A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present

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Polity, Aug 25, 2008 - History - 274 pages
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This book offers a fascinating and insightful overview of seven centuries of murder in Europe. It tells the story of the changing face of violence and documents the long-term decline in the incidence of homicide. From medieval vendettas to stylised duels, from the crime passionel of the modern period right up to recent public anxieties about serial killings and underworld assassinations, the book offers a richly illustrated account of murder's metamorphoses.

In this original and compelling contribution, Spierenburg sheds new light on several important themes. He looks, for example, at the transformation of homicide from a private matter, followed by revenge or reconciliation, into a public crime, always subject to state intervention. Combining statistical data with a cultural approach, he demonstrates the crucial role gender played in the spiritualisation of male honour and the subsequent reduction of male-on-male aggression, as well as offering a comparative view of how different social classes practised and reacted to violence.

This authoritative study will be of great value to students and scholars of the history of crime and violence, criminology and the sociology of violence. At a time when murder rates are rising and public fears about violent crime are escalating, this book will also interest the general reader intrigued by how our relationship with murder reached this point.

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This is a superb book. It draws upon a wealth of data to explore a little known fact that, over the long sweep of history since the middle ages, murder rates in Europe and the US have declined dramatically. What we now call 'murder' is committed by a new demographic, and is understood in a very different way from that of the past. Spierenburg skilfully draws upon Norbert Elias's ideas concerning 'civilising processes' to help account for some of the long term trends and counter-trends in levels of deadly violence, covering some fascinating historical data along the way. The increasing monopolisation of violence by the state (not simply the disappearance of violence) is centrally explored, along with the increasing social pressure towards exercising foresight, and the interplay between social and psychological processes that this entails. The counter trend towards increasing levels of murder since the 1950s is also explored in depth, and definitely not dismissed as a 'blip' in relation to the overall trend towards declining personal violence. Spierenburg's book is a useful analysis of a set of processes explored more recently by scholars such as Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, though arguably Spirenburg's use of Elias is more nuanced, and his analysis specifically of murder more detailed. This is a great book for the lay reader, as well as students interested in violence, civilisation, and the genesis of juridical constraints on personal violence. 


The Fragility of Life in Medieval Europe
From Acquiescence to Criminalization
The Social Differentiation of Male Fighting
Women and the Domestic Sphere
Babies and the Insane
The Marginalization of Murder 18001970
1970 to the Present

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About the author (2008)

Pieter Spierenburg is Professor of Historical Criminology at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

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