Yes we are. This is true when present-day Western society is compared with its recent past. But modern punitiveness is not simply a backlash; it is accompanied by a concern for crime victims that is more intense than ever before. When viewed over some six centuries, moreover, the standards of punishment have undergone important transformations. This is no less true for violence.
These questions refer to key themes of my new book, Violence and Punishment. Along the way, the book explores specific and general questions: Why did fights between Jews and Christians often take place on the Blue Bridge in Amsterdam? How did a yellow bulldog betray a killer who had hoped to remain undetected? What happened to a thief whom the citizens stopped by splitting his skull with an axe? Why did executioners activate the guillotine by cutting the rope that holds up the blade with a sword? What does the punishment of Adam and Eve reveal about the work and fears of our ancestors?
As the reader familiar with my work will expect, I am writing within the tradition established by Norbert Elias. The human stories of this book are firmly embedded in a theoretical framework that derives from Elias but also creatively expands on his effort. I am using the concept of civilizing processes of course, but also the theory of diminishing power differences between social groups and that of changes from one figuration to another. I expand on this theoretical framework by giving the theme of honor a central place in it. Finally, I am also commenting on the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Emile Durkheim.
The chapters of this book have been published before, but they have all been thoroughly revised and updated. More important, most of the essays were published originally in languages other than English or in an unofficial series. For Anglo-Saxon readers especially, they are in fact new. The reader will note the extraordinarily wide scope. One essay discusses murder and honor in Asia, concluding that long-term trajectories of violence offer a more promising base for intercontinental comparison than imaginary and static “civilizations.” Two essays trace their subject back to the beginnings of agrarian society, while ending squarely in the present.
Readers, I hope and expect, will enjoy the style and original ideas.
Pieter Spierenburg is professor of historical criminology at Erasmus University, Rotterdam.