‘Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800’ by Julius R. Ruff

Chapter 1: Representations of Violence – Because news was spread either orally or through printed media, early modern Europeans formed many of their perceptions about violence around less than factual sources such as rumors, songs, popular entertainments, newspapers, and pamphlets. Violent themes had a double-effect on readers/listeners, both shocking audiences with tales of brutality and providing a fascinating glimpse of a person who disregarded religion and social norms. Representations of violence were important for a number of reasons. First, they helped create the idea among early modern Europeans that their world was becoming increasingly violent, even though in reality it was becoming less violent. Second, they helped link crime and violence with urban life. In short, the representations of violence in early modern European society through word of mouth and printed publications can be more accurately labeled as ‘misrepresentation’ due to its lack of accuracy.

Chapter 2: States, Arms, and Armies – In the early modern period, state control of violence was tenuous at best. From the states’ end of control, many areas not only lacked centralized policing agencies, but they also relied on inadequate local police operatives, and depended on armies, rather than trained policemen,  to counter civilian threats to domestic order. Add widespread use of weapon into the mix, and the situation became increasingly violent and harder to control. Not only did peasants have easy access to wounding instruments, but animosity between civilians and armed soldiers led to ineffective state control and high levels of violent activity.

Chapter 4: the Discourse of Interpersonal Violence – The most common form of violence in early modern Europe was between people who already knew each other. When it came to assault, homicides often occurred over matters of honor and justice. One form of violence that went nearly unpunished was domestic violence. This was due, in part, to religious and civil law traditions that gave husbands and fathers almost total power within their households. Violent rapes were also severely overlooked by courts due a massive amount of incident underreporting. This was because of the social stigma of being “unvirginal” and the general skepticism of courts over whether a rape actually occurred or not. Another severe form of murder was that of newborn children. This was seen as a particularly heinous crime and was usually punished by death.

Chapter 5: Ritual Group Violence – Ritual behaviors are important because they reflect the learned behaviors of a particular society. Early modern Europe had a very powerful and popular youth group culture. Young men forged their identities while in a youth group, deriving these characteristics by participating in group functions. One role youth groups played was in the monitoring of local morals and marriages. Included in this job were the disapproval and approval of marriages and the enforcement of traditional male stereotypes. They demonstrated their courage through public displays of fighting prowess and risk-taking. Youth groups also organized local festivals, events that could provide perfect cover for violent actions. The conditions of a festival were dangerous: armed men roamed the streets, beer and wine flowed and normally law-abiding citizens discovered anonymity behind festival masks. One aspect of festivals that was particularly popular with violent men was team games, which gave men plenty of opportunities for revenge and physical assault under the guise of a sporting event.

Chapter 6: Popular Protest – Protests reflected the values of an essentially conservative society that respected tradition. Often, they were the caused by resistance to innovation and change (example – riots to protect the validity of beliefs that were being threatened by the Reformation). Riots typically went through two stages, with the first peaceful stage turning violent if demands weren’t met. Such violence was often justified by rioters who felt they were on the side of justice. Riots and protest were often used as a way to enforce the status quo. Intimidation (a form of protest) could be used against any person, property, or group that threatened community interests. Large riots represented a serious threat to the social and political stability of early modern Europe, and they often occurred during times of dearth and hardship. Those most active in riots were people who derived their identity from the salient issue driving crowd action. Once riots moved past local boundaries and ideologically merged with broader concerns, protest became rebellion. Collective violent acts diminished towards the end of the period because growing centralized states took proactive steps against their causes.

Chapter 7: Organized Crime – Organized crimes are offenses committed by people cooperating in repeated acts of law-breaking. Banditry was the chief form of organized crime. An overwhelmingly rural crime, it has sometimes been described as “social banditry”, a form of rebellion against peasant society. Though the state condemned social bandits, groups often managed to retain the support of their local societies.  Forms of banditry that were popular were highway robbery and armed attacks on prosperous farms and homes. Policing bandits was difficult because the state often lacked the funds to go after them. Another popular form of organized crime was smuggling. Because early modern states lacked the administrative infrastructure to directly tax incomes, they resorted to using excise fees, product assessment fees, or import taxes. Smuggling helped people get around this. There were 2 types of smuggling: the kind committed by small operators or the kind committed by large organized bands. A majority of smugglers were small group operators. Policing smuggling was difficult because of the nature of the crime – often, smuggled goods were brought in through boundaries that were difficult to police, like mountains, long coasts, etc.


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