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Violence, now and then

By Hannah Skoda


We are used to finding a stream of extreme violence reported in the media: from the brutal familial holocaust engineered by Mick Philpott to the terror of the Boston bombings. Maybe it is because such cases seem close to home and elicit reactions both voyeuristic and frightened, that they gain so much more emotive coverage than quotidian violence in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As a historian of violence, it is tempting to join in this discussion.  And yet it is perhaps more revealing to comment upon the commentary. Indeed, the meta-commentary surrounding these cases has been particularly striking: from outrage over the demonization of the welfare state by the Daily Mail, to criticism of the hypocrisy of political and media focus on the Boston bombings, to the exclusion of the higher mortality rates from daily American gun-crime. Such acts are self-evidently out of the ordinary, abnormal. And yet they can tell us a lot about the ordinary, about what is considered normal, in the reactions they elicit. Then we can expose the fissures and hypocrisies of our own responses to violence.

This also presents a fruitful approach for historians and anthropologists of violence. In many ways, this is a question of sources; we are reliant upon representations of acts of brutality and all the distortions that this entails. So it makes sense to think more carefully about how violence was, and is, represented and reacted to. In my own work on the fourteenth century, a picture of a society with a somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards physical violence emerges. Levels of violence and bloodshed were probably very high compared to nowadays. Yet the very profusion of evidence, legal, literary and moral, indicates that this was an era when people were bothered and frightened by extreme violence, but couldn’t quite make up their minds about it. They weren’t sure what distinguished violence from discipline, familial or judicial; whether violence was the prerogative of the state, or whether it was a useful way of negotiating social relations within the community; sometimes they weren’t even sure whether things were funny or appalling. But they certainly discussed violence in ways at least as complex as commentary today.

On the one hand, we find old men traumatised by memories of violence from half a century previously. An inquiry into judicial rights in the northern French village of Ham-en-Artois in 1303 reported witnesses in their sixties recalling their distress at seeing a murdered corpse when they were just ten years old. They remembered the name of the victim, the location of the body, the time when the crime was supposed to have been committed. The source reveals not just distressed individuals unable to shake off the vision of violence many years later, but a community which had discussed the case over the intervening years, debating, corroborating, and clarifying the details. Here we have a picture of a society shocked and upset by brutality. 

But consider reactions to the following incident. Records from 1288 in the northern French town of Merck describe an accusation by the wife and child of a man who had apparently committed suicide; they claimed that the local legal official had engineered the man’s death by drowning in order to make it look like suicide. The official was apparently motivated by personal enmity, as well as sheer greed (a suicide’s possessions were forfeited to the relevant authorities). We cannot know the truth of the case.  But we do know that this complaint only gained attention several years later and that the official was barely held accountable, perhaps out of unwillingness to undermine the legal system, perhaps because it was sensed that this was really about personal vendetta. He even gained re-employment in another town in a similar capacity. Thirteenth-century contemporaries were not overly bothered by the emotional and physical cruelty of the incident.

What can we learn nowadays from these widely contrasting responses to violence in the fourteenth century? There may have been a statistical decline in levels of physical violence over the centuries, and we may have become more sensitized to the sight of blood, but this doesn’t mean that our reactions have become any less problematic and ambivalent. If we step back and think about the range of modern reactions to violence — from horror at cases like that of Mick Philpott or the Boston bombings, to a willingness to turn aside from confronting the impact of gun-crime, to the chronic brutality in much modern entertainment — we will find a similarly complex and troubling set of attitudes. Whilst so-called acts of terror seem to linger in the collective memory, we quickly forget or turn aside from much violence which challenges our collective responsibility in ways too challenging fully to acknowledge.

Hannah Skoda is Fellow and Tutor in History at St John’s College, Oxford. Her recent published work includes Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330  and Legalism: Anthropology and History, co-edited with Paul Dresch. She is currently embarking on research into the misbehaviour of students in fifteenth-century Oxford, Paris, and Heidelberg. She writes about the perspectives afforded by the study of medieval history on her blog, Ideas Now and Then.

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Image credit: Vie de saint Denis – cropped [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

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