Posted by Smokey Stover on June 30, 2006
In Reply to: "Trial by fire" and "feast or Famine" posted by Amanda M. on June 29, 2006
: Hi There, can anyone tell me where the phrases
: "Trial by fire" and "feast or Famine" originated from - as well as their geunine meanings. I've heard thes used in different contexts.
: Thank You, Amanda M.
Trial by fire was a variety of trial by ordeal, others including trial by combat and trial by water )dunking).
"Trial by ordeal is a judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to a painful task. If either the task is completed without injury, or the injuries sustained are healed quickly, the accused is considered innocent. Like trial by combat, it was a judicium Dei: a procedure based on the premise that God would help the innocent.
In Europe, the ordeal was often by fire (using hot metal) or boiling water; its exact nature varied considerably, however.
Ordeal of fire
In one instance, the accused would walk nine paces with a red-hot iron bar held in both hands. Depending on the custom of the time, innocence would be shown by a complete lack of injury from the ordeal or the wounds would be bound and regularly examined for healing or festering. An English version had nine red-hot ploughshares placed on the floor; the accused was blindfolded and if they successfully crossed the floor without injury they were judged innocent."
These ordeals were often used to detect witchcraft or heresy, and in any case were mostly a local practice, evidence that no central judicial authority existed or was strong enough to preempt local practices. These ordeals were commonest in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, declining until in the 17th century they were rarely used except in the British Colonies of the New World. One of the flaws of the ordeal was that in some cases God was supposed to protect you from harm if you were innocent; in others, dunking, for instance, you were considered guilty if you floated, for you clearly were using demonic powers. So if you died it proved your innocence, but if you survived you would be put to death as a witch or a heretic.
Actually trial by fire was almost dead by the 17th century, although burning at the stake continued for a time. But the term was never forgotten, and in the last century was widely used in a metaphorical sense. Young soldiers and new recruits got their baptism by fire, or trial by fire, when they were inevitably thrown into real battles in which the fire was the fire of battle, the crucible in which strength, bravery and determination were forged. This kind of language generally worked well with the home folks, who needed to be assured that their sons were going into battle to learn to be men, not merely as cannon fodder.
Trial by fire, in its metaphorical sense, has also come to be used to describe situations in which the trainees or less experienced practitioners become hardened professionals by dealing directly with the realities of that particular world, rather than being coddled in the desks or classrooms of theoretical learning.
Someone else (probably ESC) will be along shortly to explain the origin of "feast or famine."