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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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 generated—or discouraged—aggression. 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 levels—or low levels or particular kinds of—violence. 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 modern—and future—violence.


1. Medical Examiner's Returns. 1885. Unpublished ledger:239. Boston: Massachusetts State Archives; Boston Globe. 1885. (May 25).

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): 297-320.

6 . Hanawalt (note 5), 312.

7 . Valentin Groebner. 1995. Losing face, saving face: Noses and honour in the late medieval town. History Workshop 40: 1-15.

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.) Vendetta.

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, November 21.

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: 701-16.

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 Historical Review.

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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