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The Challenges of Studying Violence

August 6, 2013

Authored by: Hannah Skoda, Fellow and Tutor in History at St John's College, Oxford, author of Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330, available via Oxford Scholarship Online.

Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330

The historian of violence faces three main challenges – and these are challenges which, in a way, mimic the challenges of historical study more broadly.  But they are also challenges which remind us of the point and value of historical study, particularly of difficult topics such as violence, and illustrate its relevance when dealing with current problems.

The first challenge is to do with change.  Historians and sociologists are somewhat obsessed with trying to chart the decline of violence over time, an endeavour fraught with problems of comparability and statistical indeterminacies.  Having studied violence in the fourteenth century, and struggled with the scarcity of sources, I’m not at all convinced that constructing long term narratives of the decline of violence is really possible.  But this isn’t to say that we can’t address the issues of changing attitudes to violence and shifts in the ways in which it was carried out through minute analysis of violent gestures in a given period, and nuanced exploration of the responses it engendered.  As opposed to mere quantification, such an approach allows us to redress stereotypes about particular periods.  In the case of the Middle Ages, the label of a heavily brutalised society is supported by the statistics, but not by examination of individual cases where we find, for example, elderly villagers in the northern French hamlet of Ham-en–Artois still displaying shock and distress at murders they witnessed as children.

The second challenge is also one of historicization. Steve Pinker’s recent and extremely controversial book on The Decline of Violence undermines the idea that violence is a culturally constructed phenomenon, and instead suggests the perspective of evolutionary psychology.  In other words, we need to recognise that much physical violence is carried out because of psychological impulses which are far more deeply rooted than any cultural explanation will allow.  The challenge can be made in far simpler terms: surely some of the people I analyse are just psychopaths; surely the resort to violence is sometimes just the result of anger which transcends the centuries; surely drunken violence can be explained simply by the presence of alcohol.  But we must respond to such criticisms by pointing out that, whether or not the impulse to be violent is innate, the way in which it is carried out, the gestures used, the responses it provokes, are highly contingent. Even when exploring the nature of medieval violence in the tavern, I found it to be often drunken and spontaneous but self-consciously situated in a very particular cultural milieu, in one case even mimicking the gestures of three thieves in a popular play from Arras.

I think the third challenge is, although less often discussed, most important.  How do we avoid over-intellectualisation of violence?  There is a real danger that we forget the very real human suffering, physical and emotional, occasioned by violence – this isn’t helped when the period is as distant as the Middle Ages, and the sources so sparse that we tend to know nothing more about people than their name and how they died.  One way to overcome this challenge is to engage with the truly terrible cases, to shock oneself into emotional engagement; and alongside this, it’s important to explore the emotional reactions of contemporaries.  These reactions can be shown to be complex and very different from our own.  The grotesque and gruesome antics of an early fourteenth-century gang known as the Confédération ou conspiration de la bonne volonté were deemed by many to be funny; they can be shown to mingle horror and comedy in ways very alien to our modern sensibilities, for example, the witness of a rape of an elderly lady by a young student made a sort of public farce out of the episode. They can also be shown to have been profound and distressing, as in the case of a young woman and her child whose husband/father was murdered by a local legal official and the death disguised as a suicide.

Taken together as responses to these challenges – the close analysis of violence qualitatively rather than quantitatively, the acknowledgement of the cultural resonances of particular forms of violence,  and respect for the dignity and pain of the victims – make the study of violence not only rewarding but hugely valuable for understanding the on-going problems of violence in our own societies.  It is a highly contingent phenomenon, and one which can never be fully addressed without full recognition of the complex variety of emotions it provokes.


Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330 is available in print and through Oxford Scholarship Online.

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