Books, London, and Medieval Crime
Sometimes it feels a bit strange to take a piece of history and plunk my own fiction smack dab in the middle of it. But I guess it happens all the time with authors. We often take a slice of reality and twist it into our own fiction.
History is different.
Those of us who write historically, that is, in an historical setting, bow a bit to history. We like to leave the facts alone but hang our fiction on the actual timeline like so much laundry. It’s our unwritten contract with our readers, that the history presented is real. And readers appreciate stepping into, for a brief moment, another place and time. It’s what makes reading historical fiction, and especially historical mysteries, so enticing.
My series, the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, features a disgraced knight turned detective onthe mean streets of fourteenth century London. He’s a bit of a hardboiled fellow, which is why I style these as “Medieval Noir,” a little darker and grittier than your Brother Cadfaels. He is always in search of a religious relic or venerated object, the McGuffin that keeps the plot moving, such as a Veronica’s Veil, the Spear of Logninus, or even the Holy Grail. What motivates Crispin is his intense sense of honor, curiosity, and a penchant for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The setting is London, and the city takes on its own character as the series continues. The dark streets, the shadowed alleys, are perfect places for murder. But was justice truly served on the streets of London way back in the 1300s?
London was a big town, the second largest city in Europe, next to Paris. It boasted 50,000 inhabitants in Crispin’s time. How do you police a city that big without a police force; when the idea of forensics wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye? It’s all about the mores of the period, the way people believed one should behave. In the Middle Ages, it was all about community, not the individual. You couldn’t be alone in this society, you couldn’t—or shouldn’t—stand out.
In this period, everyone worshipped in the same church with the same set of beliefs, and those who stood outside that—Jews and Muslims—were made to feel their outsider status. People lived closely together in a city divided into parishes, where you shopped amongst people you knew, gossiped with them, prayed with them, suffered with them. If a crime was committed in your parish, chances are you knew who the perp was. And so the onus of a crime such as murder was put on the ordinary citizen’s shoulders. If you found a body, you were designated the “First Finder,” that is, the first person to find a body, would call the “Hue and Cry”—literally, crying out. Hutesium et clamor, "a horn and shouting." Originally, they would follow the perpetrator from house to house. If the death was found to be accidental, it might be decided at once. If, however, the death was murder, more work was called for, and this involved the whole community. In a country village, this meant the whole village. In a big city like London, this would mean the immediate parish.
The Finder was obliged to go to the first four houses nearby and question the residents. Then the Coroner was called. This wasn’t a Quincy-type coroner, but someone with an entirely different and non-medical role. And woe betide the Finder if you didn’t accomplish your task, for the sheriffs would fine you if you shirked your duty. Want to make a guess as to how many people silently slipped away to allow another poor schmuck to become the First Finder?
Of course, most of our jurisprudence comes from this time period, not only the terms used in the law and in the courts, but many of the laws themselves. King Henry II (the one who sparred with Thomas Becket) invented the trial by jury. But instead of a jury of people who didn’t know you, the jury was stocked with people whoall knew you. How else was justice to be served if they didn’t already know everything about you? But justice was served, and if England was good at anything, it was the best at keeping records. All sorts of criminal records were kept in detail and come down to us today (you think we’re a litigious society? We had nothing on medieval Brits, who sued everyone from poor to rich, women suing men, and so forth).
As an example, Newgate prison was a place that kept prisoners incarcerated before their trial. It was literally a gate in the walls of the city. Between the years 1281 and 1290 in 200 cases of homicide, only 21% were found guilty. Juries did their best to mete out justice, but there was always bribes to the sheriffs to make sure you got off, too. Nothing ever changes.
In the 12th century, murder came in two kinds: Murdrum, the slaying of someone in secret, the kind we like to have in our mysteries, and Simplex Homicidrum, an unplanned killing, something either in self-defense or accidental. This was all about intention. Just as sin was about intention, or in the case of confession, intending not to sin again in order to be absolved, murder sentences were all about the intent of the perpetrator. Later Manslaughter was added to the list, the slaying in hot blood, like something in a duel or finding you wife in the act of committing adultery and slaying the man. This sort of justice is how a tightly regimented society survived. And the penalties were steep. So the intention of the murderer then as now was important as to whether to you lived or died.
What of forensics? Was it even possible when the idea of the scientific method was still hundreds of years away?
What about fingerprints?
In Nova Scotia, there are cave drawings of a hand with all the ridges and lines associated with palm creases and fingerprints, a drawing 1200 years old.
In ancient Babylon, thumb impressions in clay were used for business transactions.
In China, thumbprints were used on clay seals for the same purpose.
In fourteenth century Persia, some official documents show finger impressions, and a physician of the time was recorded to observe that no two fingerprints were alike.
It wasn’t until 1892 in Argentina, that a murder was solved by the use of a bloody fingerprint and matching them to the murderer. The idea was finally taking hold that fingerprints were individual.
But since there was no medieval fingerprinting, that wouldn’t help my detective at all.
How about the use of insects to solve crimes—forensic etymology? We have an example in at least one celebrated instance.
The earliest account of someone using insects to solve a murder comes from thirteenth century China in the Hsi Duan Yu or The Washing Away of Wrongs, a collection of anecdotes and observations on death and decomposition. Here’s the account in a nutshell: A local peasant in a Chinese village was found murdered, hacked to death by a hand sickle, something used to harvest grain. The local magistrate suspected that he was done in by another farmer. He called all the farmers together in the town square and had them present their sickles, laying them on the ground in the hot sun. As they waited anxiously for the magistrate to continue, blow flies started to gather. Strangely, they only seemed to land on one of the sickles. Even though the sickle was cleaned, the flies were attracted to the remaining blood and soft tissue evident only to them on the metal blade. Very clever and very effective. The man who owned the sickle then confessed and was hauled away for murder.
A detective needs to be clever, patient, and ready with his fists or dagger. Whether he likes it or not in a society so bent on community, he is still an outsider, the perfect match to a murderer in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Jeri Westerson's website is www.jeriwesterson.com
Cup of Blood by Jeri Westerson. CreateSpace. 2014. ISBN 9781497476127 (paperback), 310p.