Medieval Forensics

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]”


Leprosy was one of the scourges of the Middle Ages–not so much because of scale, but because when a person caught it, their community cast them out.  The lazar house in the Brother Cadfael books, St. Giles, plays a significant role in the series.  In the movie, Kingdom of Heaven, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is portrayed as a leper, which is historically accurate.  He ruled from 1174 to 1185.  The man who recognized he had the disease (instead of the Baron played by Liam Neeson) was William of Tyre, later Archbishop and Chancellor.  As you can see from the following article, the rest of the movie is entirely fictive as well:

Leprosy, also known as ‘Hansen’s Disease’, is a contagious disease caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, which is why it is curable post-antibiotics.  Left untreated, leprosy is often progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Body parts fall off as a result of disease symptoms, rather than the disease itself.  ”

  • M. leprae multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.
  • Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.
  • Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.

The issue with leprosy in the Middle Ages was partly that is was so disfiguring (although not very contagious), and partly that the Bible ascribes it as a product of divine punishment.  People thus inflicted were driven out of their communities and condemned to wander the countryside, often from one leper house to another.

In today’s world millions of people stills suffer from leprosy.   It is curable, but ignorance and poverty are pervasive and prevent its eradication.  This article:, is well-meaning, but indicates that the prejudice against people with leprosy and their families continues all  over the world.

Great Historical Fiction/Fantasy Novels

History is anthroplogy for the past.  Great historical fiction brings you into that past world and makes it accessible.  Would life in thirteenth century Wales chew me up and spit me out?  No doubt.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t spend many happy hours living there.  I am also partial to the fantasy element of historical fiction in part because I acknowledge that past lives are truly inaccessible to me and if I wanted to read about something that was absolutely true, I would get the non-fiction version.  That said the following are some of my most favorite books:

SherwoodSherwood by Parke Godwin.  He’s written a lot of books, but this one has always pulled me in.  I’ve read it innumerable times.  From Publisher’s Weekly:  “Godwin sets his highly satisfying retelling of the Robin Hood legend in the time of William the Conqueror, when the bastard of Normandy was pacifying his unruly new country. After the Saxon thane of Denby is killed at York, his son Edward Aelredson, nicknamed Robin, succeeds to the land, located next to Sherwood Forest. The young thane is outraged by the blinding of one of his men in retaliation for poaching King William’s deer; when his attempt to reason with the sheriff of Nottingham turns to violence, Robin is outlawed. Before fleeing, Robin marries his love, Marian Elfrics, who is then sent to serve William’s queen. Robin and four followers–Welsh woodsman Will Scatloch, blacksmith John Littlerede and Father Beorn and his sexton Tuck–commence the exploits that make them famous and give heart to the downtrodden Saxons. Denby is given to the sheriff, who falls in love with Marian and begins to develop a grudging respect for Robin. An attempt to enlist the two men in a treasonous plot draws them together unwillingly but fatefully. Godwin ( Waiting for the Galactic Bus ) depicts these epochal times vividly and colorfully, with carefully etched characterizations of Normans and Saxons.”

AvalonAvalon by Stephen Lawhead.   There are thousands of books about King Arthur, but this is one of the few that was actually fun.  Hint–he doesn’t die in the end 🙂  Publisher’s Weekly liked it too:  “In this rousing postcript to Lawhead’s bardic Pendragon Cycle (Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon, Grail), such a monstrous evil stalks near-future Britain that an ancient Welsh prophecy will be fulfilled: the Thames will reverse its course, Avalon will rise again from the cold gray sea and Arthur will return. A series of Royals so rotten that the Brits can’t wait to dump the whole stinking lot enables scheming Prime Minister Waring to creep trick by political dirty trick toward Magna Carta II, the abolition of the monarchy. Far in the Highlands, though, former career officer James Arthur Stuart feels destiny stir within him. He is Arthur, come again to exalt Britain and its grand old values:  goodness, compassion, mercy, charity and justice. Accompanied by his enigmatic adviser Embries, his boon drinking buddy Calum McKay and the lissome Jenny, James struggles to come into his own, proving his mettle against modern monsters: skinheads armed with pit bulls, the fickle hydra of the press and the redheaded “total dish” Moira, Arthur’s old witchy nemesis who destroyed Camelot. By the time James ousts Moira’s insidiously treacherous buffalo-wing- and pizza-chomping politicos, Lawhead makes even aristocracy-phobes want to stand up at the skirl of the pipes and cheer on the eternal virtues James represents. In revisiting nearly every romantic Arthurian clich? and playing off snappy contemporary derring-do against the powerful shining glimpses of the historical Arthur he created, Lawhead pulls off a genuinely moving parable of good and evil.”

16321632 by Eric Flint.  This is the book that sparked a series, many of which are not actually written by Flint, but it’s the best of the bunch.  20th century people plunked down in 1632 Germany.  Awesome.   It’s even available for free download at Amazon right now:

BCPBrother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters.  I’ve read all her books multiple times, and she saved the best for last.  “In Brother Cadfael’s 20th chronicle, Peters deftly binds the medieval monk’s new adventure with family ties, moving from issues intensely public to problems determinedly private. Olivier de Bretagne, who (unknown to himself) is Brother Cadfael’s son, has been taken prisoner during England’s dynastic war between two grandchildren of William the Conqueror. Cadfael is determined to find Olivier, although to do so he must leave the monastery without his abbot’s “leave or… blessing.” The search begins badly when, at an unsuccessful peace conference, Yves Hugonin, Olivier’s hot-headed brother-in-law, picks a fight with Brien de Soulis, a commander who may know where Olivier is held-but won’t say. When Brien is found murdered, Yves is abducted by one who holds him responsible for the killing, and then Cadfael has two men to find. In the process, he delicately explores puzzles related to Brien’s death and to shadowy deeds in the larger political scene. While Cadfael does his usual excellent sleuthing, Peters succeeds at an equally subtle game, demonstrating how personal devotion can turn to enmity-and how such enmity can be forestalled by justice and mercy.” This book is out of print and not available on Kindle. Ellis Peters’ heirs, if she had any, are losing out.

Brother Cadfael’s Penance (review)

Ellis Peters began her Brother Cadfael series in 1977 with A Morbid Taste for Bones. Twenty books later, she wrote Brother Cadfael’s Penance, my personal favorite.  She saved the best for last, as she died in October, 1995.

Ellis Peters was the nom de plume of Edith Pargeter.  Although she began the Brother Cadfael mysteries towards the end of the life, she had a long career in many other areas.  Although she left school at fifteen, she taught herself Czechoslovakian, and then translated a number of works into English.

Here’s the pitch for the final book:  “For Brother Cadfael in the autumn of his life, the mild November of our Lord’s year 1145 may bring a bitter–and deadly–harvest. England is torn between supporters of the Empress Maud and those of her cousin Stephen. The civil strife is about to jeopardize not only Cadfael’s life, but his hopes of Heaven.

While Cadfael has sometimes bent the Abbey’s rules, he has never broken his monastic vows–until now. Word has come to Shrewsbury of a treacherous act that has left thirty of Maud’s knights imprisoned. All have been ransomed except Cadfael’s secret son, Olivier de Bretagne. Conceived in Cadfael’s soldiering youth and unaware of his father’s identity, Olivier will die if he is not freed. Like never before, Cadfael must boldly defy the abbot. The good brother forsakes the order to follow his heart–but what he finds will challenge his soul.”

“Cadfael is a Welshman, now in his 60s, and a Brother in the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, in Shrewsbury, England. The time is the 1100s, while Stephen and Maud are contending for the throne of England. Cadfael is now a brother, but he has been in the world- he spent 15 (or so) years in the Mideast, first as a Crusader, then as captain of a fishing boat. While there, he began to learn about gardening and herbs, he loved several women and even fathered a son, although he did not know it at the time. Finally, the quiet, the peace of the monastery called to him, and he came home to England and took vows. When the series begins, he has been a brother for about 15 years. His adventures are all centered in life in the Monastery, which is the center of his life, but they also show that he has not turned away completely from the world.”

Did I mention that I LOVE THIS BOOK!  This book is about Cadfael’s heart.  He loves his Church.  He loves his way of life.  And yet, he is willing to sacrifice what he’s worked so hard to build–and his life–for the life of his son.  There is no more poignant moment than when he closes the door on his herb hut and walks away.

Because he’s Cadfael, he ends up meddling in the affairs of  men far above him on the social ladder, and changing the course of the endless war between Stephen and Maud.

A Morbid Taste for Bones, which begins Cadfael’s adventures, takes place in Wales for the most part.  Readers of my The Good Knight will recognize the setting.

Introducing . . . The Good Knight (A Medieval Mystery)

Intrigue, suspicion, and rivalry among the royal princes casts a shadow on the court of Owain, king of north Wales…

The year is 1143 and King Owain seeks to unite his daughter in marriage with an allied king.  But when the groom is murdered on the way to his wedding, the bride’s brother tasks his two best detectives—Gareth, a knight, and Gwen, the daughter of the court bard—with bringing the killer to justice.

And once blame for the murder falls on Gareth himself, Gwen must continue her search for the truth alone, finding unlikely allies in foreign lands, and ultimately uncovering a conspiracy that will shake the political foundations of Wales.

The Good Knight is available NOW at Amazon, Amazon UK and

at Smashwords:

Wisdom Teeth

Although within fiction and movies, there is a sense that hygiene was poor and few people lived into adulthood with all their teeth intact, people did care for their teeth in the Middle Ages.  Herbs and mouthwashes existed that allowed people to do so:

At the same time, it is certainly true that tooth extraction was extremely common, and probably one of the few means of dealing with a rotten tooth.

If people didn’t care for their teeth, they lost them, as the following image clearly indicates (copyright to the British Library Board).

I’ve been rereading Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series.   These books are a joy to read, if only because Peters is a master of her craft and it is enjoyable to note how beautifully she strings words together.  But she also writes about an area of the world in which I am interested, and Brother Cadfael is a medieval herbalist.

The combination of that and the fact that my son had his wisdom teeth out on Thursday prompts me to think about the care of teeth within medieval medicine.  Cadfael spent twenty years in the Holy Land, where he learned about herbs and medicines.  Fortunately, this was an era before bloodletting, and Cadfael is a true physician.  He focuses on easing pain and ailments and  counteracting symptoms with herbal remedies.  He sets bones and sutures wounds, too.  He is also not averse to washing his hands, and perhaps Peters’ intent was that he learned this in the Holy Land too.

Cadfael never took care of dental work, however, and it is hard to get a bead on what was really the situation with medieval people’s teeth.  Clearly, there was no flouride or flossing, but with less sugar consumption, perhaps there were fewer cavities.  Certainly, archaeologists have dug up medievial skeletons with most of their teeth still present.  From what I have read here and there (e.g.;,  it is a modern conceit to think that medieval people had bad teeth, and perhaps, as is the case now, the range of care was wide and to some extent depended on education and wealth.

Dentists say that wisdom teeth need to come out because they are prone to infections, even if they have come in properly, and if they haven’t, can cause even worse problems by coming in sideways, not coming in at all, etc.

From my reading, wisdom teeth would have been far less of a concern in earlier eras–obviously we’ve just started taking them out in the 20th century–because by the time wisdom teeth began to bother people once they were adults a) they’d already lost a few teeth so the wisdom teeth came in properly, or b) by the time wisdom teeth would be a concern (i.e. an individual in their thirties) most people were nearing the end of their lives.  (

I’m not sure I believe that any of this is giving us the whole truth.