Medieval Europe was a bad time to be alive. (Although, apparently, not quite as bad as antiquity.) Aside from the periodic outbreak of plague and the gruesome (and we’re guessing for the most part ineffective) medical treatments available, there was the grisly and oftentimes violent behavior of your neighbors to contend with – as detailed in Manuel Eisner's "Murder Map".
Eisner, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge, sifted through years-worth of data recorded in the "Coroner's Rolls" to create an interactive map of Medieval London, exposing 142 heinous and gory homicides that took place in the city between 1300 and 1340. It is now available to scrutinize to your heart's delight on the Violence Research Centre website.
"The events described in the Coroners’ Rolls show weapons were never far away, male honor had to be protected, and conflicts easily got out of hand," Eisner said in a statement. "They give us a detailed picture of how homicide was embedded in the rhythms of urban medieval life."
Some of the more unconventional encounters include a victim beaten to death with eel skins, a lover stabbed with a fish-gutting knife, a student shot with an arrow during a street brawl, and a backgammon-player fatally wounded by his bitter competitor.
But what does the map tell us about Medieval life in the British capital more generally?
Well, 31 percent of homicidal crimes were committed on a Sunday, making it the most deadly day of the week. According to Eisner, “Sunday was the day when people had time to engage in social activities, such as drinking and gaming” – and, apparently, murder. Meanwhile, the most treacherous time of day was in the early evening "around the hour of vespers", says Eisner, as well as the first few hours after curfew (9pm in the summers and 8pm in the winters). During this time, 77 percent of the recorded incidents took place.
Some of the more dangerous places to tread include Cheapside (a street in the City of London leading up to St Paul’s Cathedral) and Cornhill (the stretch from Bank station to Leadenhall market, the latter of which dates back to the 14th century). Eisner called these two locations "homicide hotspots".
Also of note, the perpetrators were overwhelmingly male. Just 8 percent were female and there were only four incidents where women were the only suspects. Daggers and swords were the weapons of choice, involved in 68 percent of cases.
Considering that the population of 14th century London was somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people (today's is closer to 8 million), the map shows that the Capital is significantly less violent today than it was back in the Medieval period. In fact, Eisner predicts murder rates were 15 to 20 times higher than we would expect in a similar size town in 21st century Britain.
“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,” explained Eisner. But saying that, comparisons with modern society can be problematic. "We have firearms, but we also have emergency services. It’s easier to kill but easier to save lives."