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.


  1. Good morning, Ana,

    People of the Middle Ages certainly thought quite differently from the way we do. I suspect that honour killings were themselves a tamer legacy from plainly murderous conduct of former times, and it would be interesting to know what rules for killing were informally observed.

    Slightly aside - I read an account of the last trial-by-battle in France. It was interesting but gruesome ; so much so that such trials were banned forthwith. I believe that trial-by-battle was banned in England only in the eighteenth century - but nobody had availed themselves of it for many centuries before.

  2. Ana,
    Very good information in spite of the limitations that you mentioned. I wonder whether there is a book about the history of murder in other parts of the world.
    Thank you for sharing information.

  3. Hi, Jamie. Do you have a link for that French trial? In England it was Henry II who started the move away from this form of legal test, though I don't know when it was formally prohibited. I do know that the last such trial was held in Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I.

    Yes, Harry, I would be interested to know if there was too.

  4. Hi, Ana, I have looked for a link to the French trial, but no success. I cannot remember now which book it was in (it might even be one of my own) - I'll let you know if I come across it.