One of the most disturbing features of our age is an unreflective nostalgia for the past. Usually it for a past that never existed and those that bemoan the passing away of that past are those that would not ever be caught dead actually living in that past.
One of the most prevalent features of this mindless nostalgia for what never was is the notion that in the past crime was less and we were safer.
This is a myth. Of course if you are talking about say the 1950’s then you would be right the rate of violent crime as in fact gone up considerably since then. However if you go back considerably further you find out something completely different. What you find is interpersonal violence on a truly massive scale.
Thus in Europe c. 1000 C.E. most European societies were characterized by blood feuds and codes of personal vengeance. This was combined with a code of personal honour which made it permissible to punish with violence all sorts of real and alleged violations of personal “honour”.1
Not surprisingly society was characterized by a vast amount of insecurity, instability and interpersonal violence. The lack of over arching institutions tended to create a fragmented society in which groups of individuals were pitted against other groups.
It was in England that we have the clearest picture of the emergence of a powerful set of behavioural and intellectual mores that began to inhibit the use of violence to settle issues of “honour” and real dispute.
A factor in the emergence of these norms was the emergence in pre-Norman times of the idea of the King or Royal government as the fount of the law. In this scenario the idea was that the King was the arbiter of disputes and attempts by private parties to settle disputes outside of this norm were violations of the King’s prerogatives, in effect a form of treason. Of course the spread of the idea of the “King’s Justice” via the system of Shires, local courts, Sheriffs etc., was not because of benevolence but because this provided a potent avenue for the extension of Royal power and just as importantly the extension of the Royal powers of taxation and expropriation. In other words it was good for the Royal treasury. In England the Kings profited by trying homicide cases through fines and confiscation of property.2
Even the rates of violence were by contemporary standards quite astounding. For example in 14th century London the rate was between 36-52 murders per hundred thousand per year. Oxford with its tradition of feuding, brawling and drunken students had a rate of over 100 murders per hundred thousand per year.3
Thus in quarrels with neighbours or drunken brawls some especially if they were male had a good chance of ending up dead, especially in a environment in which all sorts of slights were thought to excuse if not justify violence in response.
What happened was that the gradual process by which the “King’s Justice” was used to curtail violence among the elite, because of its threat to the Kings power and ability to collect revenue gradually percolated through all layers of society. Basically uncontrolled violence was viewed as a threat to both personal safety and the sanctity of property.
It is of interest that in contrast to England this process started much later in most of Europe.4
Now this process could only happen in England because of the emergence of courts and enormous pressure from the Royal administration and bureaucracy to use the courts to settle disputes rather than take personal vengeance or some other violent solution. This was so despite a violent culture that exalted violence as a solution to problems. Despite these problems by 1200 C.E., the government had managed to take one step forward by virtually ending the institutional blood feud. Royal courts were already instituting the practice of legally binding people to keep the peace. Also Royal courts had acquired by then virtually sole jurisdiction to try and punish violent offences or those having violent / severe punishment. Although the nobility might engage in a posture of violence and murderous talk there was already a tendency to use the courts instead and engage in rhetorical violence instead.5
By the 15th century violence was ratcheted to a new lower level. Frankly by then in virtually all of society there was a tendency for friends and neighbours to try to lower the level of violence and to prevent disputes from escalating into a violent resolution. Not simply because violence was considered immoral but because once blood was shed you would get the costly, time consuming intervention of the Royal courts which would hamstring peoples lives for what could seem like an interminable amount of time. The result was the flourishing of an entire culture of postured violence, of rhetoric and bluff all designed to SEEM threatening and violent but really just play acting. This was further redoubled by the ever greater use of the courts to settle disputes. The only acceptable violence was on behalf of God and the authorities all other violence was deemed illegitimate and in effect immoral if not evil.6
By the 17th century in contrast to countries like France were the institutional apparatuses of the State barely penetrated locally, England had a fairly well developed system of governmental authority to impose local order.
In France as indicated above the authorities were not much interested in imposing order unless it interfered with collection of taxes or seemed like incipient rebellion. Flying off the handle and the easy resort to violence to settle disputes were common so was widespread antipathy between different classes. Battles between poachers or gamekeepers occurred. So did extralegal violence to settle disputes. Life was riddled with assaults and homicides.7
In England by then the pacification had proceeded, culture and life was permeated with the idea that while threatening violence was in some cases permissible actually doing it was quite another matter. Instead there were the courts where people were encouraged and frequently coerced to go in order to settle disputes. In fact England by this time had acquired the reputation of being a very litigious society. And even if people did not go to court there was a powerful tendency for people to try to settle matters by informal arbitration before things got out of hand. Cash payments to settle issues was commonplace.
Even more remarkable English criminals had a strong tendency, compared to the continent to NOT accompany their criminal acts with excessive violence. For example beating or killing people you robbed was generally not done and was decidedly less frequent than elsewhere. In effect self policing had become common and people were restraining themselves as part of the effort to impose order.8
In the 18th century the decline continued so that by 1800 C.E., the murder rate was apparently below 2 per hundred thousand.9 The rather horrible list of capital crimes was tempered by procedural rules and juries who were increasingly reluctant to inflict violent punishment. England had for example no routine torture of alleged criminals as part of the process of investigation unlike much of the continent. Despite the truly Draconian penalties in law remarkably few people actually suffered the full legal penalties. According to the best available figures between 1749-1771 only 81 people were convicted of murder in London / Middlesex. Whereas in Rome, ¼ the size of London, in ½ that time period had 4000 murders.10
What the century saw was the emergence of a “Middle Class” ideology that emphasized politeness and civility and frowned upon any sort of violent assertiveness, especially violence. A key part of this was the campaign against duelling which was considered a reversion to barbaric and uncivilized manners and as such to be both opposed and suppressed as murder plain and simple. At the same time English criminals continued their trend of avoiding gratuitous physical violence and were commented on by continental visitors for being “humane” in comparison to continental criminals.11
This was accompanied by the decline and in fact “death” of the concept of personal honour that required the cultivation of status and the punishment of alleged and real slights to ones honour by means of personal action.
In the 19th centuries this developments reached a climax in that the growth of philanthropy, and a culture that frowned quite vigorously on the idea of spur of the moment violence as a solution to problems. Basically more and more people absorbed basic inhibitions to violence that even inhibited spur of the moment behaviour. The idea was that giving into those spur of the moment impulses indicated a failure to control oneself. To commit violence even in the face of provocation was considered a moral failure by the individual who was considered bound to use other non-violent ways of registering his anger or disgust and not just act out. Even criminals had by then absorbed the ethos that violent acting out was unacceptable. The ethos that emerged found displays of violence for entertainment profoundly disturbing and began to ban them even if they involved animals. There was also a climate of respectability and the idea of proper appearance that fostered a lower crime rate.12
The result was by 1900 the English homicide rate was below 1 per hundred thousand.13
Of course all this came at a price in conformity and exploitation but as indicated by reforms of the Victorian period, the continued decline in the homicide rate was not incompatible with significant political and social reforms which however much they diffused economic and political power away from the landed elite did not cause an upsurge in violence.
In most of western Europe they had to wait until the 19th century for the great pacification. In much of eastern Europe until the 20th century. As for 20th century developments there was in England and the in western Europe a rise in the crime rates in the 1960’s and 70’s although contrary to hysteria it was not a rise to unprecedented levels.
The fact is the great pacification worked and is still working at least in England and Europe.
1. Leyton, Elliott, Men of Blood, McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1995, pp. 99-101.
2. IBID, pp. 99-103, Moore, R. I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society, 2nd Edition, Blackwell Pub., London, 2007, pp. 102-104, 123-128.
3. Leyton, p. 102. Leyton gives the homicide rate of 13th century England as 10 to 20 times the current rate, p. 103. This works out to 10-20 murders per hundred thousand.
4. IBID, p. 103.
5. IBID, pp. 103-105.
6. IBID, pp. 105-107.
7. IBID, pp. 107-108.
7. IBID, pp. 107-109.
9. IBID, p. 109.
10. IBID, p. 109.
11. IBID, pp. 107-112.
12. IBID, pp. 112-114.
13. IBID, p. 115.