Learning to Read, Write, and Murder

From the explainer accompanying the great Twitter feed Medieval Death Bot:

1. Who were clerks and just why did they murder everybody?

Clerk is an umbrella term for a variety of offices in the Middle Ages. A quick google of the term points you towards the clerical side of clerkdom, the word coming from the Latin clericus which also gives us the word ‘cleric’, which is technically an accurate description, but not really the whole picture. Some literature on the Middle Ages impedes proper research as well, the word clericus being translated as something like ‘secretary’ or even ‘deputy’, which makes tracing the occupation through society difficult.

In general, clerk referred to anyone who had a job that incorporated writing and keeping accounts. And there were a lot of clerks. They were in every part of  religious and secular society keeping records of everything that needed keeping record of. Important households and individuals employed clerks (and subclerks) by the handful. In Peter Brears’ Cooking and Dining In Medieval England, there are about a dozen different kinds of clerks mentioned just in relation to the kitchen and food preparation.

However, clerk was also a term used for scholars. Most of the murders of or by clerks would be of this sort, making these clerks young men aged anywhere from eleven to about nineteen, likely far away from home at school and with full access to alcohol. The bulk of these clerk murders come from the Records of Medieval Oxford which makes these groups of drunken, armed clerks wandering the streets, trying to cause trouble, students at Oxford. They often found the trouble they were looking for; groups of clerks murder a single clerk, or two clerks get into a ‘strife’ at a tavern and one of them ends up killing the other, etc etc.

The following reports give us a good look at some very traditional clerk murders in detail:

William de Bufford – 1302 – on Wednesday after the feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin the said William stood in the door of his house immediately after curfew, and John de Bellgrave and John de Cliffe, clerks, came there and made an assault on the said William; and John de Cliffe with a sword gave him the aforesaid wound on the shoulder, and John de Bellgrave with a dagger gave him the said wound on the left side, whereof he died; but he lived for 17 days after he was wounded, and had all his church rights.

William de Roule – 1303 – “a clerk named William de Roule from the bishopric of Durham died in his lodging where he abode in the parish of St. Mildred… The jurors say upon their own that one Louis, of North Wales, clerk, and one David ab Oweyn, clerk, of Wales, and others whose names are unknown, were in a street called School Street about the hour of curfew; and two of the companion of the said William de Roule, who were outside Smithgate, came there, and when they would pass, Louis and the other assaulted them, and at once they raised the hue; which when the said William heard as he was in his lodging, he came forth with a staff to help his companions; and the said malefactors at once beat him, whereof he died.

Philip Port – 1305 – John de Berdon… late in the dusk of the evening, came to lodging where the said Philip abode… and as he was in his chamber called him and asked him to come with him to a beer tavern, promising that he would give him drink; and he came out and went with him; and John after drinking withdrew; and so Philip began to go towards his lodging after curfew, and when he came to the corner under the wall towards East Gate, five clerks whose names they knew not came and made an assault on him; and he would have fled from them; and they followed him and caught him and wounded him as aforesaid, and slew him, and at once they fled.

Philip was wounded in the front of his head from one ear to another, so that all his brain was scattered outside; and he had another wound across his face to within the teeth, four inches long and one inch wide, and his right hand was cut off and lay beside him, and as it seemed to all who were there he had been wounded on the head with a hatchet, called in English sparth (halberd).

The murders by clerics in the sense of parish clerks and priests are rare, and their deaths often accidents, such as Robert de Honiton who accidentally fell through a trap door in the bell-tower attempting to ring the bells on New Year’s Eve.

In the end, the clerks that crop up often in the tweets are just drunken university students causing trouble after dark, and generally not priests.

University students? Drunk? Heaven forfend!