Baar Rechte (1680) ... explains that the ordeal had to be administered in a specific way: the dead body needed to be exposed to air for a few hours, and it needed to have its chest and torso exposed to ensure the blood could thoroughly coagulate. The suspect had to approach the dead body and was required to read certain oaths to it. The suspect also had to touch various parts of the dead body: the mouth, the navel, and the fatal wound(s)."
  11. Nemec 1976, p. 31: "147. 1545—Marco Antonio Bianchi (1498-1548) published under the name Antonius Blancus his Tractatus de indiciis homicidii (Venetiis, apud Cominum De Tridino Montisferrati). In it he raised the question of the reliability of ius cruentationis in cases of homicide. He was probably the first person who openly voiced such doubts."
  12. Nemec 1976, p. 50: "237. 1669—Theodor Kirchmaier (fl. 1669-72), professor in Wittenberg (?), published De cruentatione cadaverum fallaci praesentis homicidae indicio (Vitebergae), one of the first publications to refute the validity of ius cruentationis. It followed by more than 100 years the doubts expressed by Antonius Blancus (Bianchi)."
  13. Nemec 1976, p. 57"270. 1725—Michael Alberti (1682-1757), professor of medicine and natural sciences in Berlin, started publishing his Sytema [sic] jurisprudentiae medicae (Halae). The last volume (6th) appeared in 1736. Alberti's work is a mixture of backwardness and progress. He was in favor of torture and cruentation, and believed in magic and demons. On the other hand, he considered sorcery a mental disease and had an enlightened attitude toward other medical problems. The book, designed for both physicians and lawyers, was considered a cornerstone of legal medicine for many years. Alberti was the first to use the term jurisprudentia medica. He, however, admits that he received the idea for that term from Rodericus a Castro, Medicus politicus (1614)."
  14. Fink-Jensen, Morten (17 June 2010). The Bleeding Corpse: Trial by ordeal in early modern Denmark and Norway..  Talk given at University of Oslo workshop on religious belief and practices in the Danish-Norwegian united monarchy from the Reformation to the Age of Enlightenment, c. 1500 – 1814.

General sources

  • R.P. Brittain, Cruentation in legal medicine and literature, 1965
  • Ingram, Margaret (2017-09-06). Bodies That Speak: Early Modern European Gender Distinctions in Bleeding Corpses and Demoniacs (Master's thesis). University of Oregon. hdl:1794/22689.
  • Nemec, Jaroslav (1976). Highlights in Medicolegal Relations. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare / U.S. Government Printing Office. 
  • F.P. de Ceglia, “Saving the Phenomenon: Why Corpses Bled in the Presence of their Murderer in Early Modern Science”. In F.P. de Ceglia (ed.), The Body of Evidence Corpses and Proofs in Early Modern European Medicine. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2020: 23-52.