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

By Thurston, Robert W. | The Historian, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Thurston, Robert W., The Historian


A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present. By Robert Muchembled. Translated by Jean Birrell. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012. Pp. vi, 377. $29.95.)

The French historian Robert Muchembled has produced another thoughtful examination, akin to his history of the devil, of Western European life over the course of many centuries. It is a bit unfortunate that his title suggests global coverage. A History of Violence draws above all from French history, with references to the Low Countries, England, Germany, and occasionally Colombia and the United States. This concentration does not necessarily impair the value of the book, but it undermines the implication that Western European experience is generalizable.

Muchembled argues that into the early modern period, young, unmarried males engaged in group violence tolerated by society. Linking the penis and the knife, or pointed instruments in general, Muchembled describes violent contests between or within groups of young men over honor, leadership, and young women. Then, as the Middle Ages ended, Western European states introduced ever more controls on such violence. States coopted male aristocrats into service and channeled their aggression into war. Legal systems assumed determinations of punishment and restoration of personal honor. Peasants lost the right to bear arms, and villages were increasingly integrated into the world around them. All of these factors caused traditional youth violence, located primarily outside towns, to fade.

But in certain periods, such violence rose again, including in the French suburban riots of 2005. Muchembled links these episodes to traditional expressions by unsettled males of their frustration at being unable to find a satisfactory place in society. …

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