March 13, 2011 by

Medieval Forensics


Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

People murdered each other in the Middle Ages.  How did a medieval detective go about finding the murderer?  Many authors have written medieval murder mysteries and if the Brother Cadfael mysteries are anything to go by, medieval forensics were a primitive, but burgeoning science.

Some things that a medieval detective could determine:

Time of death:  “Rigor mortis—literally, “death stiffness,” happens very methodically—from the face downward about 2 hours after death. It takes another 8-12 hours for the body to become completely stiff and fixed into position. Fixed for another 18 hours is called the Rigid State. Then it reverses in the same order it appeared for another 12 hours—(Flaccid state). What is rigor? When the blood stops flowing from the heart, the natural bacteria in the body can no longer be fought off and they go to town, creating chemical reactions that prevent the muscles from contracting, which makes the body stiff. Heat quickens the process and cold slows it.

The Greeks and Egyptians had their own system: Warm and not stiff: Not dead more than a couple hours. Warm and stiff: Dead between a couple hours and a half day. Cold and stiff: Dead between a half day and two days. Cold and not stiff: Dead more than two days.

Livor mortis or lividity or post mortem hypostasis (literally “after death state”) is the state of being blue, or colored blue. What is this? Blood stops flowing and pools in the vessels in the lowest point due to gravity. Wherever the body is in contact with, say, a floor, the skin becomes pale ringed by lividity. It shows up 30 minutes to a couple of hours and stays fixed after 8 hours. The detective would know if a body had been moved if lividity had set in on the wrong part of the body.”

Poisons:  Thanks to Brother Cadfael, we have many, many medieval poisons, most of which leave some kind of trace.  The four most common were Belladonna, Hemlock, Monkshood/Wolfbane, and Foxglove.  I discuss their attributes here:  Poison was generally considered a ‘woman’s’ weapon, as compared to brute force or bludgeoning anyway which scales 80-20 men to women instead of poison’s 50-50.

Blood spatter:  Certain aspect of medieval forensics involve close observation of the remains.  Did the dead man die where he lay?  Which way did the blood flow?  Was he stabbed in the heart, meaning he knew his victim, or was he killed from behind with a garrote or a blade?

More commonly even then now (and now it is very common), deaths are caused by people who know the victim.  In small communities in the Middle Ages, individuals close to the dead person would come under immediate suspicion, and unless the person was killed by an arrow, a murderer would have had to have close contact with the victim in order to kill him.

This article suggests that the murder rate in Europe (Germany in this case) was very high in the Middle Ages, 20-100 per 100,000 as opposed to 1 in a 100,000 now:

“The murder rate was far higher in those days than it is today. It’s hard to know the true homicide rate because reporting wasn’t as accurate in those days and crime-solving was basic and often unreliable. But we do know that violent crime was a far bigger problem in Medieval times than it is now.

For example, the number of murders per 100,000 people in 1995 to 1997 in London was 2.1. But according to one historian, it would have been about 12 murders per 100,000 people in Fourteenth Century England. [The National Archives]”

8 Responses to Medieval Forensics

  1. Kathleen

    Hi Sarah,
    Very interesting! Quite agree about the murder rate, letters of remission from the French king in late M.A. suggest tap on the head enough (though I guess the applicant for the letters had to make it seem the death was an accident). I got slightly different rates, rigor taking as long as 12 hrs to set in and up to 72 hours to wear off. What I’m investigating now,is late medieval attitudes to rigor. Would the body be moved and rigor broken (according to modern funeral directors, that’s easy to obtain by flexing the joints) or would it be left to wear off naturally? A bit gruesome, but key to my current plot. Best regards

    • Sarah Post author

      My understanding for the Middle Ages is that bodies would be put into the ground long before rigor wore off. The smell, you see …

  2. Zooks

    Congratulations on a very cool site, Sarah. I’ve just finished a 14th Century middle-grade King Arthur-meets-Atlantis novel, so I’m sure I’ll find plenty of interesting things here. This medieval forensics piece is fascinating.

  3. Carrie Uffindell

    What a fun blog. I’m writing a mystery set in 13th century Wales, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on death and forensics, as well as some plain old brainstorming how a medieval person could solve a crime in the days before fingerprints and DNA. It’s not easy! Some of my research includes reading other medieval mysteries, like the John Crowner series, Brother Cadfael, Crispin Guest, etc. The clues and plots in Ellis Peters’ books are usually so well thought out, they almost seem effortless.

    • Sarah Post author

      I love Brother Cadfael–and you’re right, it does seem effortless for her. I guess that’s where research comes in 🙂

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