We have seen that in the Anglo-Saxon period murder meant homicide through secrecy or stealth. Originally, murder was ‘secret’ in the narrow sense that the slayer hid his victim’s body to conceal the deed, but it probably was soon used more broadly to refer to any homicide whose perpetrator was unknown. It is with this aspect of murder that the murdrum fine was associated, for the hundred was amerced in all cases of unexplained homicide. It is likely, however, that murder already in Anglo-Saxon times might have referred to the fact that the slayer’s identity was concealed from his victim, so that the latter was taken offguard. Both Glanvill and Bracton refer to murder as homicide wherein the concealment was relative to third parties, but this may be due to the fact that by the time they wrote, the sole function of the allegation of murder was to relieve the appellor from the requirement that he claim to have seen the deed with his own eyes. For our purposes, of course, the important question is, not which acts the official concept of murder encompassed, but which acts were considered so heinous by society that they believed the perpetrator deserved to be hanged. The answer to this question as of the twelfth century will probably never be known.

By the fourteenth century, society’s concept of serious homicide was far broader than that corresponding to the original technical meaning of murder…

The Statute of 1390 equated murder with ambush and malice aforethought.’ Its drafters were undoubtedly concerned mainly with highwaymen and house- breakers who robbed and slew their victims. The official term, ‘murder,’ operative only in the administration of pardons, now clearly embraced homicide perpetrated through stealth with respect to the victim. Moreover, true premeditation had come to be conceived officially as at least a common incident of murderous intent. Most murder indictments contain only the operative phrase ‘murdravit’ or ‘insidiavit’ (ambushed); frequently, ‘noctanter’ (by night) appeared. But few indictments are richly detailed and fewer still provide insight into a societal, as opposed to an official, concept of murder. There is nevertheless some indication that the short lived statute cast murder in terms which were too narrow for the community. If murder was, stricto sensu, homicide through stealth, where the victim was taken off guard, it was in its broadest societal use a particularly repugnant homicide…

There is one final point to be made about the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century murder indictments. The slaying of master by servant and of husband by wife, two forms of statutory petty treason, had for centuries been counted among the most reprehensible of homicides. Such slayings figured prominently in the indictments for murder, and all too frequently the jurors alleged that the victim had been slain while he slept in his bed or taken at night by ambush. And, what is more revealing, occasionally it was said in such cases that the slayer had attempted to hide the deceased to conceal the act. Murder, thus, had not entirely lost its most ancient meaning, and, one suspects, its stigma could be attached to any homicide which society found particularly repugnant.

Thomas A. Green, “Societal Concepts of Criminal Liability for Homicide in Mediaeval England” (1972)


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