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  • A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present
  • Jeffrey S. Adler
A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present. By Pieter Spierenburg (Cambridge, Polity, 2008) 274 pp. $69.95 cloth $24.95 paper

During the last two decades, historians have produced a rich literature on violence. In this fascinating book, Spierenburg synthesizes this enormous body of scholarship, blending quantitative and qualitative evidence into a sweeping analysis of European murder from the Middle Ages to the present. He leavens the narrative with case summaries drawn from his own research on early modern Amsterdam as well as from dozens of micro-studies of violence. Spierenburg frames the topic broadly [End Page 441] and discusses both homicide and a wide range of lesser-known forms of aggressive behavior, such as house scorning, buttock stabbing, and nose slitting.

According to Spierenburg, rates of murder in Europe plummeted from the late Middle Ages until the mid-twentieth century. Over this span, Europeans became less impulsive and less emotionally volatile. Moreover, honor-based violence lost much of its respectability, and murder became increasingly concentrated within lower-class society. These cultural and behavioral shifts were most pronounced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though they continued until the middle decades of the twentieth century, when rates of homicide hit their lowest recorded levels. At least in terms of interpersonal violence, Europeans became pacified.

To explain the dramatic decrease in lethal violence, Spierenburg relies on Elias’ theory of a “civilizing process.”1 Elias argued that emotional restraint became a core component of early modern court culture. The expansion of the state during this period institutionalized and extended elite, courtly sensibilities, monopolizing the use of violence and criminalizing aggressive, disorderly behavior. According to Spierenburg, such a model of cultural and institutional change accounts for the falling rate of European murder. “All of the evidence combined,” he concludes, “provides powerful support for the theory of civilization” (224). Spierenburg adds that “the fit between the evidence about male fighting and the theory of civilization is so obvious that it hardly needs stating” (225).

Where elite cultural authority was strongest and state formation was most complete, rates of murder plunged, as knife fighting, drunken brawling, and feuding waned. The civilizing process even transformed the code of honor, according to Spierenburg, substituting a nonviolent “spiritualization” of honor for the aggressive, violent expressions of manly honor that had flourished during earlier eras. To explain trends in parts of Europe where rates of murder remained high, Spierenburg adapts Elias’ theory, drawing a distinction between an “inner zone” of the continent, where the civilizing process pacified society, and an “outer zone,” where state formation was less complete, where elite sensibilities commanded less influence, and thus where feuding, banditry, and knife fighting persisted.

Some historians have argued that Elias’ theory relies on evolutionary, essentialist explanations, truncating cultural and social variations and employing an English or French framework to account for historical change across the European continent. These scholars may take issue with Spierenburg’s overarching argument. Furthermore, Spierenburg devotes the lion’s share of A History of Murder to the early modern period and to Northern and Western Europe. He covers the period from 1800 to 1970 in a single chapter, for example, and only briefly examines Eastern [End Page 442] Europe and the Mediterranean region. But even scholars who question the usefulness of Elias’s theory or who specialize in the modern period or Europe’s “outer zone” will find Spierenburg’s book engaging, well informed, and laden with insight.

Jeffrey S. Adler
University of Florida


1. Norbert Elias (trans. Edmund Jephcott), The Civilizing Process (New York, 1978).



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pp. 441-443
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