A Surfeit of Blood? Murders in the Middle Ages

By Steve Tibble

Murder in a time of perpetual war seems faintly ridiculous.

Surrounded by officially sanctioned killing, why would anyone want more? Apart from unusual aberrations, such as a mental breakdown, surely whatever bloodlust people had would be more than sated by what they saw around them? In fact, of course, the opposite was sadly true.

Even back in the west, in places that were relatively peaceful compared to the turbulent eastern frontiers of Christendom, arguments could quickly lead to homicide. Then as now, easy access to alcohol and weapons made the escalation of disputes far more easy – and far more dramatic in terms of outcomes.


A couple of examples give a taste of what was possible and, in some instances, almost commonplace.

In December 1352 seven men, Catalans and Gascons, were in the village of Mireval. The scene, as so often in these situations, was a pub. A fight broke out between them, and a man was stabbed to death. The perpetrator claimed that it was a fair fight and that he had acted in self-defence. It transpired that he had previous convictions for both murder and theft, however, so he was subjected to judicial torture and, perhaps not surprisingly, he confessed.


Two further stories – both of which took place just a few yards from where I am writing – also serve to make the point. In 1421 a fight broke out in a London pub called ‘The Moyses’ (that is, ‘The Moses’). A man named Arnald van Harsill pulled a knife on an armourer called John Bene, and stabbed him in the heart. Not unusually, the argument was about a woman (John’s mistress), and, also in the traditional way, it was fuelled by alcohol.

Arnald argued for his innocence with a plea of self-defence. When the case came to court the plea was accepted by the jury, because Arnald had tried to run away. Unwisely, John Bene, who was armed and doubtless disinhibited by drink, had cornered him in the backyard of the pub, leaving him no choice but to fight. Arnald’s plea was that he had had to draw his dagger to defend himself – the jury, men who were themselves accustomed to being armed when they were at their local pub, could see his point of view.

Cain murders Abel in this medieval manuscript image – Codex Palatinus germanicus 16, Blatt 14v

Even shopping could be dangerous. In London on 26 August 1379, near the site of Mr Bene’s murder, an intemperate reaction to a trivial jostle in the street ended up with a murder and a hanging.

This was an age when drinking urban water was a high-risk activity. Anyone with enough money was likely to be drinking beer for health as well as recreation. Not surprisingly under these circumstances, the crowded streets of London were inevitably filled with inebriates weaving unsteadily between the horses, gutters and wet manure. Taking a stroll often became a contact sport.


In the middle of this mundane chaos a certain John Kirkby trod on the foot of a Genoese tradesmen with the wonderful name of ‘Janus Imperial’.

Janus had been sitting outside his house. He was talking to his servants when the incident happened, and reacted badly to being kicked. Harsh words were exchanged and matters escalated severely. Words became shoves. Shoves turned to blows.

Before bystanders had a chance to react, Kirkby drew a dagger. When Janus tried to back off and calm matters down, Kirkby also produced a sword. By the time the argument had concluded, Janus had received two fatal sword cuts to the head, each wound seven inches long and penetrating into his brain.


Violence was always close to the surface. Even in London, as in the case of John Kirkby, ordinary people might be heavily armed. But in the Latin East the situation was far more exaggerated. Large numbers of tradesmen or merchants were habitually as heavily armed as soldiers. The word ‘civilian’ could be applied in only the very loosest sense to many medieval frontiersmen.

Warfare was endemic and preparedness was of the essence. Everyone was liable for military service in the all too regular event of an enemy invasion – and large numbers of mercenaries, armed to the teeth, congregated in the ports of the Levant in search of regular work. Under these circumstances, even the smallest incident could quickly escalate into fighting between two armed parties.

In extremis, it might end in murder.

A dagger from the late 15th century – photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This was a society desensitised by perpetual warfare and banditry. It had a population that was disproportionately predisposed to violence as a way of resolving conflicts, no matter how trivial their nature. But even newcomers quickly joined in.

For those who were travelling to the Middle East from Europe, whether as pious pilgrims or as enthusiastic crusaders, murder could be the consequence of ignorance – or at least of mistaken bigotry. New arrivals from the west were generally unaware of the rich ethnic and cultural melting pot that would await them.


Most of the population of the crusader states were Christians but, bewilderingly for a religious zealot who was used to clear lines of belief and had rarely travelled more than a few miles from his or her place of his birth, they were culturally and ethnically far more diverse than that would suggest. Even the Frankish settlers and the old crusader dynasties, including the royal family itself, had all quickly intermarried – they often looked, with good reason, Arabic or Armenian. It was all very confusing.

The members of different religious groups or ethnic communities were often distinguished by visual signals associated with how they dressed, how they shaved and by other aspects of their personal appearance. Some of these signals were more subtle than others, however. New arrivals, disorientated and bemused, did not necessarily understand what they saw around them. Local Arab Christians were bearded, for instance, much like the Muslim Arab community, and dressed in a very similar fashion.

The vast number of different languages and dialects compounded the potential for paranoia and misdirected prejudice. Newly arrived crusaders often failed to interpret social nuances until they acclimatised – and this could create some very dangerous situations. In 1290, for instance, Italian crusaders attacked some local Muslim peasants and also ‘killed a number of bearded Syrians [in Acre] who were of the law of Greece [ie Orthodox Christians] (they killed them because of their beards, mistaking them for Saracens). This was ill-done indeed.’

The massacre was indeed monumentally ‘ill-done’ – it changed the course of history. The Muslim authorities were looking for a pretext to bring their overwhelming military might to bear, and chose to use the murder of Muslim and other Arab civilians as an excuse to destroy the decaying remnants of the crusader states. Within a few months the last of the Franks had been ejected from Palestine and Syria.

With consequences as profound as that, it was no wonder that murder was very actively discouraged – it was socially corrosive on almost every level. Cracking down on violent crime was, as modern politicians also know, an easy route to popularity. If you wanted to say that a lord was effective, punishing murderers was a good way to do it – these were tough times, and a ‘hanging judge’ usually had public support to back him up.

In May 1259, for instance, Geoffrey of Sergines was made bailli of the kingdom of Jerusalem, based in Acre. People spoke of him glowingly as ‘a very strong magistrate’ – and that strength was expressed most visibly in the way he cracked down on murderers. ‘In his time’, wrote one chronicler, ‘he hanged many thieves and murderers, nor would he spare anyone because of family or gifts…nor for friendship or any other thing’.

In a particularly high-profile case designed to show that no one was above the law, ‘he hanged a knight called John Renier, who had killed a bishop of Famagusta’. The brutal John had taken the bishop by force, accompanied by men-at-arms from the Pisan quarter of the city. He took refuge with his Pisan friends, but the bailli was prepared to take the cause of justice to the limit. The Pisans were forced to give him up.

Geoffrey of Sergines, and his officers, was shown to be remorseless in pursuing a murderer, regardless of social status, from Cyprus all the way to Acre. This commitment was reflected in the way his entire tenure in office was viewed. After his death a chronicler, reflecting on Geoffrey’s achievements, noted with quiet approval that he ‘did much justice, having many thieves and murderers arrested and hanged’.

This was tough, frontier law indeed.

Although a cursory reading of a newspaper might suggest otherwise, as a general principle, the further back in time one goes, the more one finds that violence is commonplace. The crusades were certainly no exception. On the contrary, the unremitting danger of the times was harsh, not just for soldiers but across the entire social spectrum. Men and women, merchants and peasants, clerics and laity – all were vulnerable.

There was killing within wars. There was widespread murder of prisoners, on all sides, even after the carnage of the battlefield was over. But murder was not uncommon even in times of peace. Societies were desensitised rather than satiated by warfare – there was blood and murder even in the rare moments when the armies went home.

The past is grim – and generally far more so than we imagine.

Want to learn more about crime during the Crusades? Check out Steve Tibble’s new book Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land.

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Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

You can check out Steve’s other books: Templars: The Knights Who Made BritainThe Crusader Armies and The Crusader Strategy