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

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 44, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. 288-290 | 10.1353/jsh.2010.0019

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present. By Pieter Spierenburg (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008. 274 pp.).

The historical study of interpersonal violence in Europe has grown significantly in recent decades, and there is a need for an effective synthesis that can bring together diverse research findings and introduce non-specialists to this now highly active field. The unavoidable difficulties with such a summary would be covering the broad (and somewhat shifting) spectrum of behavior referred to as "violence" over the last several centuries and accounting for cultural, regional and national differences. Addressing historical specificity and historiographical complexity while also offering a coherent narrative poses a particular challenge. It is, therefore, a testament to Pieter Spierenburg's skill as a historian of violence that his book so often strikes the right balance.

Spierenburg's main theme is the long decline in serious interpersonal violence (of the sort which today largely falls under the category of "crime" rather than war or mass-killing) from the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century. The author focuses on violence among men, especially that motivated by establishing or defending personal honor. The generally accepted place of such violence in the medieval period is highlighted: then, the willingness to resort to violence made sense with regard to both social status and the protection of personal safety. There was an "omnipresence of feuds—feuds between rival families, competing factions, neighboring lords and their retainers, members of opposed camps in a military conflict, or between two groups that had close internal bonds for still other reasons" (14-15). Many specific factors changed this state of affairs, and Spierenburg gives particular attention to state development and shifting notions of honor. [End Page 288]

The importance of state development is brought out clearly through the examination of the "criminalization" of violence: violent acts previously seen as legitimate and/or private matters were brought under the jurisdiction of expanding justice systems. This complicated process occurred at different rates—and through somewhat different means—from place to place; however, in this way and across Europe, previously acceptable (or at least tolerated) violence was ever more subject to official censure and punishment. An "open consent to murder formed part of medieval culture" (31); that consent became increasingly limited.

Following a first chapter on the medieval starting point of his study, Spierenburg outlines the significant decline in violence from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Thematic chapters then consider male fighting, women's violence, physical conflict in the domestic sphere and understandings of insanity and diminished responsibility. The next main chronological step runs from about 1800 to the 1950s, during which time violence rates seem to have continued their downward trajectory. Such declines, seemingly paradoxically, were met by increasing concerns: violence diminished, but its residual image "darkened" (167), with growing anxieties about crimes passionnels, serial killing and a violent criminal underworld. Still, he concludes: "In Europe west of the Iron Curtain, the 1950s were, on average, the least violent period in history" (203). A final chapter examines the last half-century, during which violence rates rose in most European countries. Although a significant trend, the author makes the point (also attested to by the preceding chapters) that even these heightened homicide rates remain low by historical standards. Moreover, rather than an across-the-board reversal of social pacification, that rise has been narrowly concentrated among younger and poorer urban males and partly driven by organized crime, especially the global trade in illegal drugs (207-08).

Given the book's broad scope, it is helpful that it is tied together by various themes, especially Norbert Elias's theory of the "civilizing process." Spierenburg typically assumes the validity of Elias's approach rather than engaging directly with its critics, but, at times, he argues particular points, such as the relationship between "ritual" and "impulse" in violence (35-38) or the key role played by the "pacification of the elites" (112). On the latter issue, he highlights the growing distance between those who regularly used violence and those who did not. Through the "spiritualization of honor," social status became focused less on the body...