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A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present

ISBN: 978-0-7456-4746-3
388 pages
December 2011, Polity
A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present (0745647464) cover image
Violence is so much in the news today that we may find it hard to believe that it is less prevalent than it was in the past. But this is exactly what the distinguished historian Robert Muchembled argues in this major new work on the history of violence. He shows that brutality and homicide have been in decline since the thirteenth century. The thesis of a ‘civilizing process', of a gradual taming, even sublimation, of violence, seems, therefore, to be well-founded.

How are we to explain this decline in public displays of aggression? What mechanisms have modernizing societies employed to repress and control violence? The increasingly strict social control of unmarried, male adolescents, together with the coercive education imposed on this age group, are central to Muchembled's explanation. Masculine violence gradually disappeared from public space, to become concentrated in the home. Meanwhile, a vast popular literature, precursor of the modern mass media, came to play a cathartic role: the duels of The Three Musketeers and the amazing exploits of Fantômas, as described in the new crime literature invented in the nineteenth century, now helped to purge the violent impulses.

And yet we seem, in the first few years of the twenty-first century, to be witnessing a resurgence of violence, especially among the youths of the inner cities. How should we understand this resurgence in relation to the long history of violence in the West?

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  • Chapter 1. What is violence?
  • Is violence innate?
  • Violence and manliness
  • Semen and blood: a history of honour
  • Chapter 2. Violence: seven centuries of spectacular decline
  • The reliability of the crime figures
  • Seven centuries of decline
  • The 'making' of young men
  • Chapter 3. The youth festivals of violence (thirteenth to seventeenth centuries)
  • A culture of violence
  • Violent festivities and brutal games
  • Youth violence
  • Chapter 4. The urban peace at the end of the Middle Ages
  • The pacificatory towns
  • Controlling the young
  • Violence costs dear
  • Chapter 5. Cain and Medea. Homicide and the construction of sexed genders (1500-1650)
  • A judicial revolution
  • In pursuit of the ungrateful son: the spread of the blood taboo
  • Medea, the guilty mother
  • Chapter 6. The noble duel and popular revolt. The metamorphoses of violence
  • The duel, a French exception
  • Noble youths sharpen their swords
  • Popular violence and the frustrations of youth
  • Chapter 7. Violence tamed (1650-1960)
  • Murder forbidden
  • The civilizing town
  • Violence and changing concepts of honour in the countryside
  • Chapter 8. Mortal thrills and crime fiction (sixteenth to twentieth centuries)
  • The devil, assuredly & The birth of the crime fiction
  • From blood-thirsty murderer to well-loved bandit
  • Blood and ink
  • Chapter 9. The return of the gangs. Contemporary adolescence and violence
  • Death in paradise
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • 'Rebel without a cause', or 'eternal recurrence'
  • Is the end of violence possible?
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"A vivid, thoughtful, deeply researched exploration of one of the main problems of human societies and a fascinating reflection on the 'extreme plasticity of civilizations'."
Times Higher Education

"This is one of Robert Muchembled's best books, a lucid and persuasive combination of broad sweep with vivid detail and of synthesis with original research."
Peter Burke, University of Cambridge

"In this wide-ranging book, Robert Muchembled, one of France's most talented historians, draws on a lifetime of study to elucidate the history of violence in Europe from the late middle ages to the present. In showing how Western Europe by the twentieth century had achieved the lowest level of interpersonal violence yet known to the world, Muchembled employs modern gender analysis to challenge historians to reconsider many long-held assumptions about the control of violent behaviour in the West."
Julius R. Ruff, Marquette University and author of Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800

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