Honour, passion and homicide

Robert Shoemaker wonders if the statistics, and the 'civilising process', tell the whole story

September 18, 2008

News addicts may be forgiven for thinking that we live in a time of unprecedented violence, but this book, intended for a general audience as well as scholars, proves them wrong. Pieter Spierenburg, a Dutch historian who specialises in Early Modern crime and criminal justice, argues in this wide-ranging synthetic survey that contemporary homicide levels in Western Europe are less than a tenth of those that occurred in the Middle Ages. Citing the work of the criminologist Manuel Eisner, and hastily dismissing the substantial limitations of the available evidence, Spierenburg states that homicide levels in the 14th century were 35 per 100,000 population per year, and that these declined during the Early Modern period to less than four per year by 1800, and to less than one annually in the 1950s, the least violent decade in European history, before increasing modestly in the late 20th century to just under 1.4.

Throughout this period young men were responsible for the vast majority of murders, but in other respects the characteristics of fatal violence changed considerably. Medieval homicide, characterised by the feud, was frequently committed by elites, largely tolerated and typically involved the defence of honour, while over the ensuing centuries homicide was criminalised, honour became spiritualised, the contexts of homicide became more intimate and the culprits were increasingly confined to the lower classes.

Readers of Spierenburg's previous works will not be surprised by his confident explanation for these momentous changes, derived from Norbert Elias' theory of the "civilising process", which posits that aggressive impulses were tamed by the extension of state power, urbanisation, economic differentiation and democratisation. Recent increases in homicide do not disprove this theory, Spierenburg argues, for the culprits are largely recent immigrants from outside Europe who live in neighbourhoods (such as the Parisian banlieues) where state authority is weak, and they take advantage of the modern state's impotence in combating organised crime in the global drug trade.

While Spierenburg does an admirable job of outlining these trends and many other facets of violence, his explanation fails to convince. The role played by the state in criminalising homicide in the Middle Ages and in developing modern policing is unquestionable, but Elias' top-down theory fails to account for the role of non-elites in limiting violence, for example by developing rules of fair play in popular duels in the Early Modern period, nor does it sufficiently acknowledge the persistence of elite violence, including the duel, into the 18th and 19th centuries. More importantly, this theory of causation does not pay enough attention to cultural change, despite the fact that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation are cited as important factors in reducing violence between kin through promotion of the nuclear family, the ideologies of civility and politeness are recognised as contributors to the spiritualisation of honour in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Romanticism is seen as contributing to the development of the crime passionnel in the late 19th century. And while, if suitably broadened, the "civilising process" has the potential to provide an effective explanation of male-on-male violence, other, less comprehensible violence that has occurred throughout history, such as that within families or by serial killers, remains less susceptible to an overarching theory of change.

For Spierenburg, murder cannot be understood outside its social and cultural context, which is why so much attention is devoted in this book to frequently ritualised non-fatal violence and disorder, including knife fights, house-scorning, nose-slitting, rape, various contact sports, fist fights and even adolescents who urinate on the walls of hallways in public housing. Murder turns out to be a more slippery, but even more fascinating, subject than we might have first imagined.

A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present

By Pieter Spierenburg

Polity Press

300pp, £55.00 and £17.99

ISBN 9780745643779 and 43786

Published 18 July 2008

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