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Saturday, May 03, 2003


Alexander Stille (who wrote a very good book about the mafia in Sicily, Excellent Cadavers), writes about Elias' Civilizing Process in the NYT, and how Elias' theory that it was the civilizing process -- small changes in such things as the visibility one showed in managing one's own dirt, one's mucus, excrement, spit - signaled a larger, invisible change in the fabric of behavioral expectations that spread out over Western civilization tout court -- has been taken up by crime historians. The article is interesting, but it is also symptomatic of a discipline that, at least in the United States, consistently confuses crime and violence.

"Although there were no national statistics centuries ago, some historians discovered that the archives of some English counties were intact back to the 13th century. So in the 1970's they began diligently counting indictments and comparing them with estimated population levels to get a rough idea of medieval and early modern crime rates. Historians in Continental Europe followed suit and came up with findings that yielded the same surprising result: that murder was much more common in the Middle Ages than it is now and that it dropped precipitately in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

"Something very important changed in Western behavior and attitudes, and it stood much prevailing social theory on its head. "It was very surprising because social theory told us that the opposite was supposed to happen: that crime was supposed to go up as family and community bonds in rural society broke up and industrialization and urbanization took hold," said Eric H. Monkkonen, a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of several works on the history of criminality. "The notion that crime and cities go together made emotional sense, particularly in America, where at least recently crime is higher in cities."

Murder should be distinguished from war -- but it should not be allowed to engross violence to the exclusion of war. This was a mistake made by Francis Fukuyama in his book on the Great Instauration, in which he produced bogus statistics indicating a violence spike from 1945 to 1990 in the West. The statistics of course ignored war entirely. Crime went down under Hitler; violence didn't. In fact, the peacefulness of the post-war period is the most salient characteristic of the era, not a spike in violence.
Yet, this elementary mistake is repeated in the article:

"The theory that crime is determined by deterrence and law enforcement, by income inequality, by a high proportion of young men in a population, by the availability of weapons, by cities, most of those theories end up being wrong."Historians have offered various explanations for the unexpected fall in the crime rate. Initially some wondered whether the decline in early modern crime might be a result of industrialization and urbanization themselves. But James A. Sharpe, a historian at the University of York in England, said the big statistical dip in violence preceded industrialization and urbanization by more than a century."

Hmm. As I remember the 17th century, it was the era of one of the bigger spikes in violence: the Thirty years war. Significantly, the stats quoted by Stille come from British sources. Here's an idea: when two or more armies have been sweeping through an area for two or more years, the record of the "crimes" committed by individuals might not be an exact match with the level of violence in the area. Here's the way one historian, Ronald Asch, in German History, a scholarly journal, summed up the losses attendent on a war which took place as violence, supposedly, was collapsing:

"There is little doubt that the Holy Roman Empire suffered demographic losses of at least 30 per cent of its pre-war population, and that the worst affected areas, such as Pomerania or Wurttemberg, were depopulated to an even greater extent."

Asch quotes a contemporary about the way the war was waged:

"Later, in the midst of the war, a treatise on the art of war was published in Straubing by another military expert, Franciscus Bonbra, who considered it self-evident that soldiers would treat their own prince's or his allies' subjects just as badly as those who owed allegiance to the enemy. They would rape any woman who seemed halfway attractive, plunder the houses, destroy the crops and beat and torture the peasants to extort money. In the end they would set the entire village on fire."

Of course, these wouldn't be considered crimes to such as James A. Sharpe -- they were, after all, allowed by law.

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