Sunday 20 September 2009
I Met Murder on the Way
Here is some goon news for you. Did you know that the murder rate has declined, and declined significantly, since the Middle Ages? Well, it has, though you may have supposed the reverse! Anyway, Peter Spierenburg, a Dutch historian and specialist in violence and crime in the early modern period, takes pains to put the whole question in perspective.
A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present is a new, paperback edition of a work intended for a general as well as specialist audience. It was first published in hard cover last summer, at a price that would have frightened off all but the most determined-and affluent-generalist!
It’s certainly a book that should not be overlooked, if you have any interest in the subject at all, full of all sorts of intriguing details and revelations. For instance the murder rate in contemporary Europe is, according to the author, less than a tenth of that in the Medieval period. The decline is marked, falling from a high of 35 per 100,000 of the population each year in the fourteenth century to just 1.4 in the late twentieth century.
The reasons for this are simple enough: violence in the past most often arose in disputes over honour, which a weak state apparatus either condoned or ignored. But through time, with the development of ever more complex structures of coercion and control, the development of what the author refers to as ‘the civilizing process’, honour as a theory and a practice was gradually tamed. The elites to whom this was most applicable gradually accepted that the state had a monopoly of violence, a view that percolated downwards through the rest of society. Honour murder clearly still exists, but in a highly marginalized form.
The explanatory framework through which Spierenburg develops his argument is taken, of course, from the work of the German-born sociologist, Norbert Elias, author of The Civilizing Process. Yes, it’s all very beguiling, if a little top down. It has strengths, yes, but it also has clear limitations, reflected in Spierenburg’s book. Not nearly enough attention I paid to cultural changes, to the rise and development of the nuclear family and the impact this had on the more generalized patterns of violence. The explanatory model, moreover, falls down completely when dealing with serial or recreational murder, not an entirely modern phenomenon, I have to stress.
Still, it’s a good read, full of facts, figures and living examples of a crime as old as humanity itself.