A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present

Despite laws and mores forbidding aggression, the appetite for bloodshed lingers, finds Joanna Bourke

October 6, 2011

There is a chilling question lurking subtly at this book's periphery: might the global economic crisis spark a new wave of violence on our streets? Robert Muchembled never fully addresses such a prediction, but many of his explanations for the decline of violence suggest we may be wise to brace ourselves for difficult times.

As he convincingly shows, from the middle of the 17th century the overall trend in interpersonal violence (excluding wars) has been downward. Increasingly, and over large parts of the world, male aggression was being effectively managed. At times, this was the result of converting the taste for blood into imaginary struggles. After all, the sharp drop in murder went hand-in-hand with the birth and growth of crime fiction. These, and other, often gruesome representations of violence could be distracting for young men living in a real world that could be profoundly rage-inducing. Fewer young men carried bladed weapons; the possession of firearms was increasingly regulated. Aggressive acts carried out by young men were treated with increased severity in the courts (in contrast, aggressive women seem to have been punished less harshly from the mid-19th century, with their actions regarded as evidence of societal injustice more than individual evil). Sites of sociability in the street and bars became more and more rule-driven: people avoided eye contact if they unintentionally bumped into others, or murmured a brief "pardon". Daily assaults, or implied assaults, on a person's honour diminished.

These explanations for the decline in murder are all dependent upon shifts in manners and mores more broadly. Powerful institutions (including the criminal justice system, police, state, church, schools and clubs) tackled the problem of violence with increased vigour. Their central concern was the management of adolescent masculinity. The code of collective honour had to be jettisoned; in its place, individual guilt was installed. Crucially, definitions of manliness underwent a revolution. Although Muchembled admits that a detailed analysis of rural masculinity has yet to be completed, in the towns at least violence was regarded as transgressive and brutish. The ideal virile young man exercised self-control on personal and social levels. Muchembled has provided us with an intriguing history of masculinity and honour (or, as he calls it, "semen and blood").

In the 21st century, might some of the controls for regulating violence be breaking down? In many parts of Europe, a generation of young men and (interestingly) women have emerged for whom there are few rewards for acting with restraint. The collective frustration of protesters from the French banlieues, the indignados in Madrid and the aganaktismenoi in Athens is palpable. Muchembled is correct to argue that there is a long history of such protests; he is wrong to say that these 21st-century protesters represent the continued acceptability of "macho traditions inherited from the European working-class world", to which is added "American mass culture". The "disinherited" people at the margins of society are right to be angry. Perhaps they are even right to be violent. Muchembled will not agree.

This is a thought-provoking extended essay on extreme civilian violence, primarily in France and western Europe, but with brief comparative reflections around the globe. Muchembled takes a self-consciously multidisciplinary approach, which means that many of the psycho-biological reflections are not fully integrated into his arguments. He is also more comfortable in the 16th through to the 18th centuries. I wanted him to reflect more explicitly on how his arguments tie into those of historians such as Martin Wiener, whose Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (2004) is narrower in focus but remains indispensable reading for anyone interested in shifts in the nature and legitimacy of violence. Nevertheless, this is a vivid, thoughtful, deeply researched exploration of one of the main problems of human societies and a fascinating reflection on the "extreme plasticity of civilizations".

A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present

By Robert Muchembled

Polity Press

388pp, £60.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9780745647463 and 7470

Published 23 September 2011

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