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Making History of Violence


Violence has long been thought of under an anthropological approach and not under a historical approach, since it was considered that the initial basis of the human being is to be violent. However, ancient writers of modern times do not think so. For Aristotle, man is made to live in society and naturally made for communication and therefore for pacification. Rousseau insists rather on an idealized state. Things change in the 19th century when authors insist that man is an animal before being a human.

In this sense, he would have needs to be satisfied, which would lead him to acquire violent behavior since violence is considered natural in animals (according to the theories of Charles Darwin in particular). In the current context, violence is regularly ostracized from the news, it is however interesting to note that since the end of the Middle Ages, society has known a real movement of "Civilization of Mores" which leads us today to rethink violence otherwise.

Defining Violence

Appeared at the beginning of the 13th century in French, the word "violence" which derives from the Latin "vis", designating "force" or "vigor", characterizes a human being with a fiery and brutal character. It also defines a balance of power aimed at subduing or coercing others.

In the following centuries, civilization gave it a fundamental place, whether to denounce its excesses and say that it was illegitimate or to give it an eminent positive role and characterize it as legitimate.

Until the 20th century, the continent lived in violence. A violence that made it possible to respond to rival attacks, internal wars or differences of opinion, notably religious.

While some believe that violence is a purely innate phenomenon, the importance of the economic and social environment in the creation of perpetrators and acts of violence shows that it is not. It is however interesting to note that since the thirteenth century, the culprit has "a typical profile" since it would generally be young unmarried men, aged between 20 and 29 years (this is in particular the theory defended by the historian Robert Muchembled). In fact, destructive aggressiveness is very often a matter for men and women represent in English legal sources around 10% of those guilty of homicides and 14% in France. These statistics thus fuel the myth of the gentle and maternal woman who rocked Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Historians have also noted that in times of peace, the number of acts of violence increases due to population growth and the worsening of tensions between generations. In this context, is it necessary to wage war to reduce violence? Difficult to answer such a question; it remains that in times of war, and in particular since the end of the Middle Ages, the demographic fall leads to a reduction in violence, especially among young people.

The Spectacular Decline of Violence

The work of sociologist Norbert Elias is the first to defend the idea of ​​a spectacular decline in Violence since the end of the Middle Ages. In 1939, the German sociologist published a “History of the civilization process” which fell into oblivion to be rediscovered and reissued in the 1970s and translated into French, in two volumes, in 1973 and 1975, under the title “Civilization mores ". The revolutionary idea of ​​Elias is therefore to show that, since the Middle Ages, the West has known a very long movement of reduction of violence which passes from the outside by a strengthening of the state (which makes it possible to 'impose constraints on individuals) and by a development of self-restraint (which would lead to a reduction in impulses). His study is based on treatises of civilities which are more and more numerous at the end of the XVIth century (in particular the treaty of Erasmus in 1530, The puerile civility). The word "civility" will then be essential to describe the way of behaving in society. Elias manages to prove that there is a reduction in violence but he does not manage to show it in an indisputable way, his work being written in the 1930s, while little work has been developed on this subject.

Today, we know that Elias was right since, from studies on the English case, we have succeeded in showing that the homicide rate fell between the 13th and the 20th century. Indeed, in the thirteenth century, the homicide rate was on average 20 per 100,000 inhabitants in England, but it could rise in some cities to 110 for Oxford, or 45 for London. Around 1600, the homicide rate reached 10 per 100,000 inhabitants, which shows a radical drop that is confirmed, since in 1660, we would drop to 5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and in 1780 around 1 per 100,000 inhabitants. This drop is also true for France over somewhat more recent periods. In 1936, the homicide rate in France was 1.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, it rose to 0.8 in 1968, 0.7 in 2000 and in 2012, it rose to 1.1 per 100,000 inhabitants. However, there are nuances to be noted depending on the region (Corsica is at 7 per 100,000 inhabitants but the highest homicide rate in the world is found in Honduras with 91.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants). The homicide rate is obviously an index to be taken into account to demonstrate this decrease in violence, but a second allows it to be qualified: the suicide rate with a “gender” differential, we can see that it is Russia which has one of the highest suicide rates with 30 per 100,000 inhabitants (54 for men and 9 for women), followed by Japan which sits at 24.4 per 100,000 inhabitants (36 for men; 14 for women ). A third clue to use is the rape rate, but the numbers are hard to come by and the clues are less systematic. However, we know that this rate would be higher than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants in Africa, even if these figures should be taken with caution.

In view of the many clues that historians have, it is therefore indisputable that there was a turning point in the violence between the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, a turning point that all European countries would know but later than England (in Amsterdam in the 15th century, we are at 50 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and in the 19th century we go to 1).

A Return of Violence to the Front of the Stage?

Since 1945, the blood taboo has been imposed on Western Europe, since the memory of the massacres of the first twentieth century contributes to reinforcing the disgust of homicide and bloodthirsty violence. However, for the first time in its long history, European civilization finds itself freed from the direct pressure of war on its soil, with the exception of certain unstable margins. The result is a change in the relationship to the ancient law of force which results in an upheaval in the balance between age groups and sexes.

This virtual absence of conflicts on the territory leads to an unheard of fact for centuries, which is that the overwhelming majority of young Europeans in the second half of the 20th century have never suppressed or injured a human being, the very notion of homicide. resulting from a social and legal construction.

If the media seem to continually shower us with acts of violence perpetrated in France, recent increases in physical assault and homicide are perhaps only fluctuations on a curve that remains very low in the long term. The most pessimistic will see there the consequence of the crisis of family values ​​and the optimists the push of social control towards private spaces. But the truth certainly lies between the two. Today, historical patterns seem to be recurring. The reappearance of bands of young people, distant heirs to the juvenile bands of the 16th century, present new characteristics perfectly adapted to their time. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, juvenile delinquency also became an important problem. The notion is however debated among historians since it seems to indicate a sudden emergence of the phenomenon, whereas the discussion deserves to be taken again in a much broader framework, in particular that of the controls already operated on this age group in the 17th century and especially in the 18th century.

If today, a return to violence is indisputable, it is important to note that, as we have already said, these periods appear during long demographic and economic developments which are favorable to the rise of generational discontent.

Violence is a real field of historical study which is now attracted by many followers, with Professor Robert Muchembled in the spotlight. Difficult to understand, it should however be noted that it is part of our society although it has been considerably diminished since the end of the Middle Ages. However, today violence is really at a turning point with the use of ever more destructive and ever more impressive weapons. If during the battles of the Renaissance, few people were finally killed, today, with the use of weapons such as the atomic bomb, we have witnessed real massacres (especially during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ).

To think about violence is also to think about it through history, if we often say that history allows us to learn the lessons of the past, wouldn't it be interesting to look at it a little? more and study the past facts more vigorously?

For further

- Robert Muchembled, A History of Violence, from the end of the Middle Ages to the present day, Seuil, Paris, 2008
- Norbert Elias, La civilization des mœurs, Pocket Agora, 2003


Video: A History of Violence. Behind the Scenes: Acts of Violence. Warner Bros. Entertainment (January 2022).