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Mapping Medieval Murders

Historical maps used to plot medieval murders...

The interactive Medieval Murder Maps website was launched on Thursday 28 September, to widespread interest and publicity. Apparently the site had 22,000 visitors on the first day! It has been created by Professor Manuel Eisner and Dr Stephanie Brown of the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, using medieval coroners’ records and the Trust’s maps of medieval London, Oxford, and York, to map and analyse murders in the three cities.

Murder has always been seen as a very serious crime, against the public as well as the person, and records of investigation and prosecution survive from the early middle ages. Typically, following a suspicious death, the king’s representative, the coroner, convened a jury of witnesses to discover what had happened and who was to blame. The witnesses' testimonies detail time, place and circumstances, and offer a lively picture of medieval life and death.

A typical case might arise from an argument in a tavern or busy street: words could turn to blows, and the prevalence of knives, used as everyday tools, meant that physical conflicts could quickly become deadly. Sometimes it was bystanders who tried to intervene in a dispute – as was their duty – who ended up killing, or being killed. More rarely, a long-standing quarrel motivated an intentional attack, with armed men pursuing their opponent ‘with malice aforethought’.

Analysis of the records shows that in over 90% of murders, men were both perpetrators and victims. Oxford had a higher murder rate than York or London, owing to the numbers of young men involved in group violence, town versus gown or one group of students against another . Murder rates were high since victims of attacks were more likely to die of their wounds and injuries than would now be the case. The weapons involved were often bladed – swords, long knives or daggers, short knives – but also included staves, clubs and even bare hands.

York, from Medieval Murder Maps,

The records often specify exactly where the dispute and death occurred. Sometimes several sites were involved – where the attack happened, where the victim died, where the perpetrator escaped to or sought sanctuary. Using maps to locate the murders, Manuel and Stephanie show that lethal conflicts usually occurred in busy places, especially markets and main streets, and in and around taverns; they peaked in leisure hours, evenings or Sundays.

The Medieval Murder Maps website demonstrates the value of historical maps for visualising past events. We are particularly fortunate that coroners’ records contain such rich circumstantial detail, but many other historical sources, especially but not only those concerning crime and justice, could lend themselves to a comparable exercise.


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