Friday, July 24, 2009

The history of violence

We had an interesting discussion in my French class this week about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. We started by talking about Rousseau, Voltaire and the Encyclopédie, but then New Guy raised an issue that kicked off a debate I seem to be having on a regular basis lately. New Guy – who is a lawyer and struck me as rather right wing and conservative (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) – suggested that Europe after the Enlightenment and Revolution was much more violent than it had been under the ancien régime. Therefore, he implied, these movements had been generally bad things, which had led to 20th century nightmares like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. I’m well aware that the 19th century in Europe was heinously violent, with revolution after revolution in Germany and elsewhere, but I don’t know enough to make any intelligent comment on the causal connections between those events and the rise of a Hitler or a Stalin. Nor am I trying to downplay the scale of the wars and atrocities that have scarred the world over the last century.

But I do know enough to say that the world before the 18th century was no picnic, either. I think th
ere is a certain romanticism about the distant past – especially our ‘own’ past – that precludes many people from seeing and engaging with its less palatable aspects. The History Channel and Hollywood have a lot to answer for here, with their relentless spectacles of ‘merrie olde Englande’ and the romance of medieval chivalry. But life in general was brutish, particularly if you were female, young or poor.

When people talk about the world being more violent today, I suspect they’re only considering the carnage they’re seeing on the news every night. They’re not considering that in places like England and France, public torture and judicial murder used to be an entertaining day out for the family. (Can Grand Theft Auto really compare to seeing your neighbour being hung, drawn and quartered or burned to death as a witch or heretic?) And while domestic violence is a huge problem in our society, men no longer have the unquestioned legal right to beat their servants, wives and children. (Let’s not forget that masters could beat th
eir apprentices, too, a form of ‘workplace bargaining’ that draconian bosses would probably love to revive.) People who say society is more violent today are also forgetting the completely arbitrary nature of justice a few hundred years ago, when a starving peasant who killed a rabbit for the pot could find himself following it to oblivion at his lord’s pleasure.

And then there’s the Renaissance, which is often portrayed as a sort of golden age when everyone sat around marvelling at the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel. It was also a period when the countries
of Europe were almost constantly at war with each other and with themselves. I heard a podcast a while ago in which Thomas Laqueur was talking about the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of August, 1572. Over three days, something like 3000 people were killed in the city of Paris – at that time a city of perhaps 100,000 souls. Think about the impact of violent death on that scale on a population that size. If you live in an average-sized town, imagine what would happen if that many of your fellow residents were suddenly victims of the most extreme and nasty murders. There can have been very few, if any, people who weren’t directly affected by a slaughter that had the streets of Paris literally running ankle-deep in blood.

I don’t know, what do you think? Did the democratic revolutions of the 19th century bring more bad than good? Is the media making us paranoid by feeding us a constant diet of death and destruction (fear sells, after all)? Or is the world truly a more violent place now than it was a few hundred years ago?

* The illustration is a 15th century woodcut of the Dance of Death, an extremely common subject of late medieval art.

** The photo is of the Château d’Amboise. In 1560, a political plot to kidnap the young king François II was exposed here. Between 1200 and 1500 conspirators were executed and their bodies strung up from the château’s walls.


Digger said...

I think the people who see the glass as half full have a sense of history as progress; that things are better now. Those who see the glass as half empty have a sense of "The Good Old Days, when things were simpler."

I don't know that the world is a more violent place than it once was; I think the violence is different. I was going to comment on structural violence as an example, but would need to ponder more.

Belle said...

The violence remained violence, but perhaps it is our perception that the motivations and actors shifted. I mean, the 30 Years War was an incredibly bloody period; I seem to remember a prof telling us that about 30 million died by the violence of the period. Certainly the FR brought new 'reasons' for war and violence, but I'm sure I wouldn't draw a line from the FR to Stalin/Hitler that could stand up to scholarly scrutiny. We've certainly got better records of the carnage, don't we? Or do we?

Bavardess said...

I was thinking about this some more over the last few days, and I think it really is a matter of perception of what constitutes 'violence', and of how that violence is conceptualised and represented. Certainly, technology has enabled the level of state violence perpetrated against civilians to reach frightening levels in the 100 years. But I was also thinking about the change in what we consider violence (at least in western societies). I went to an exhibition of Hogarth engravings recently that was full of depictions of casual cruelty to animals and children. Now of course, Hogarth was trying to make a point about his society and not just reflecting an objective reality, but it did make me think about things that weren't even considered abusive then, which are generally seen as wrong now (though they still happen).

It's interesting that in the UK and NZ (maybe the US too) the movement against cruelty to animals/ vivisection (founding of the RSPCA etc.) developed alongside movements for women's rights/suffrage, and seems to have frequently engaged the same people as activists.

magistra said...

One of the problems is how many things violence covers. There have been studies showing that homicide rates have declined substantially since the Middle Ages: Manuel Essner, 'Modernization, self-control and lethal violence', British Journal of Criminology 41 (2001), 618-638 lists some of the studies.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of weapons and the ability to maintain large armies has increased dramatically since the Middle Ages, so that it's easier to kill more people, particularly in wars. And Ben Kiernan who writes on the history of genocide argues for the twentieth century as having a greater scale and intensity of genocide.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for that ref re: homicide rates. It's interesting that there is evidence to show homicides have declined (I'm assuming that is as a percentage of the total population, rather than raw numbers), whereas I bet most people's gut reaction would be to say that rates have gone up, and are going up all the time.

On genocide, I think it would depend to some degree on what is considered as included in such acts. If you just counted direct killing (e.g. with guns/weapons and organised forces) I imagine the 20th century would probably far outstrip earlier centuries. But if you include things like smallpox, alcohol and other western European 'gifts' to non-European societies, the numbers might stack up differently. Although perhaps another difference in the 20th century is the deliberate intention to wipe people out, rather than it being a result of imperial or colonising projects.