Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Students made Oxford the murder capital of late medieval England

A project mapping medieval England’s murder cases has found that Oxford’s student population was the most violent.

The team behind the Medieval Murder Maps project estimates that the per capita homicide rate in Oxford has been four to five times higher than in late medieval London or York.

The map project is a digital resource that plots crime scenes based on translated investigations from 700-year-old coroners’ inquests.

Among Oxford perpetrators with a known background, 75% were identified by the coroner as ‘clericus’, as were 72% of all Oxford’s homicide victims. During this period, clericus is most likely to refer to a student or member of the early university.

‘A medieval university city such as Oxford had a deadly mix of conditions,’ said Professor Manuel Eisner, lead murder map investigator and Director of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.

‘Oxford students were all male and typically aged between fourteen and twenty-one, 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,’ said Professor Eisner.

A new website, launched today by Cambridge’s Violence Research Centre, 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 during its 14th-century ‘golden age’ when the city flourished as the Black Death subsided.

Many of the York cases document feuds between artisans in the same profession, from knife fights amongst tannery workers to fatal violence between glove-makers.

Coroners’ rolls are catalogues of sudden or suspicious deaths as deduced by a jury of local residents. Recorded in Latin, they included names, events, locations, and even the value of murder weapons.

Using the rolls and maps from the Historic Towns Trust, researchers have constructed a street atlas of 354 homicides across all three cities. Dozens of these cases now have audio versions of the inquests, so users can listen to details of the more intriguing medieval casefiles.

The original London map, published in 2018, has been remodelled and updated to include accidents, sudden deaths, sanctuary church cases, and deaths in prison, all of which the coroner recorded.

Oxford: A Hotbed of Student Violence

By the early 14th century, Oxford was one of the most significant centres of learning in Europe. The city had a population of around 7,000 inhabitants, with perhaps 1,500 students.

Based on their research, Eisner and Brown estimate the homicide rate in late medieval Oxford was around 60-75 per 100,000.

This is some 50 times higher than current rates in 21st-century English cities. The mix of young male students and booze was often a recipe for violence.

For example, on a Thursday night in 1298, an argument between students in an Oxford High Street tavern resulted in a mass street brawl with swords and battle axes.

The coroner recorded student John Burel had ‘a mortal wound on the crown of his head, six inches long and in depth reaching to the brain’.

Interactions with sex workers could 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 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. They also escaped justice.

Some Oxford cases reveal rifts among scholars from different parts of the British Isles. Lodgings were often arranged according to students’ home regions, and friction between northerners and southerners, or the Irish, Welsh and English, was common.

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