- Violence and Punishment: Civilizing the Body through Time by Pieter Spierenburg
This collection of nine chapters, most of which were published within the last fifteen years, closes with a personal account of how the author’s encounter with German sociologist Norbert Elias determined his intellectual trajectory. Spierenburg has elaborated Elias’ “Theory of the Civilizing Process” in half a dozen books, and the chapters in this book are no departure from that body of work.1
The introduction emphasizes the importance of studying the relationships between those accused of crimes and their victims, as well as the motivations that lay behind the transgressions. Sex and what Spierenberg calls the gendered body are at the heart of these relations. The male “gender” originally assumed a more active behavior than the female gender, but eventually male honor became subject to a process of spiritualization (by which Spierenberg means that men began to show greater restraint), first in the upper classes and then more broadly across society, until the violent elements inhabited marginal islands of unrest. This process was spurred by the monopolization of force by the state. Spierenburg is not interested in family violence or infanticide, which should comprise a separate category, akin to victims of war. We should construct murder rates with and without the killing of infants.
A chapter about long-term homicidal trends in Amsterdam notes the paradox of how the rate of prosecuted murder tended to remain constant at 1/100,000 from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. To follow the real decline of violence more accurately, the author uses a register of body inspections, distinguishing homicides from accidents or suicides. Homicide victimization rates (exclusive of infanticide) fell from 47/100,000 in the fifteenth century, to about 23/100,000 in the late sixteenth century, to merely 5 or 6 in the 1670s. After a spike around 1700, the rates continued to decline, reaching their nadir at 1 or 1.5 in the Napoleonic era. The present rate for Amsterdam is several times higher today, concentrated in these “unpacified islands,” but overall, Dutch homicide rates have remained at the Napoleonic level.
Another chapter about homicide and the law in the Dutch Republic examines the phenomenon of impulsive honor-motivated knife fights. People were hesitant to intervene in “fair” fights, often helping the culprits to escape justice, whereas they showed no reluctance to identify thieves. Dutch elites, however, took dim view of these fights and the values behind them. Spierenberg claims that killers who were apprehended faced almost certain execution, but the book says nothing about rates of capital execution before the nineteenth century.
The most recent chapter comes close to admitting that killing and [End Page 379] wounding are universal, common to all known societies. The circumstances of these acts are “embedded” in specific cultures and vary over time. Elias’ theory of civilization helps us to understand the spiritualization of honor, which is “related to” processes of state formation. Spierenberg contrasts Europe, where rates of violence declined most quickly, with the United States, where rates remained stubbornly high in the honor-bound South or the ungoverned West. An ideology extolling self-help and the right to bear arms would naturally have higher rates of violence as a corollary. A quick survey of Asian states claims that China, Japan, and India underwent changes in attitudes toward the body similar to those in Europe, whereas in Indonesia and the Philippines, the macho type of male honor still holds sway.
A fourth chapter compares Elias’ grand narratives of how punishment evolved with that of Foucault.2 Foucault centered the disciplinary process on the late eighteenth century, when the school, the army, and the factory forced subjects to “internalize” docility and bodily control. Elias extends the same processes over several centuries. Both scholars saw power working from the bottom up as well as the top down. Social historians familiar with their works have been right to be skeptical of their models, since they rely heavily on literary sources. Foucault in particular never systematically studied...