What Do Historians Have to Say About Violence?
Jeffrey S. Adler and Thomas W. Gallant
Adler is Associate Professor of History and Criminology at the University of Florida. Gallant is Associate Professor of History at the University of Florida. Both are HFG grantees.
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Our point is that the past was neither peaceful and harmonious nor a time when life was necessarily "nasty, brutish, and short." The relatively low levels of violence in late nineteenth-century American cities, however, should cause modern scholars to reassess popular explanations for violence in late twentieth-century society. The history of Athens shows as well just how rapidly changing conditions can influence violence—for good or ill. Similarly, some of our modern ideas about the social conditions that reduce violence also need to be reevaluated in light of recent historical scholarship. Medieval England, for example, blended many of the crucial elements modern observers associate with nonviolence. This was a rural society in which the population was stable, family ties were strong, and religious belief framed daily life and bound individuals to one another and to communal institutions. Families and neighbors sustained each other during hard times and shared the bounty during flush times. Likewise, this society had scant diversity; nearly everyone had common ethnic and racial roots, and the church's teaching instilled a common ethical and moral order. These English farmers, as a matter of course, venerated their elders and deferred to their religious leaders. This was also a world with few deadly weapons; medieval farmers, for instance, did not possess firearms. Yet, for all of this rural harmony and for all of the powerful social, religious, and communal bonds that linked these people to one another, medieval England proved to be one of the most violent societies in recorded history.(5) As striking as the prevalence of violence in this world was the casualness of violence. One fourteenth-century English farmer, for instance, spied a neighbor walking across his field. He set his dog to chase the trespasser away. An hour later, the wayward wanderer returned and stabbed his neighbor through the eye. Similarly, a fourteenth-century candlestick maker refused to hand over his product until a customer showed him the money; enraged that the vendor questioned his word, the purchaser "struck him in the front part of the head so that his brains flowed forth and he died forthwith." (6) Reflecting the same quick and casual resort to violence, a matron "of good name" suspected that her husband had been unfaithful. So, she identified the suspected adulteress to her kinsmen, who then seized the woman, held her to the ground, and sliced off her nose. (7) Clearly, violence was not necessarily considered deviant in this world; although modern social psychologists often posit that poorly socialized individuals are particularly prone to violent behavior, in medieval Europe the opposite was more often true; medieval men and women often viewed violent behavior as appropriate and as a crucial source of social stability.

Research on both city and countryside in the past, therefore, challenges common beliefs about violence. The mean streets of modern New York, for example, are a great deal safer than were the pastoral fields of thirteenth-century York. Similarly, for nearly all of the last seven hundred years, the countryside has been far deadlier than the city, and for most of the twentieth century New York was safer than the overall nation. (8) Likewise, the scenic hills of nineteenth-century Corsica and the picturesque mountains of Greece were more violent than the crowded streets of London, Paris, or Berlin—by factors of at least twenty. (9) Such evidence suggests, again, that generalizations about the relationship between violence and density or heterogeneity or poverty or religious intensity or family life need to be questioned. (10)

Although historical research challenges timeless explanations, historical perspectives on violence do not provide easy "lessons." Instead, this scholarship points to the complexity of the wellsprings of violent behavior. Understanding why nineteenth-century Japan had extraordinary low levels of most kinds of violent behavior but extraordinarily high levels of infanticide is revealing about the social and cultural roots of aggression, but it does not suggest simple policy solutions. Historical research especially calls into question universalist models. Even important work on the biochemical roots of aggression needs to consider the historical variability of violent behavior. Whereas levels of testosterone or neurotransmitters may help to explain why some individuals are more prone to aggressive behavior than others, such research does not explain why some eras have had higher rates of violence than others or why violent tendencies may wax and wane over time among the same group of people—such as the young men of Athens, discussed earlier. Biochemical research is unlikely to explain why the homicide rate in early twentieth-century Memphis, for example, was fourteen times higher than that of Philadelphia, twenty-five times higher than that of Berlin, and fifty-nine times higher than the homicide rate of London or why South Carolina had more homicides in 1878 than the combined totals of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Michigan, and Minnesota. (11)

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