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Attacks by students made medieval Oxford a murder hotspot, researchers find | UK News

OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 02: Members of the public take in the view of the Oxford spires on May 02, 2020 in Oxford, England. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who returned to Downing Street this week after recovering from Covid-19, said the country needed to continue its lockdown measures to avoid a second spike in infections. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Oxford was one of the murder capitals of medieval England, with many attacks being committed by students living in a “deadly mix of conditions”, research has found.

The university city had between four and five times the number of murders as London and York in the same period, according to a study from its main academic rival, the University of Cambridge.

It is estimated that the homicide rate in late medieval Oxford, based on 700-year-old coroners’ inquests, was about 60-75 per 100,000 people – 50 times higher than current rates in 21st-century English cities.

A mix of young male students and alcohol was a “powder keg” for violence, researchers said.

Among the known perpetrators, 75% were identified by coroners as “clericus”, meaning students or staff at the university.

Clericus also made up 72% of Oxford’s homicide victims, the team behind the Cambridge project called Medieval Murder Maps said.

Oxford in circa 1400, with symbols showing homicides. Pic: University of Cambridge
Oxford in circa 1400, with symbols showing the location of homicides. Pic: University of Cambridge

The research suggests that Oxford’s student population was “by far the most lethally violent social or professional group in any of the three cities”, the team said.

“A medieval university city such as Oxford had a deadly mix of conditions,” said Professor Manuel Eisner, director of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.

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

“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.”

He added: “As well as clashes between town and gown, many students belonged to regional fraternities called ‘nations’, an additional source of conflict within the student body.”

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In the early 14th century Oxford had a population of about 7,000 inhabitants, with around 1,500 students.

On a Thursday night in 1298 there was an argument between students in a tavern on Oxford High Street which resulted in a “mass street brawl with swords and battle-axes”, researchers said.

Student John Burel had a “mortal wound on the crown of his head, six inches long and in depth reaching to the brain”, the coroner recorded.

All Souls College in Oxford
All Souls College in Oxford in 2020. File pic

Interactions with sex workers could end “tragically when students became violent”, the researchers found.

They said: “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 for intercourse.”

It was often women who raised the alarm.

“Before modern policing, victims or witnesses had a legal responsibility to alert the community to a crime by shouting and making noise,” said Dr Stephanie Brown.

“This was known as raising a hue and cry. It was mostly women who raised hue and cry, usually reporting conflicts between men in order to keep the peace.”

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