By Carl I. Hammer
Past and Present, Vol.78:1 (1978)
Introduction: Many historians have considered the Later Middle Ages to be a golden age of lawlessness as well as bacteria, but the student of medieval crime is still poorly served by the existing literature. Although there are several recent works on criminal justice and police functions in a variety of medieval societies, studies of criminal activities per se are few, and criminologists have been largely ahistorical in method. For England, only very recently have published essays by Hair and Hanawalt as well as a new book by Given addressed themselves directly to this topic and, significantly, all of these have focused primarily, though not exclusively, on the most extreme form of medieval (or modern) criminality and hence the best documented: homicide. Another common feature of these English studies is that all deal with relatively large geographical areas, at least one county or more. But while this is highly desirable from a statistical point of view, it is well known that medieval evidence can often be very misleading when not viewed within a precise historical context. Accordingly, the following essay attempts to approach the social phenomenon of homicide within a specific medieval urban community, fourteenth-century Oxford. Thus we may begin to determine whether results obtained at a “macro” level can be sustained at the “micro” level of local history and, concurrently, our choice of Oxford also allows us to approach from a new direction one of the “classical” topics of medieval university history: academic violence.