Historical research on aggression, however, does not merely
serve to debunk overly broad modern theories. With the benefit
of hindsight, historians undertake research that provides
important clues about the social, cultural, and economic conditions
that have generatedor discouragedaggression. Late
nineteenth-century New York, for instance, has captured the
attention of historians of violence. In 1890, for instance,
the city had "as many Germans as Hamburg, twice as many
Irish as Dublin, and two and a half times as many Jews as
Warsaw." (12) Moreover, these newcomers were disproportionately
clustered in the city's Lower East Side, which had the highest
residential density in the history of mankind. Despite such
crowding and diversity, New York had an extremely low homicide
rate, and the level of violence fell during this era. (13)
Historians have undertaken research to determine the conditions
at work in New York City that blunted the inclination toward
violent behavior during this period of jarring growth. What
has accounted for sharp decreases in violence in the past?
Similarly, other historians have found that Vermont has been
one of the least violent states in the nation for two hundred
years. (14) What social or cultural forces account for this
enviable record? The question is particularly interesting
because other rural states, with comparable levels of population
density and per capita income, have been considerably more
violent. A large body of historical scholarship has explained
the ways in which industrialization and urbanization have
discouraged aggressive behavior in both Europe and the United
States.(15) The history of domestic violence has commanded
the attention of historians as well. Recent work, for example,
has revealed that lethal violence between acquaintances has
often decreased during eras when lethal violence toward family
members increased. (16) What does such a pattern reveal about
the sources of domestic violence? Historians have also focused
considerable attention on the relationship between race and
violence, and they have found that the gap between African-American
and white homicide rates has fluctuated dramatically over
the course of the last century. (17) Understanding what conditions
accompanied the narrowing of this gap should be of great interest
to policy makers grappling with modern inner-city violence.
Recent studies have also documented the relationship between
collective violence and interpersonal violence over the last
two centuries. (18) It seems self-evident, for example, that
it would be valuable to know if riots tended to occur during
periods of rising or falling violence or during eras when
domestic violence was increasing or decreasing. Other historians
are undertaking equally fascinating research that helps to
explain fundamental shifts in the level and the character
of violence. Recent work on nineteenth- and twentieth-century
Greece, for instance, explains how and why violence can become
ritualized, revealing why Greek peasants were quick to maim
or disfigure one another with knives but increasingly loath
to kill. (19) Historians of violence focusing on the construction
of class and gender identities offer important insights into
modern hate groups and trends in violence toward women. (20)
In short, historians explore eras with much bloodshed in
order to determine the cluster of forces that account for
increased violence, just as they study periods of falling
levels of violence to help to understand when and why societies
reject the use of violence and effectively discourage aggressive
behavior. The insights from such research do not offer any
kind of magic bullet. Rather, historical research provides
an understanding of the social and cultural contexts that
have generated (and may continue to generate) high levelsor
low levels or particular kinds ofviolence. For although
violence is a complex issue, it is not a new issue, and a
fuller understanding of the source of violence and the reasons
for shifts in levels of violence during the last thousand
years provides a crucial foundation for understanding modernand
1. Medical Examiner's Returns. 1885. Unpublished ledger:239.
Boston: Massachusetts State Archives; Boston Globe. 1885.
2. Waldo E. Cook. 1893. Murder in Massachusetts. Proceedings
of the American Statistical Association 3 (September): 357-78;
Theodore N. Ferdinand. 1967. The criminal patterns of Boston
since 1849. American Journal of Sociology 73 (July): 84-99;
Roger Lane. 1968. Crime and criminal statistics in nineteenth-century
Massachusetts. Journal of Social History 2 (Winter): 156-63.
3. Department of Health. 1931. Report of the Department of
Health of the City of Chicago for the Years 1926-1930 Inclusive:
1138. Chicago; Jeffrey S. Adler. Forthcoming. "Halting
the slaughter of the innocents": The civilizing process
and the surge in violence in turn-of-the-century Chicago.
Social Science History.
4. Thomas W. Gallant. 1998. Murder in a mediterranean city:
Homicide trends in Athens, 1850-1936. Journal of the Hellenic
Diaspora 24(1): 1-24.
5. James Buchanan Given. 1977. Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-Century
England. Stanford: Stanford University Press; Barbara A. Hanawalt.
1976. Violent death in fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century
England. Comparative Studies in History and Society 18(July):
6 . Hanawalt (note 5), 312.
7 . Valentin Groebner. 1995. Losing face, saving face: Noses
and honour in the late medieval town. History Workshop 40:
8. Eric Monkkonen. 1997. Homicide over the centuries. In
Lawrence M. Friedman and George Fisher (ed.) The Crime Conundrum.
Boulder: Westview Press, 163-170.
9. Stephen Wilson. 1988. Feuding, conflict and banditry in
nineteenth-century Corsica. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press; Gallant in note 4, and forthcoming. Long hair and burning
blood: The vendetta in Greek society. In Clive Emsley (ed.)
10. Ted Robert Gurr. 1989. Historical trends in violent crime:
Europe and the United States. In Ted Robert Gurr (ed.) Violence
in America. New bury Park, Cal.: Sage; Roger Lane. 1977. Murder
in America. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
11. Frederick L. Hoffman. 1925. The Homicide Problem. Newark:
The Prudential Press, 22-25; Horace V. Redfield. 1880. Homicide,
North and South. Philadelphia: Lippencott, 12.
12. Charles N. Glaab and A. Theodore Brown. 1967. A History
of Urban America. London: Macmillan, 139; Raymond A. Mohl.
1985. The New City. Arlington Heights: H. Davidson, 51.
13. Eric H. Monkkonen. 1995. Homicide over the centuries.
Social Science History 19(Summer): 168; Monkkonen. 1995. New
York City homicides. Social Science History 19(Summer): 201-14.
14. Randolph Roth. 1998. The long decline in homicide: New
England, 1630-1830. Paper presented at the Twenty-Third Annual
Meeting of the Social Science History Association, Chicago,
15. For example, see Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen
(eds.) 1996. The Civilization of Crime. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press; Johnson. 1995. Urbanization and Crime.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
16. Jeffrey S. Adler. 1997. "My mother-in-law is to
blame, but I'll walk on her neck yet": Homicide in late
nineteenth-century Chicago. Journal of Social History 31(Winter):
253-76; Pieter Spierenburg. 1994. Faces of violence: Homicide
trends and cultural meanings. Journal of Social History 27:
17. Roger Lane. 1986. Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; Eric H. Monkkonen.
1995. Racial factors in New York City homicides, 1800-1874.
In Darnell F. Hawkins (ed.) Ethnicity, Race, and Crime. Albany:
State University of New York Press. 99-120.
18. For example, see Christopher Waldrep. 1998. Roots of
Disorder. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
19 . Thomas W. Gallant. forthcoming. Honor, masculinity,
and ritual knife-fighting in nineteenth-century Greece. American
20. For example, see Mary E. Odem. 1999. Cultural representations
and social contexts of rape in the early twentieth century.
In Michael A. Bellesiles (ed.) Lethal Imagination. New York:
New York University Press, 353-70; Angus McLaren. 1997. The
Trials of Masculinity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press;
Martin J. Wiener. 1998. The Victorian criminalization of men.
In Pieter Spierenburg (ed.) Men and Violence. Columbus: Ohio
State University Press, 197-212.
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