So We Live in an Age of Violence? Compared with When?

Roundup: Talking About History

Kelly Patterson, in the Ottawa Citizen (1-23-05):

It is past midnight. A forbidding house bathed in moonlight looms in the background. At the centre, a grisly scene -- a glowering psychopath stands over the body of a pregnant woman he has just killed and mutilated.

Hannibal II? Halloween? Friday the 13th? The possibilities are endless: After all, gory movies are still all the rage. And that's hardly surprising: These are violent times, so they say. We live in an age of serial killers, gang wars, drug lords, sexual predators. This is, in short, an age -- the age -- of violence.

But our psychopath is not the latest Quentin Tarantino creation; rather, he figures in a 17th-century engraving by English artist William Hogarth. And Hogarth's Cruelty in Perfection reflects a level of real-life, everyday brutality that our supposedly savage society can't even begin to imagine, for all our talk of modern violence.

In fact, criminologists and historians say that, when it comes to everyday life, never has there been a more peace-loving, less violent society in western civilization. True, our entertainment can be gory, but compared to our great-grandparents, we're pussy-cats.

Imagine the modern-day reaction to the annual May festival in Ypres, Belgium, where people threw live cats from the belfry of the town hall to purge evil from the city -- a practice that persisted until 1817. Barroom brawls were routine for most working men through to the early 1900s; wife-battering was once "universal," as the celebrated social historian Edward Shorter put it, and child-beating was de rigueur in most households well into the 20th century.

"There has been a sea-change in attitudes toward violence," says American crime historian Julius Ruff.

In everything from our penal system to the way we treat our pets, modern society has shown "a growing repugnance for violence," Ruff notes in his 2001 book, Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800.

Many countries have even gone so far as to ban the spanking of children. Last fall, a host of health organizations across Canada called for such a ban; Austria and the Scandinavian countries have already outlawed it....

Manuel Eisner points to a "decisive shift" in the way traditional blood feuds and honour killings -- the hallmark of a society that lives by the sword -- were dealt with. Starting in the 16th century, he says, states moved to ban the vigilante-style justice of duels and other forms of honour killings, reserving retributive violence for themselves through executions, prison and torture. As early as 1667 in Paris, authorities had invented the urban police force, with the first full-fledged modern-style force emerging with London's "bobbies" in 1829.

But the anti-violence movement was not simply imposed by the state: It also came from within, as the religious movements of the 16th and 17th centuries revolutionized the way people saw themselves and others.

Led by the early Protestants, a wave of religiosity swept Europe after the Reformation, replacing a culture of duelling and dust-ups with one that "stressed introspection and the cultivation of shame and guilt," Eisner writes.

As Bible-thumping began to replace head-bashing in popular culture, another important development was under way: the rise of individualism. With both Catholics and Protestants worrying more about their personal relationship with God and less about their clan's status, the high violence of a blood-feud society began to give way to a gentler culture preoccupied with "issues of human dignity and empathy for the weak," as Eisner puts it.

Soon the public began to develop a distaste for blood sports. In Britain, the practice of bull-running, once popular across Europe, had died out by the last half of the 19th century. Men and women whose ancestors had ripped apart live geese with their bare hands, or burned sacks of cats alive as part of annual festivals, founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Public executions, once considered festive occasions, were done behind closed doors as of 1867 in Britain.

In short, the state, with help from the church, transformed its bloodthirsty subjects into more law-abiding -- and much more squeamish -- citizens....

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