January 14, 2009


Rumbold rightly argues on Pickled Politics that it is difficult to estimate violence in the early modern period- he points to and explains a fascinating debate between Lawrence Stone and James Sharpe in the pages of Past and Present about the question of how much violence there really was. I would suggest you read his piece as I have nothing much to add to its description of the debate. What is worth adding though are two additional reasons why murder rates in particular might not denote levels of violence and secondly why levels of violence might not correlate to psychological feelings of insecurity.

Murder rates might not relate that well to levels of violence because of improved medicine. It is a commonplace of modern discussion of the battlefield in the early modern or medieval period that you were as likely to die from your wounds as you were from a blow which killed you. The same must be true of murder: I would imagine that many died a couple of days after or even more they were murdered. In some cases- where there was internal organ damage for example- I would imagine that the death might not even be described as murder. This both exaggerates the early modern figure- the numbers who died say from a beating would be higher if there was no doctor around with a knowledge of how to deal with head wounds- and it might also diminish that rate: the figure for modern murders includes things that in medieval and early modern times would not have been connected to the original act which led to them.

The psychological point is just as interesting. Imagine you got involved in a fight. If you are a modern city denizen that's probably one of the very few physical encounters that you get involved in: if you were an early modern citizen you would be involved in physical encounters every day- an overwhelmingly rural population would have to for a start cope physically with livestock. Violence in that sense must have been more common- in that violence, physical hardship is more common on a farm or in a field than in a modern office block. Psychologically the way that violence hit people would have been different just because of the different nature of their lives. Pain would have been more common as another example because of the absense of any pain killers- if pain instead of being unpleasant and irregular was a constant unpleasant echo to life itself then you might have a different reaction to the somebody causing you pain. That is not to say that violence would have felt any less terrible: just that it would have felt different and that may effect the perception of the level of it within society.

I can't add to Rumbold's arguments here- I think they are right. What I would argue though is that we can add reasons to suggest that comparison between the early modern and modern periods is difficult. Both because we may be comparing unlike things- incidents that would have been murders in the past may not be now thanks to medicine, incidents that might be now would not be in the past thanks to more sophisticated understandings of what causes death. Also even if levels of violence were higher or lower than now, the impact of that level of violence on people would have been different because of the radically different lives that they lived. As Rumbold argues such doubts are not an indication that we should stop thinking about the historical issues- merely that we should examine and re-examine our assumptions about them. Doing so may well teach us about the way that we understand violence and murder, their place in our society and the trajectory that such crimes are on.


James Hamilton said...

"Imagine you got involved in a fight. If you are a modern city denizen that's probably one of the very few physical encounters that you get involved in.." A disclaimer is necessary here: Tiberius is a Leeds fan.

Gracchi said...

Mr Hamilton- a cheap low blow even by your standards! I have actually never been involved in a fight in my life- I have been mugged but I didn't put up any resistance and just handed over the cash.

James Hamilton said...

Only teasing. (Although you ARE a Leeds fan).

Gracchi said...

I always take comments in the spirit they were meant! :)

Yes I am a Leeds fan for my sins- but at least I've demonstrated I'm not a fair weather supporter.

Rumbold said...


Thanks for the link (and sorry about the late reply).

Excellent point about the advances in medicine. I only ever think about the link in terms of the military, in that for most early modern armies the biggest killers were disease and famine rather than battle.

I will lend you Carroll’s Blood and Violence in Early Modern France’. It is well worth reading.

A Leeds fan? You have my sympathy.