Oxford University was a hotbed of medieval murder

Oxford students used to be much more violent. Coroners’ reports from the 14th century show that university members, despite being less than a quarter of the town’s population, were responsible for three-quarters of murders and were nearly the same proportion of victims.

A team of researchers – yes, based at the University of Cambridge – ­have created “Medieval Murder Maps” to chart historic violence in three UK towns – Oxford, London and York.

The interactive maps draw on surviving coroners’ rolls in each town, from between 1296 and 1385. They display crimes recorded around the three towns – including weapons used, names of victims, perpetrators and witnesses, time of day, and the events that occurred.

For instance, in January 1300, an Irish scholar stabbed a shoemaker under Oxford’s Northern Gate, killing him, then fled the scene.

The homicide rate in Oxford was 4-5 times higher than that in London or York, and about 50 times higher than current rates in UK cities.

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

“Oxford students were all male and typically aged between 14-21, 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.”

The University of Oxford has a long history of violence. In 1209, a clerk at Oxford killed a local woman, and the ensuing conflict between town and university led to some scholars fleeing the town and founding the University of Cambridge.

“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,” says Eisner.

Coroners’ rolls are documents written in Latin that catalogue local juries’ assessments of sudden and suspicious deaths.

“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,” says Eisner.

“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 summarised by the coroner’s scribe.”

Co-researcher Dr Stephanie Brown, a Cambridge historian, says that many of these rulings would have been a “best guess” based on available information.

“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,” says Brown.

In the 14th century, Oxford had a population of about 7,000, roughly 1,500 of whom were students. The homicide rate, according to the researchers, was 60-75 per 100,000. The coroners’ rolls peter out by the mid-14th century, just before the arrival of the Black Death.

The York records, meanwhile, come from 1345-1385, a “golden age” for the city as trade flourished and the plague subsided. Many of the assailants and victims in the York records are artisans.

The London map charts “sanctuary church cases” as well: when alleged felons fled to holy ground, they had 40 days to negotiate with a coroner. Felons often confessed to the crime and were exiled in these cases.

“Life in medieval urban centres could be rough, but it was by no means lawless,” says Eisner.

“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.”

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