What Do Historians Have to Say About Violence?

Jeffrey S. Adler and Thomas W. Gallant

This article appeared in Teaching About Violence, the Spring 2000 edition of The HFG Review, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation publication that examined topics of violence in depth.

On May 24, 1885, a Boston policeman, walking his beat near Cottage Farm, noticed a small object on the bank of the Charles River. Moving closer to investigate, he found the body of a newborn infant. This was not an unusual occurrence. Each year in Boston, as in other cities, policemen, sewer workers, and others municipal employees came across dozens of dead infants. Patrolman Hall followed a familiar procedure and carried the body to the city morgue, where a medical examiner would perform an autopsy in order to determine the cause of death. The following day a physician performed the autopsy on the body of the infant, estimated to have been three days old at the time of death. The medical examiner discovered that the body had been badly mutilated. “All of the sexual organs,” he recorded in the official log book, had been “removed and retained. The abdomen had then been closed up and sewn with a brick inside to sink the body.” “No sign of violence,” he concluded. The cause of death, according to the medical examiner, was “probably still-birth.” Thus, the case of the “white new-born child (sex unknown)” was closed, and local law enforcers saw no reason to investigate the death or to treat it as a homicide.1

In most respects, this case was not unusual. Although medical examiners seldom encountered infants whose genitalia had been “removed,” policemen and physicians were accustomed to dealing with dead infants and to dismissing such obvious murders without further thought or investigation. But Bostonians during the 1880s were neither particularly violent nor especially insensitive toward aggression. Rather, they devoted increasing attention to domestic abuse, criminalizing forms of family violence that had long been accepted as “natural.” Moreover, by the standards of nineteenth-century America, Boston had little serious violence. Compared to late twentieth-century America, Boston in 1885 was remarkably peaceful, enjoying a homicide rate roughly one-fourth that of the city’s modern rate.2 Yet, late-nineteenth-century Bostonians, loath as they were to engage in drunken brawls or street fights, simply did not consider the intentional murder of a newborn infant to be a form of violence, except in very unusual circumstances.

Infanticide in late nineteenth-century Boston challenges many widely held—modern—assumptions about the causes of violence. “Family values” flourished in Boston a century ago. Children lived at home much longer than today, and grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins typically lived close at hand and assumed crucial roles in child rearing, providing moral and financial support as well as playing central roles in all of the ritual and celebrations through the life cycle. Nor did late-nineteenth-century Bostonians forsake religion. Rather, these city dwellers structured their lives around religious practice and belief. In short, in the world in which the murder of a “white new-born child (sex unknown)” was discovered but ignored, strong religious belief, loving family ties, and cohesive neighborhood life were compatible with the commonplace and even sadistic murder of very young children.

Three other vignettes from the past also illustrate potential problems with our models for understanding violence and aggression. From our modern perspective, late nineteenth-century cities, such as Chicago, should have been awash in blood. Chicago’s population exploded during this period, nearly tripling between 1870 and 1890, as the great metropolis of the Middle West became a major industrial center and the second largest city in the United States. Density in the city a century ago dramatically exceeded that of modern Chicago, and some behavioral researchers, often working with rodents, suggest a correlation between high density and aggression. The Illinois metropolis was also far more heterogeneous that it is today; 41 percent of the city’s residents in 1890 were foreign born, and peasant farmers from Bohemia, Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, and a score of other nations as well as African-American farmers from the Deep South poured into the city. Social, religious, and political tensions were more explicit and raw than today, and conflict relating to the labor movement was far more volatile than in modern America, producing some of the worst labor unrest in the nation’s history, including the 1886 Haymarket bombing and the 1894 strike at the Pullman car works. In short, Chicago during the closing decades of the last century seemed to possess all of the ingredients for violence: the city was experiencing explosive, jarring growth; its residents were poor, densely packed in slums, and deeply divided along ethnic, religious, and racial lines; the local housing stock could not keep pace with demand; public health institutions were inadequate; and municipal government was rife with corruption. Yet, Chicago had little violence. The city’s homicide rate was approximately one-fifth the current rate, and muggings and armed robberies were virtually unheard-of events.3

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, similar processes of urban growth produced astronomically high levels of interpersonal violence. Until the 1870s, Athens, Greece, was a modestly sized, relatively affluent city, befitting its role as the capital of the new country. Though an ancient city, the modern incarnation of Athens dates only to 1832, when the Greeks obtained their independence from the Ottoman Empire. From the 1830s to the 1870s, Athens manifested exceedingly low levels of violence. As Greek countrymen began to flock to the city during the 1870s and 1880s, however, that changed dramatically. Rates of violence skyrocketed as poor young men migrated to the city and encountered wretched housing conditions, high levels of unemployment, and widespread poverty. By 1890, Athens had become the murder capital of the western world, as poor young men stabbed, shot, and bludgeoned each other to death with only the slightest provocation. But by 1920, the Athenian homicide rate had fallen to one of the lowest levels among the world’s cities, and Athens has remained one of the least violent cities to this day.4 Thus, in late nineteenth-century Chicago, high density, heterogeneity, and poverty did not produce high levels of violence, whereas in Athens, where the population was culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous, rates of violence soared. In short, historical evidence demonstrates that there is no inevitable or natural correlation between, for example, high density or even poverty and violence.

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

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.

Jeffrey S. Adler is Associate Professor of History and Criminology at the University of Florida. Thomas W. Gallant is Associate Professor of History at the University of Florida. Both are HFG grantees.


  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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