Medieval Oxford’s Murder Problem

On a recent, grim Friday afternoon, I met Manuel Eisner, a compact, dapper professor of criminology at the University of Cambridge, in the lobby of his hotel in Oxford. Eisner, who is Swiss, was in town for the graduation of his daughter Nora, who recently completed a Ph.D. in astrophysics. For years, Eisner enrolled his wife and children to help count, catalogue, and visualize incidents of historical homicide. One study, of the deaths of more than fifteen hundred European monarchs between the years 600 and 1800, grew out of a family breakfast conversation. “This is kind of the habit. You develop a coding scheme,” Eisner said, as if he was confessing a weakness for cinnamon rolls. “And we ended up having this data set which nobody else had done before.”

In 2014, Eisner founded Cambridge’s Violence Research Centre, where he and a colleague, Stephanie Brown, a historical criminologist at the University of Warwick, have been mapping records of medieval murders in English cities. Last fall, they published a digital map of sixty-eight homicides in Oxford between 1296 and 1348. (Eisner’s wife, Ruth Schmid, who is a handbag designer, helped with the coding.) The map is a clickable scattering of dead shoemakers, Welshmen felled by arrows, and one case of a guy trying to join a choir, by force, after midnight, with a sword and being struck with a sparth, or battle-axe. “It’s a particularly complicated society in Oxford,” Eisner said, with some relish. Since the map went online, this was his first chance to walk the streets and inspect the locations for himself.

Eisner’s hotel was on George Street, a busy thoroughfare of tour buses, restaurant chains, and students, just outside the line of the old city walls, which had fallen into disrepair by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The afternoon was bitter. Occasionally, the wind gave way to showers of cold, light rain. We turned right and passed the place where John de Luffenam was smote “in the breast with a knife even to the heart, whereof he died at once,” on a Thursday evening in November, 1344, after an argument involving a college cook.

Medieval Oxford had a murder rate about three times higher than London’s during the same period, and some sixty times the level Oxford has today. (At between sixty and seventy homicides per hundred thousand people, medieval Oxford’s rate compares, roughly, to that of present-day New Orleans.) The town was in decline as a center of the wool trade but alive with the mayhem of some fifteen hundred young men—loosely supervised, theoretically celibate, armed with crossbows—the scholars of the university. In the twelfth century, Oxford began to emerge, alongside Paris and Bologna, as one of Europe’s prime seats of learning. (All three had crime problems.) “If I wanted to give advice these days about, well, what could you do to really seriously increase levels of violence in our society?” Eisner said. “Probably I would say, ‘O.K., take a few thousand fourteen-year-olds, just males, out of their context, give them knives and lots of alcohol, and put them into halls—and wait and see.’ ” In the Oxford murders that Eisner has looked at, more than seventy per cent of the victims and the perpetrators were students. Ninety-nine per cent were male. (During the same period, eight per cent of London’s murderers were women.)

“I really like the view of this church,” Eisner said, as we turned onto Cornmarket Street and saw St. Michael at the North Gate, whose rough stone tower is about a thousand years old. “You can actually still see the medieval structure.” Eisner works from coroner’s rolls, pieces of old parchment, stitched together, on which clerks wrote descriptions in Latin of sudden deaths in the neighborhood. The accounts are, by turns, formulaic—giving the time (“between curfew and midnight”) and nearest feast day (“on Sunday, the feast of St. Edmund”)—and proto-forensic. A few yards farther down Cornmarket Street, in December, 1300, John de Ripon was discovered outside what is now a branch of Pret a Manger, with “a wound on the head resulting from a staff that was four inches long and two inches wide, and his head was beaten with a knife up to the brain.”

The coroner’s rolls are packed with medieval crime procedure. “It’s certainly not a lawless society,” Eisner said. Citizens were expected to raise the hue and cry when trouble broke out, or if they found a body on the road. (The “first finder” would then be vouched for by two other citizens and called to testify when a judge came to town.) Then the coroner, a royal official, would summon a jury of between a dozen and fifty men, from the four local parishes, to try to figure out what had happened. No one could touch the corpse until the jurors assembled. Eisner stood with his back to a café on Ship Street and pulled up the case of John Thresk, a Yorkshireman who was found dead in the churchyard of St. Michael’s on a Monday in November, 1343.

Thresk had been stabbed the night before with a knife worth two pence, by a fellow-northerner, John de Culvyntone. Both men were almost certainly students. But, when the coroner summoned a jury to investigate the killing, no one appeared. The same thing happened the following day. It wasn’t until Wednesday, when Thresk’s body had been lying in the churchyard for three days, that local men were willing to get involved. “What was it about this murder?” Eisner wondered. Oxford is the only city he has studied where juries occasionally refused to form. “They would have been punished for not showing up,” he said. “So why did they not do this?”

Eisner has a theory that relates to the way that medieval Oxford was governed. The university had considerable privileges. Beginning in the thirteenth century, it had its own chancellor, court, and system for regulating market prices, to make sure that students weren’t swindled by local tradespeople. As clerics, the students also fell under the protection of the Church, and this meant that they were almost never prosecuted under secular law for their crimes, including murder. “If you think about the impunity, it’s just extraordinary,” Eisner said. “You would not see that kind of thing happening in London.” It is possible that juries of townsmen were too scared, or simply unwilling, to get involved. “ ‘We can’t be bothered,’ ” Eisner speculated, of the mind-set. “ ‘This is not our law.’ ”

On occasion, friction between Oxford residents and students would escalate into full-scale riots, town versus gown. Eisner stopped on the corner of St. Mary’s Passage and the High Street, where, on a February afternoon in 1298, a crowd of scholars and manciples (men in charge of provisions for the university) armed themselves “with bows and arrows, swords and bucklers, slings and stones, and made an assault on all laymen that they could reach.”

In the rampage, a shopkeeper named Edward de Hales barricaded himself inside with his wife, Basilia. From an upstairs window, he shot a student named Fulk Neyrmit with an arrow through his left eye. Neyrmit died four days later. De Hales was arrested and held in the castle prison, from which he escaped on Christmas Day, before holing up in St. Michael at the North Gate. (In medieval England, fugitives could claim sanctuary in churches for up to forty days, while they negotiated with the local sheriff or made other plans.) In the end, de Hales agreed to abjure the realm, which meant walking, barefoot, to the port of Chester, a hundred and thirty miles away, holding a wooden cross and wearing sackcloth, and taking a ship across the Irish Sea, never to return. De Hales left Basilia, gave up his shop, and sold all of his possessions, including two feather beds, and some pots and utensils worth two shillings and sixpence. “They must have hated those kids,” I said to Eisner. “I’m sure they did,” he replied.

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