Violent students made medieval Oxford a murder hotspot

Homicide rate may have been about 50 times higher than modern-day standards, study suggests

September 28, 2023
Gargoyle St. Mary The Virgins Church. Oxford, England
Source: iStock

Modern students might get a bad rap for alcohol abuse and outbursts of violence, but a research project reveals that University of Oxford scholars in the Middle Ages behaved much worse.

The Medieval Murder Maps – a digital resource that plots crime scenes based on translated investigations from 700-year-old coroners’ inquests – has added the city of Oxford to its street plan of medieval murders, which also includes York and London.

The project, by the University of Cambridge’s Violence Research Centre, found that Oxford’s student population was by far the most lethally violent of all social or professional groups in any of the three cities.

Researchers estimate the per capita homicide rate in Oxford to have been about five times higher than late medieval London or York, and about 50 times higher than current rates in 21st-century English cities.

Among Oxford perpetrators with a known background, 75 per cent were identified by the coroner as “clericus” – a term used to refer to a student or member of the early university.

They also made up 72 per cent of all Oxford’s known homicide victims.

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

“Oxford students were all male and typically aged between 14 and 21, the peak for violence and risk-taking,” he said.

“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.”

By the early 14th century, Oxford had a population of about 7,000 inhabitants, including some 1,500 students.

Using the rolls and maps from the Historic Towns Trust, researchers constructed a street atlas of 354 homicides across all three cities.

The project records an argument that broke out between students in an Oxford high street tavern in 1298 and resulted in a mass street brawl with swords and battleaxes.

Researchers found evidence of regular rifts between scholars from different parts of the British Isles – particularly because lodgings were segregated.

In the spring of 1303, student Adam de Sarum was playing with a ball in the street when he was set upon by a trio of Irish scholars, who stabbed him in the face and throat.

The researchers also uncovered examples of tragic interactions with sex workers, when students became violent.

One unknown scholar got away with murdering Margery de Hereford in the parish of St Aldate in 1299 when he fled after stabbing her to death instead of paying what he owed.

But officials of public order – bailiffs, constables and sergeants – were far from safe themselves.

Richard Overhe, a preserver of the “King’s peace”, was brutally attacked by four Oxford students “with swords, bucklers and other arms” during a summer’s night in 1324, and found dead in his home.

Professor Eisner and his team found that the medieval sense of street justice coupled with the ubiquity of weaponry in everyday life meant that even minor infractions could escalate to murder.

“Circumstances that frequently led to violence will be familiar to us today, such as young men with group affiliations pursuing sex and alcohol during periods of leisure on the weekends,” he said.

“Weapons were never far away, and male honour had to be protected.”

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