A spice merchant stabbed by a fruit seller over a longstanding feud. A street musician murdered for playing music too loudly after dusk. A deadly quarrel among servants of the Queen of England. And who killed the innkeeper with a sword after a fight?
These homicide cases, discovered by historians in centuries-old records, may be long closed. But fans of true crime and history can now peruse them in an interactive medieval murder map released in September by University of Cambridge researchers.
Users can click through the back stories of more than 300 murders in the English cities of London, York and Oxford. Entries are searchable by gender, day of the week and even weapon (pole-axe or crossbow?).
“It allows people to engage with this medieval world, but it also allows people to see this medieval world almost like a mirror of our own world,” said Manuel Eisner, a criminology professor at Cambridge who led the project, adding that the map was highlighting some of the overlaps between our eras. “People get angry about some trivial altercation.”
Educators and others in the history field say that such tools can help people learn about eras that may be difficult for a layperson to research using laborious archives.
“This is something I would send a really enthusiastic student and say, ‘Have a look at this,’” said Anna Hughes, a teacher in York, adding that such tools could help bring rigorous academic research to the classroom. “It’s a great bit of local history and gives students a sense of period and place.”
Details of the cases come primarily from 14th-century coroner and inquest records regarding sudden and violent deaths.
“It was quite an emotional record,” said Professor Eisner, who added that, when he first encountered the records, which include detailed information about places and perpetrators, he was astonished. “I thought it might be nice to have an electronic version of this.”
After creating an earlier version of the map for London, researchers expanded the scope to include York and Oxford. To brainstorm how to present the information visually, they enlisted Design Monkey, a web design and digital marketing agency.
Clicking around in the murder map of London, one might come across the unfortunate case of Roger Styward, who threw out a bucket of eel skins near some shops in 1326. (Eels were used as a form of currency and to pay rent in medieval England.) Two enraged shop owners killed him before taking refuge in a nearby church.
That tale is a favorite of Louise Grainger, who offers official guided tours around London. When taking visitors past the site where Mr. Styward died seven centuries ago, Ms. Grainger typically recounts the eel story. The murder map has also helped her add a story about a pub brawl to her walking tour around one of the city’s oldest markets, Leadenhall Market.
“History is written by the people in power, generally,” Ms. Grainger said, adding that the map was helping add “real life color” to the understanding of the time period. “It’s quite hard to get the person in the street’s voice.”
There are some people, for example, who died by falling into the River Thames while trying to bathe. “Far fewer people get killed over a bucket of eels — I’ll give you that,” she said.
Olivia Swarthout, 24, whose account on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, documents medieval art, said an earlier version of the map had helped her write a book, “Weird Medieval Guys,” on life during that period.
“People think of the medieval ages as being quite prudish and quite a strait-laced period of time, but everyone was getting in trouble,” she said, pointing to the stories of lovers’ quarrels and corrupt clergymen detailed in the map.
While historical records have increasingly been digitized, Ms. Swarthout said that online archives were not always easy to use. “There’s a missed opportunity to attract more engagement from the wider public,” she said, adding that tools like the murder map are a fresh way to synthesize large amounts of old information. “It’s just very fun to go through.”
For the team at Cambridge, there are still more murders to tabulate, and the map might expand further still. But with the information already at hand, Professor Eisner has started a podcast in the hopes of spurring people’s interest in medieval crime.
“Crime sells, and for a number of reasons,” he said. “It is something that scares us. We like to play detective. We like the mystery behind it.”