Medieval and Early Modern MURDER

Manuscript submitted, under contract with D.S. Brewer.

GHOST: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

HAMLET: Murder?

GHOST: Murder most foul, as in the best it is,

But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

(Hamlet I.v.26–9)[1]

Modern popular culture makes a killing on murder: crime dramas, true crime, serial killers, detective stories, court-room escapades — novels, films, television series, news and social media. It intrigues and entertains. At any given moment, there are dozens of murder mystery and police dramas on television or in print. Globally, popular authors have devoted long-running series to the mystery of murder that cross periods and geographical boundaries, though British television has capitalized on the genre: Wallander (Swedish), Maigret (French), Caïn (French), Montalbano (Italian), Galileo (Japan), Young Sherlock (China), Tatort (German), Bishaash (Bangladesh), C.I.D. (India), Cape Town (South Africa), The Brokenwood Mysteries (New Zealand), Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Australia), Murdoch Mysteries (Canada), Criminal Minds (American), True Detective (American), CSI (American), Hinterland (British/Welsh), Rebus (British/Scottish), Midsomer Murders (British/English), Foyle’s War (British/English), Cracker (British/English), Touching Evil (British/English), Wire in the Blood (British/English), Inspector Morse (British/English) and Inspector Lewis (British/English), just to name a few. In these series, detectives — public like Morse and Barnaby, private like Poirot or amateur like Marple — always solve the murder, bringing the murderer to justice. But that is not the reality, and scholars would be hard pressed to find a Poirot in the records of medieval murder, despite modern versions of medieval detectives like Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville or Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar.

Medieval society, not unlike its modern descendants, was plagued with a series of crimes both petty and capital. In the Middle Ages, according to John Bellamy, an ‘overabundance of violent deeds, perhaps also the very harshness of life, seems to have bred a certain callousness which regarded blood-letting as commonplace and even as a form of grim jest’.[7] Late-medieval England was notorious for its high-crime rate, including murder, as Edward I lamented in the preamble to the Statute of Winchester (1285) when he ‘complained forcefully about the wretched observance of the peace’.[8] But crimes ‘involving deliberate cruelty against the victims were relatively few’, and to say that medieval people exalted in bloodshed is going too far, for they rarely perpetuated wanton acts of cruelty.[9] Medieval records of murder cases suggest that even instances of justifiable (or simply understandable) killing were not ignored by a society supposedly numbed by hardship. In fact, the literary and legal accounts in this volume reveal that medieval societies were no less horrified by homicide than modern ones. Spectacular crimes, such as regicide, drew public attention because of the grave implications of killings for society. The murder of Edward II in 1327 played a significant role in later propaganda, the supposed method of murder (sodomizing with a hot poker) lending currency to rumors of the king’s sexual preferences rather than emphasizing his political failures.[10] Stories about Richard II’s apparent murder by starvation at Pontefract Castle in 1400 circulated widely during the reign of his usurper Henry IV.[11] The alleged murder of the princes in the Tower (Edward V and Richard Duke of York) by agents of Richard III achieved mythic proportions, marking the memory of Richard III in popular literature and plays until this day. Often, it is the extraordinary nature of a murder that insures its popular notoriety or even appeal. But murder is not the simple act of taking a life. Murder implies intent, motivation and often malice.

In the medieval period, murder had very specific legal parameters depending on time, culture, geography and legal structures. This volume explores the variety of circumstances associated with murder in the Middle Ages including law, literature, punishments, justifications and prohibitions. By focusing specifically on murder, its various incarnations — assassination, infanticide, mariticide, regicide, tyrranicide or simply homicide — and its social impact, this volume explores the complexity of medieval jurisprudence regarding murder and social responses to murder, as well as the implications of secret killing for medieval communities that were recorded in various literary genres.


My sincerest gratitude goes to Asa Simon Mittman for his comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of the introduction.

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Constance Jordan (New York: Pearson Education, 2004).

[2] E.G.: Mary Papenfuss, ‘Murder Most Foul: Medical researchers now believe that homicide, not medical complications, is the leading cause of pregnancy-associated death’, (27 Feb. 2003): (accessed: 31 May 2016).

[3] Joshua J. Mark, ‘Ur-Nammu’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified 16 June 16 2014, /Ur-Nammu/ (accessed 26 Nov. 2016).

[4] Erika Engelhaupt, ‘World’s Oldest Murder was 430,000 years in the Making’, National Geographic Phenomena: A Science Salon (28 May 2015): (accessed: 31 May 2016).

[5] ‘Ancient Roman Murder Victims’, Wikipedia: (accessed 26 November 2016).

[6] Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 1.

[7] John Bellamy, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 66.

[8] Bellamy, Crime and Public Order, pp. 3–4.

[9] Bellamy, Crime and Public Order, pp. 66–67.

[10] Larissa Tracy, Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2012), pp. 272–84.

[11] See: Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor, Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003).