Saturday, December 10, 2016

Violence in (English) history

There are many remarkable things to note from this great TLS review of a book by one James Sharpe about violence in England.  For example:
He refers to a study of the court records of five counties and two cities (London and Bristol) for the period 1201–76, for example, which has produced a homicide rate of 20 per 100,000 population. The equivalent figure today is 1.15 per 100,000. On this reckoning, the southern counties of medieval England were more dangerous than Mexico today – and four times as dangerous as the United States.

One of the many virtues of Sharpe’s book is that he doesn’t leave it there. He looks into the likely victims of England’s murdering classes, which turns up another contrast with modernity (the murder rate dropped to about its present level around 200 years ago). This is that you were much more likely to be killed by a stranger in medieval England than by someone you knew, including a member of your own family. In fact, Sharpe quotes the results of research showing that “murders within the family occurred at about the same level as they do today in the UK and USA”. Perhaps the most dangerous place to bump into a stranger was Oxford. Going to university in the fourteenth century sounds like undertaking a tour of duty in a particularly hot war zone. In the 1340s, the homicide rate was apparently up around 120 – higher than Caracas or San Pedro, Honduras, currently the two most violent cities in the world not officially at war.

....Oxford was just a very volatile place, where around 6,000 inhabitants, among them about 1,500 undergraduates, didn’t get along very well. An armed population didn’t help either. Most men seem to have carried knives, with stabbing the cause of the majority of deaths. But as well as being much, much more violent than today’s Oxonians, the medieval version made use of the sort of weapons that few citizens keep now. Sharpe describes a riot in the High Street in 1298, where students and university servants fought. Edward of Hales, a shopkeeper, went to an upstairs window of his premises and shot an arrow into the crowd, fatally wounding a student, Fulk Nermit.  

Wait - "Fulk Nermit"?   What an odd name.  Anyway, back to the story:
Students themselves appear to have discovered new ways to fight each other, dividing “along geographical lines” between North and South Oxford. Having no affiliation, however, was no guarantee of safety. Sharpe mentions one student who was killed when he stepped into the street – and into the middle of a brawl – “to pass water at the wrong moment”.
The "popularity" of infanticide gets attention, too, in the Tudor to the Victorian period:
These centuries were clearly the high tide of the crime of infanticide, when rigid public morality over illegitimacy combined with a lack of contraception to make it an all too common last resort for some women. The absence of fathers from the stories Sharpe tells is in itself instructive: by allowing the mothers to bear illegitimately, they avoided culpability only in a technical sense. The result was that, even towards the end of this period, “young children were the most vulnerable of all groups in Victorian England”, with 20 per cent of victims of homicide being aged under twelve months.
 There's lots more of interest.  Go read it.

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