Oxford was the murder capital of late medieval England due to its boozed-up, ultra-violent student population.
The City of Dreaming Spires had a murder rate five times that of London at the time and around 50 times higher than murder rates in modern English cities.
Historians – ironically from rival university city Cambridge – say the astronomical murder rates were down to the large populations of students in the city who spilled out of taverns on weekends to fight with axes and swords, bows and arrows.
And a lot of the arguments stemmed from a north/south divide of students, with those from Scotland and the north clashing with southerners.
Young students accounted for an astonishing three-quarters of both the victims and perpetrators of homicides in 14th Century Oxford.
The team behind the Medieval Murder Maps – a digital resource plotting crime scenes across the country – used 700-year-old investigations from coroners’ inquests to map the levels of violence across the nation.
Historians from the University of Cambridge used the investigations – translated from Latin – to form a map of known murder cases across the dazzling metropolis of London, the northern trading capital of York and the scholastic capital of Oxford.
London’s remaining coroners’ rolls cover nine years between 1300 and 1340 whilst York’s date between 1345 and 1385 and a complete set for Oxford survives for six years preceding 1348 – just before the bubonic plague hit the city.
The researchers surprisingly discovered that Oxford’s student population was by far the most lethally violent of all social or professional groups across the three cities, contributing to a per capita murder rate around four to five times higher than its late medieval contemporaries.
By the early fourteenth century, Oxford had become, together with Paris, the largest and most highly respected center of learning north of the Alps and drew students from all over Europe.
The city had a population of around 7,000, of whom around 1,500 were young male students.
Three-quarters of the perpetrators of the city’s murders were identified by the coroner as “clericus” – a reference to students – as were three-quarters (72 percent) of the victims.
Conflicts among students were known to be frequent and often involved the two ‘nations’: the Northerners of Scotland and the North of England and the Southerners of southern England, Wales and Ireland.
Lodgings at the University were often arranged according to students’ home regions, and friction between northerners and southerners, or the Irish, Welsh and English, was common.
As clerics, students were also legally protected from prosecution under common law and could claim the so-called benefit of clergy.
But Professor Manuel Eisner, the lead murder map investigator and Director of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, said some clashes also occurred between “town and gown.”
“A medieval university city such as Oxford had a deadly mix of conditions,” he said.
“Oxford students were all male and typically aged between 14 and 21; the peak for violence and risk-taking.
“These were young men freed from tight controls of family, parish or guild, and thrust into an environment full of weapons, with ample access to alehouses and sex workers.
“As well as clashes between town and gown, many students belonged to regional fraternities called ‘nations,’ an additional source of conflict within the student body.”
Based on their research, Prof. Eisner’s team estimate the homicide rate in late medieval Oxford was around 60-75 per 100,000 – some 50 times higher than current rates in cities across England.
A new website, launched this week by Cambridge’s Violence Research Center, allows users to compare the causes and patterns of urban violence in medieval England across three cities for the first time.
The site features a new map of York’s homicides, where, during its 14th century ‘golden age’ driven by trade and textiles, the city flourished as Black Death subsided.
Unlike Oxford’s students, many of the York murder cases document feuds between artisans in the same profession, from knife fights amongst tannery workers to fatal violence between glove-makers.
The coroners’ rolls analyzed by the researchers to map the medieval murders are catalogs of sudden or suspicious deaths as deduced by a jury of local residents.
Recorded in Latin, they included the names, events, locations, and even the value of murder weapons in homicide cases.
Prof. Eisner explained: “When a suspected murder victim was discovered in late medieval England the coroner would be sought, and the local bailiff would assemble a jury to investigate.
“A typical jury consisted of local men of good repute. Their task was to establish the course of events by hearing witnesses, assessing any evidence, and then naming a suspect.
“These indictments were summarized by the coroner’s scribe.”
The researchers say these reports were a combination of detective work and rumor, with some juries strategically constructing narratives aimed at influencing verdicts such as self-defense.
“We do not have any evidence to show juries willfully lied, but many inquests will have been a ‘best guess’ based on available information,” said Cambridge historian and co-researcher Dr Stephanie Brown.
“In many instances, it is likely the jury named the right suspect. In others, it may be a case of two plus two equals five.”
Using the rolls and maps from the Historic Towns Trust, the researchers constructed a street atlas of 354 homicides across all three cities.
In Oxford, the heady mix of young male students and booze was often a powder keg for violence, which spilled out onto the streets after beginning in local taverns.
One inquest tells of a Thursday night in 1298 when an argument between students in an Oxford High Street tavern resulted in a mass street brawl with swords and battle axes and student John Burel suffering “a mortal wound on the crown of his head, six inches long and in depth reaching to the brain.”
Interactions with sex workers could also end tragically when students became violent.
One unknown scholar got away with murdering Margery de Hereford in the parish of St. Aldate in 1299 when he fled after stabbing her to death instead of paying what he owed her for intercourse.
In another incident, a gang of students killed one of their own, David de Trempedhwy, after he brought back a “harlot” named Christiana of Worcester to their school in the winter of 1296. This gang also escaped justice.
Frictions among scholars from different parts of the British Isles also often led to violence.
In one such incident in the spring of 1303, student Adam de Sarum was playing with a ball in the street when he was set upon by a trio of Irish scholars who stabbed him in the face and throat.
Just a month earlier, two Welsh scholars assaulted some passing students who raised a ‘hue’, at which point a student from Durham attempted to intervene and was beaten to death.
“Before modern policing, victims or witnesses had a legal responsibility to alert the community to a crime by shouting and making noise,” said Dr Brown.
“This was known as raising a hue and cry. It was mostly women who raised hue and cry, usually reporting conflicts between men in order to keep the peace.
“Knives were also omnipresent in medieval society.”
Many recorded homicides from the time feature a small knife called a thwytel – used as cutlery or for everyday tasks – whilst axes were common for chopping wood and many men also carried staffs.
However, some 12 percent of recorded murder cases in London were committed with swords.
Some of the London murder cases from the time record deaths that began over eel-skin littering and careless urination.
Even officials of public order – bailiffs, constables, and sergeants – were far from safe.
Richard Overhe, a preserver of the ‘King’s peace’, was brutally attacked by four Oxford students with swords, bucklers and other arms’ during a summer’s night in 1324, and was found dead in his home.
Prof Eisner added that though there existed a medieval sense of street justice for men to keep the peace, many of the circumstances that led to murder then are similar to those seen today.
“There was an expectation on adult men that maintaining order was part of your social responsibility,” he said.
“Circumstances that frequently led to violence will be familiar to us today, such as young men with group affiliations pursuing sex and alcohol during periods of leisure on the weekends.
“Weapons were never far away, and male honor had to be protected.
“Life in medieval urban centers could be rough, but it was by no means lawless.
“The community understood their rights and used the law when conflicts emerged.
“Each case provides a glimpse of the dynamics that created a burst of violence on a street in England some seven centuries ago.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager