New Interactive “Murder Map” Reveals the Meanest Streets of Medieval London

How dan­ger­ous was medieval Lon­don? That’s a ques­tion that has recent­ly been stud­ied by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cambridge’s Vio­lence Research Cen­ter, and they have pro­vid­ed a handy inter­ac­tive map for our perusal. Just in case we go back in time in a TARDIS or some such machine, we’ll know what parts of the city to avoid. And those parts are…well, most of it, actu­al­ly.

The data con­tain­ing info of 142 homi­cides comes from sur­viv­ing coroner’s rolls from the first half of the 14th cen­tu­ry. A coro­ner dur­ing this time was a bit clos­er to a police detec­tive in ours, called to the scene of any sud­den and unnat­ur­al death. And if it looked liked foul play a neigh­bor­hood jury of some­where between 12 and 50 peo­ple were called to offer a ver­dict.

Hov­er over a mark­er on the map and you can dis­cov­er what hap­pened at that loca­tion. Here are a few exam­ples:

On the evening of July 20, 1325, Peter Clark, a bak­er, was stabbed in the heart by a fel­low bak­er called Wal­ter after an argu­ment. Wal­ter took sanc­tu­ary in a church, con­fessed to the crime, and a month lat­er made his way out of the coun­try by boat.

On Decem­ber 21, 1325, Roger Scott, a tai­lor, was quar­rel­ing with Robert de Oun­dle in the streets of Bish­op­gate, when Robert stabbed Roger with a hid­den knife, killing him instant­ly. He also fled, to where nobody knew.

On Feb­ru­ary 13, 1324, William War­rock and William de Northamp­tone were argu­ing in the high street of Cas­tle Bay­nard, when the for­mer stabbed the lat­ter in the heart. War­rock, who had no belong­ings, dis­ap­peared.

Sens­ing a theme here? We’ll nev­er know the rea­son for these fatal alter­ca­tions, but the knife indus­try was doing well out of it. The study crunched the num­bers and found some sta­tis­tics: the time of year did not seem to be a fac­tor, but like today, the week­end was a dead­lier time. And the hours between ear­ly evening and the first hour of London’s cur­few, when the city insist­ed all fires be extin­guished and peo­ple go to bed.

A whop­ping 52% of mur­ders hap­pened in the pub­lic square or the high street. No oth­er loca­tion cracks 10%. And long knives were the weapon of choice at 35%, sec­ond only to short knives at 20%. And though it wasn’t reflect­ed in the three ran­dom exam­ples, most peo­ple got stabbed in the head. Unsur­pris­ing­ly men com­mit­ted the major­i­ty of the crimes, and all class­es of soci­ety and pro­fes­sion mur­dered their way around Lon­don, includ­ing priests. (One exam­ple is giv­en of a priest who stabs a gar­den­er to death when the lat­ter dis­cov­ered him steal­ing apples.)

Pro­fes­sor and crim­i­nol­o­gist Manuel Eis­ner summed up the work of his group thus:

“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.”

And in fact, giv­en the pro­por­tion of crime to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, Lon­don was pret­ty dead­ly, about 15–20 times high­er than a mod­ern British city.

But Eis­ner notes the com­par­isons can only go so far: “We have firearms, but we also have emer­gency ser­vices. It’s eas­i­er to kill but eas­i­er to save lives.”

Vis­it the inter­ac­tive medieval mur­der map here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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