‘A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present’ by Pieter Spierenburg

Introduction – In this book, the term “murder” denotes all forms of private and non-accidental killing. In 1998, Johan Goudsblom introduced a 3-stage theory about the monopolization of violence: (1) adult males monopolized violence, and excluded women and children from its organized use; (2) in military-agrarian societies, an elite class of warriors monopolized violence, excluding other social groups such as peasants and priests; and (3) relatively autonomous warrior elites increasingly had to yield to larger organization, such as institutionalized states. Possibly helping this progress along was a civilizing process, theorized by Norbert Elias as the process where standards of behavior became ever stricter, requiring greater self-control from individuals. Another important factor in the monopolization of violence was the changing concept of honor and what it applied to. Honor was highly gendered, so what was considered honorable for a man was not considered honorable for a woman. Female honor was based on chastity, passivity, and silence. Because female honor was passive, women had little opportunity to control their honor themselves. That burden was transferred to men, and the defense of women’s honor was an important component of male honor. Male honor also depended on physical courage, courage, and the propensity for violence. Being insulted amounted to an attack on one’s honor, which could only be repaired by a counter-attack. During the early modern period, honor played an overwhelming role in the majority of murders in Europe.

Chapter 1 – Romeo’s Kindred: The Fragility of Life in Medieval Europe – Upper-class aggressiveness was a major characteristic of the Middle Ages. Aggression from elites had the greatest chance of going unpunished when their victims came from the humble poor. Many elites felt that it was within their rights to harass any social inferiors who displeased them, and actively did so whenever they perceived a slight. One popular form of violence was the vendetta, and they could encompass a wide variety of players, such as whole families, including their dependents, retainers, lawyers, in-laws, servants, and even local magistrates. Because of their loose involvement in vendettas, authorities could show a considerable amount of understanding towards people who killed for honor and revenge. Homicides and crimes committed because of a vendetta were considered honorable, but there were a number of crimes that fell outside the confines of honor. Two examples of such would be thievery and suicide. Also, those who belonged to marginalized groups were always in great danger of violence. Because these minority groups were low in status, they were often denied any entitlement to honor, making them easy targets.

Chapter 2 – Sealed With a Kiss: From Acquiescence to Criminalization – Following a violent act, there were two types of voluntary settlement: (1) one to prevent revenge after a single murder, or (2) one to end feuding after at least one member of each party had been killed by the other party. All these settlements involved reconciliation between the two groups, and during this period, these events often involved a big show of remorse and forgiveness, sometimes even in ceremony form. There were four basic components to a reconciliation ceremony: (1) there was payment of financial compensation to the victim’s family and to the third party arbitrating the reconciliation; (2) the performance of rituals focusing on the killer’s regret; (3) rituals indicating the newfound peace between the two parties; and (3) religious provisions, such as donating money to the poor or paying to have the victim’s name added to a monastery. Reconciliations often involved collective groups meeting over the murder(s); it was rarely a meeting among individuals. These ceremonies were important because they were a method of preventing more violence. City councils and princes helped by encouraging reconciliations. An alternative to peacemaking through public ceremonies was the prosecution of the murderer. There were 2 ways a murder could escape trial: (1) they could seek sanctuary, or (2) they could get a pardon for their crimes. From the 16th c. onward, these methods were losing their saving power. During this period, a system of justice from above emerged, and courts increasingly took the initiative against criminals. Crimes were also redefined as encroachments on victim’s rights and also on the rights of the community and the public peace. In summary, this process of criminalization followed from the disappearance of feuding and private reconciliation to the extension of capital punishment to most cases of culpable killing.

Chapter 3 – Swords, Knives, and Sticks: The Social Differentiation of Male Fighting – During the early modern period, male-on-male violence went through a major development that was characterized by the social differentiation of attitudes and practices. Here, a widening social gulf separated those of the population that led relatively peaceful lifestyles and those who led violent lifestyles. If vendettas were a legacy of the Middle Ages, the early modern period saw its successor: the duel. Conducted between two individuals, the duel was a major innovation of violence, and had two forms: the formal duel and the popular duel. Formal duels took place amongst elites and their social equals. Formal duels followed a distinct sequence of events, where a written challenge with a proposed duel-date was issued by a combatant. Their opponent, once he agreed to the fight, had the right to choose the weapons of the conflict. Due to these strict rules, many elites considered the formal duel to be part of the repertoire of upper-class, polite behavior. Popular duels, on the other hand, were appropriate for everyone else. Unlike formal duels, popular duelists often fought with knives rather than swords. The total volume of violence dropped during the 17th and 18th centuries. This was due to a decrease in male aggression, which was in part due to the social differentiation in male fighting. Because elites believed that dueling befitted only gentlemen, they kept their quarrels amongst the upper-classes. This idea trickled down socially, so that by 1700 even the respectable upper layer of working class avoided knife brawls with those of the lower class. This decreasing aggression among elites slowly transformed into a non-violent lifestyle, with many cherishing peace over violence.


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