On the Wednesday September 14, 1337 the Coroner and Sheriffs were informed that Juliana Prickfield, a washerwoman, had been found dead at the Hospital of St Katherine. The jurors found that at midnight on the preceding Tuesday, Thomas Long of Sandwich, a skinner, had broken into Juliana’s house near the Hospital of St Katherine and attacked her with an ‘Irish knife’, inflicting wounds under the left breast and on her throat, from which she died immediately. The assailant stole a strongbox containing money and jewels and then fled, but the jurors did not know where he went. They added that Anne, a common prostitute also living in the house, had aided and abetted the crime. Eventually, Thomas and Anne were arrested.
Years earlier, in October 1323, in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a heist went awry. A Frenchman, John de Chartres, had just supped with his accomplices, William of Woodford and his wife Johanna, at their Milk Street residence. Then they crept over to Bread Street and broke into the home they had targeted, and systematically looted it as planned. All perfect. Apparently. However, William noticed that “John was then filled with remorse.” Not want to risk, William politely asked John to light a fire in the kitchen and, as John knelt over the flames William hit him with an ax, and then attempted to burn the evidence…namely, John.
These are just two of 142 tales of medieval mayhem and murder that you didn’t know. They’re all now at your fingertips thanks to an interactive map of London that launched recently, courtesy of the University of Cambridge’s Violence Research Centre. This curious map, designed by the director of the center, Manuel Eisner, pinpoints the spots (or close approximations) where murders occurred in the first half of the 14th century, and allows users to filter homicides by the victim’s gender, type of crime scene, year, weapon, and location. The data come from official coroners’ reports issued between 1300 and 1340.
Poke around the map is easy and each point providing a new story of murder: from a bloody revenge, or a fishmonger stabbed by his mistress, to even a man killed by a chaplain, after being found “sitting with” the chaplain’s lover.
In addition, Eisner has compiled some handy statistics to provide a sense of the big picture. For istance, 76.8% of murders were committed between the hours of 5 and 10 pm, 52.8% of them took place in public streets or squares, 56.3% involved knives long or short, and 31% of them were committed on Sundays. This is most likely, as explains the Violence Research Centre, because people had extra time to drink and play games on Sundays, both of which can be engines of interpersonal conflict.
Curious fact, six murders took place in taverns, the same number as in religious buildings, while brothels only logged two. There was just one murder by projectile, when a servant indiscriminately fired an arrow into a quarreling crowd and killed a skinner named Simon de la Fermorie.
In all, London’s annual homicide rate during this period is about 15 to 20 times higher than what the researchers would expect of an equally populated city in today’s United Kingdom. It’s an interesting comparison, but, as the center notes, fairly misleading: yes, we have more advanced means of killing, but also much more advanced emergency care.
In any case, what is clear is that some of London’s most mundane spots have seen an awful lot of death and, thanks to curious but interesting maps such as Eisner’s map and Historic UK’s plague pit map (showing where the bodies were buried after an outbreak of plague in the 1660s that killed 100,000 residents, but this is another story), you can always know where you stand. Even though you might not want to.