Early on a Sunday evening in April 1299, a young scholar led Margery de Hereford inside a house in Oxford. What began with lust ended in murder: when Margery, a sex worker, demanded to be paid, the unnamed man drew a knife, struck her near the left breast and fled.
Margery may have never received justice but her story is to feature in a collection of interactive maps that use 700-year-old records of coroners’ inquests to locate and detail homicides across three UK cities.
The team behind the project say they hope the approach will offer a window into the past.
“It brings [the records] to life because you can actually locate them in places that you know about,” said Prof Manuel Eisner, the lead murder map investigator and director of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.
As well as the written account of the inquest, each entry on the maps is accompanied by links to extra information, and some feature voiceovers.
Dr Stephanie Brown, a researcher on the project, said she hoped the approach would kill off the idea there was no law and order in medieval times – although she noted some processes differed from today’s, with bystanders legally obliged to raise a “hue and cry” when they witnessed a crime, and juries typically comprised people who knew those involved.
The records offer other insights, too. “Yes, these are horrible murder cases, but we can get lots of information about the medieval world, about people’s daily lives, about their occupations, about what they were doing when they met their end,” Brown said.
The team note that Oxford had a per capita homicide rate four to five times higher than the other two cities. “Oxford is sort of this cauldron of violence,” Brown said, adding that students made up the majority of the perpetrators and victims.
This is perhaps not surprising. At the time, only clerics could become members of the university, Brown said. “These should be single men, young men – the type of people who are more likely to commit violence right up through to today,” she said.
As well as opportunities for drinking, sex and freedom from control – still typical of university life – these students had ready access to weapons. As Brown pointed out, men would have carried a short knife as an everyday tool for tasks such as cutting up food – and the inquest records show these were common instruments of murder.
There was no shortage of friction, including between students and town dwellers, and between students from north and south of the Humber. “They really, really hated each other,” Eisner said.
London and York were no strangers to violence either, with records for the latter including a double murder at the minster, a fatal clash between mould-makers, and a nocturnal killing of a chaplain by a husband, his wife and her sister.
Alongside the maps, the team are launching a podcast exploring the medieval murders together with contemporary thinking about crime and violence.
Eisner said he hoped the project would encourage people to reflect on what the motives may have been behind the historical homicides, and explore parallels with altercations they may encounter today.
“That’s what I want to achieve,” he said. “People actually seeing, to some extent, themselves in these stories.”
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