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University of Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner creates medieval murder map of London

A screenshot of the medieval murder map created using Google Maps by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge (5697528)
A screenshot of the medieval murder map created using Google Maps by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge (5697528)

It is as grisly a map as you will ever come across.

A University of Cambridge criminologist has plotted the murders recorded by coroners in medieval London from 1300-40.

The digital map is now available to view on the website of the Violence Research Centre, part of the Institute of Criminology, and tells the stories of the many violent ways Londoners met their deaths.

In Bishopsgate in August 1316, for example, we learn how tiler John of Heurne was grabbed by the throat by a woman, then attacked with a stone and a pick-axe by two men, in a dispute over the payment of rent. Shaken and beaten, his back, shoulders and sides were left mangled, and he died the next morning.

Some murders followed what now seem trivial disputes.

Priest Richard Henry, we learn, used to jump over a garden wall in Cripplegate to steal fruit, but around midnight one night in July 1316 the property’s loyal gardener, Roger, was lying in wait and set after him with a stick. The priest produced a trenchour - a type of knife - and thrust it two inches into his heart, killing him.

Prof Manuel Eisner, who analysed 142 homicides in the city boundaries, said: “Following notification of a violent death, the coroner and sheriffs would summon a jury from the local area to investigate, then record all the findings.

“The events described in the coroners’ rolls show weapons were never far away, male honour had to be protected, and conflicts easily got out of hand. They give us a detailed picture of how homicide was embedded in the rhythms of urban medieval life.

“By digitally mapping these murder cases, we hope to create an accessible resource for the public to explore these remarkable records.”

The gory interactive map reveals Cheapside and Cornhill to be homicide hotspots during the early 14th century, and show that Sunday was the most dangerous day for medieval Londoners, when 31 per cent of murders occurred.

“Sunday was the day when people had time to engage in social activities, such as drinking and gaming, which would often trigger frictions that led to assault,” said Prof Eisner.

The cases detail the fatal stabbing of a lover with a fish-gutting knife, an argument over a horse ended with a deadly free-for-all involving neighbours and passers-by, and how a woman wearing good quality clothes suffered a fatal blow to the head from a husband and wife who wished to take them off her.

The language describing the murders has been updated for modern audiences, and the map can be filtered by the victim’s gender, the weapon, year, crime scene and location.

Two commercial centres emerge as the most murderous: Cheapside from St Mary-le-Bow church – the ‘bow bells’ of cockney legend – leading up to St Paul’s Cathedral, and the triangle of Gracechurch, Lombard (then ‘Langbourn’) and Cornhill streets radiating out from Leadenhall market.

Professor Manuel Eisner, of the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology (5702585)
Professor Manuel Eisner, of the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology (5702585)

The map builds on work conducted by the historian Barbara Hannawalt more than 40 years ago.

Prof Eisner’s analysis shows:

  • 68 per cent of murders took place in London’s busy streets and markets, while 21 per cent occurred in private residences;
  • There were two murders in brothels but six in religious buildings
  • About 77 per cent of the murders were committed between early evenings, “around the hour of vespers”, and the first hours after curfew.
  • 68 per cent involved daggers and swords as the weapons of choice, while thick ‘quarter staff’ poles designed for close combat were used in 19 per cent of cases.
  • 92 per cent of perpetrators were men and in only four cases was a woman the only suspect. About a third of the cases involved more than one suspect and a number of them featured killings involving brothers or servants helping masters.

Murder rates appear to have been much higher than today. Estimates for London’s population in the 14th century vary from 40,000 to 100,000. But assuming it was 80,000, Prof Eisner believes the medieval murder rate in London was about 15-20 times what we would see in a modern UK town of similar size.

But he notes that the comparison is not straightforward.

“We have firearms, but we also have emergency services. It’s easier to kill but easier to save lives,” he said, adding that many victims did not die from the initial assault.

“Over 18% of victims survived at least a week after the initial trauma, probably dying eventually from infections or blood loss,” said Eisner.

One poor soul - a saddle-maker who had his fingers cut off by a rival died of his wounds three weeks later.

Prof Eisner, whose research also includes bullying prevention and youth crime, has studied historical murder trends from 1000AD onwards and the reduction in violence is clear.

“London in the decades before the Black Death had more homicides relative to the population than London in the 18th or 19th century,” he said.

“The trend in London is in line with the long-term decline of homicide found across cities in Western Europe, a decline that led to the pacified spaces that were essential for the rise of urban life and civility in Europe.”

Visit https://www.vrc.crim.cam.ac.uk/vrcresearch/london-medieval-murder-map.

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