The Changing Face of Violence

Joel F. Harrington

The Changing Face of Violence
How far have we come? Execution of a corrupt finance minister and thieving youth in Augsburg, 1579. (Credit: Zentralbibliothek Zurich)

Like most people, I have been transfixed by the current national debate on gun violence, desperately hoping for effective collective measures to prevent further killings. Tragically, we Americans seem to be enmeshed in the same arguments on a recurring basis, sparked by each new calamity, only to see action on the policy front blocked every time – even in the wake of the Newtown massacre last year.

The debate over gun control does not just turn on the perennial question of violence and human nature, although that remains a core issue – just remember the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” mantra of the NRA. The arguments among our fellow citizens also stem from an equally profound and distinctively American disagreement over the relationship between the individual and the state. This historical tension over the state monopoly of violence is particularly evident in the rhetoric of the pro-gun groups, characterized by a fundamental distrust of government at all levels. Prodded further, many “Second Amendment defenders” would argue that the citizen’s right to self-defense trumps the state’s authority in maintaining public order. Even the mildest restrictions on gun ownership—background checks for mental illness or a criminal record—thus not only threaten a core American freedom but call the entire legitimacy of the federal state into question.

As a historian of early modern Europe, I generally stay clear of contemporary policy debates. But having spent the last four years immersed in the personal journal of a professional executioner named Frantz Schmidt (1554-1634) — who, over the course of his 45-year career in Nuremberg, put to death nearly 400 individuals and maimed or tortured two to three times that number — I believe that the past offers some much needed broader perspective on both the changing face of human violence and the state’s indispensable role in curbing it.


Some readers come away from my book, The Faithful Executioner, concluding that we have indeed evolved into a more peaceful species. This is not at all my intended point, but it is an understandable reaction. Pre-modern Europe is foreign to us in more ways than one. Most obviously, people had a dramatically different experience of violence. In sixteenth-century Germany, most men regularly carried knives or other weapons, including guns. Private and family feuds often turned deadly and brutal robbers roamed the countryside at their leisure. Even with the imperfect statistics available, it is clear that homicide and assault rates were much higher in Frantz Schmidt’s society than in the modern U.S. or Europe. At the same time, capital punishment in various forms — ranging from the infamous drawing and quartering to simple hanging — was also much more frequent, more violent, and fully public. Even Texas at its peak of 40 executions in 2000 cannot touch sixteenth-century Nuremberg, where the proportionate annual rate was 150 times higher.

Given these and similar trends, some scholars, most famously the social psychologist Steven Pinker, have concluded that we as a species are becoming less violent. This news is certainly heartening, if counterintuitive, at least to those of us besieged by daily reports of massacres in Syria, bombings in Iraq, and gun rampages in the U.S. Even taking into account the world wars and genocides of the twentieth century, Pinker argues that we are statistically much better off in terms of danger than at any time in recorded history, measured almost exclusively by intentional deaths. It undoubtedly causes chagrin for Pinker, an outspoken secular liberal, that his gun control opponents can claim his argument as proof not only that modern, rational people can be trusted with firearms and but also that the two developments—decreased homicides and a better armed citizenry—are in fact closely related.

On the other side of the debate over the historical evolution of violence are writers such as geographer Jared Diamond, who stress the close correlation between technical advancement in Europe during the past five centuries and the increasing destructiveness of weapons (think not just nuclear bombs, but Uzis, M-16s, and IEDs). The twenty-first century world of Diamond thus represents the amplification of violence, rather than its diminishment. This time, gun control advocates can take heart.

I find just two problems with both sweeping overviews: First, violence is not a monolithic, unchanging entity, capable of easy quantification. Second, the reasons that certain types of violence have declined in the West have nothing to do with a change in human nature; nor is the impact of technology as one-sidedly pernicious as Diamond assumes.

Let’s begin with the nature of violence itself. To argue our own (or any) society is more or less violent than in the past misses the point at an even more fundamental level: Violence is broader and deeper than just intentional killings or physical assaults. Perhaps because I commute on a near daily basis between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries, I see in both eras an intuitive understanding that human violence is much more pervasive and malleable than mere homicide statistics suggest. What scientists call a bio-archeological tendency and theologians call original sin lies deep within our nature. The urge to fulfill a desire by force can also take many forms other than outright assault or killing. In that sense, all human societies are violent. It is a bond connecting all of us across the centuries and around the world.

The so-called civilizing process—the creation of a more socially integrated and collectively prosperous society under the rule of law—does not necessarily result in the elimination or even reduction of violence, but rather its transformation. Modern violence can include various forms of state force (intimidation, imprisonment, torture, execution), interpersonal aggressions (sexual harassment, stalking, child abuse), self-destructive acts (eating disorders, self-mutilation, suicide), and psychological abuse.

One of the great “achievements” of the civilizing process over the past five centuries has been the increased privatization and internalization of violence — a psychological shift with profound real-world consequences. To be sure, Schmidt’s contemporaries enjoyed tabloid accounts of bloody murders and gruesome battle sagas, just like we enjoy our horror movies. And yes, it remains difficult to establish direct links between incidences of gun violence today and increasingly graphic video games, Internet pornography, and the collective opus of Quentin Tarantino. But the modern intensification of internalized violence is an indisputable fact. For better and for worse, more sophisticated technology has made an entire spectrum of human experiences more accessible to more people in more extreme forms.

Perhaps the most obvious indictment of modern internalized violence is the global spike in suicides during the past 40 years, particularly among the young. According to the World Health Organization, self-killing today accounts for four times as many intentional fatalities as war or other state violence, and 15% more than homicide—the inverse of Frantz Schmidt’s Europe.

The implications for the supposed evolution of human nature over the past five centuries seem clear, but let us be explicit. Readers of The Faithful Executioner have often expressed surprise at the many similarities, particularly at the level of personal emotions, between our two, distant societies. Frantz Schmidt’s personal journal, for instance, does not paint a picture of a heartless monster. Like most of us today, the executioner himself was appalled by the cold, premeditated acts of violence he encountered and saddened by moments of passion that turned unexpectedly deadly. This hardened professional was surprisingly affected by the suffering of victims, frequently adopting their perspective in his journal’s descriptions of crimes. Violence against children and the elderly filled him with especially intense grief and rage.

Nor is his world as bizarre and alien to us as we might assume, despite its gruesome and flamboyant methods of criminal punishment. Interpersonal acts of violence – rape, assault, murder – stemmed from the same range of emotions, calculated motives, and unintended consequences as they do today. Perpetrators included jealous boyfriends, adulterous wives, feuding co-workers, mentally ill parents, and, of course, a variety of professional criminals and, occasionally, sociopaths. In short, I found no evidence in my research that people in the past were more or less aggressive than today, or conversely, more or less compassionate.


So if it’s not our supposedly evolved empathy or other emotional changes that separate the modern U.S. from Frantz Schmidt’s world, what is it? It is undeniable, after all, that some forms of violence—the ones singled out by Pinker and others—have declined in the modern West. How do we explain that? Here we return to the indispensable role of the successful state monopoly over violence.

Take the aforementioned decrease in homicides and public executions. Law enforcement, even in an advanced city-state such as sixteenth-century Nuremberg, was woefully ineffective. Consequently, punishment—on those rare occasions when violent offenders were apprehended—was severe: public flogging, mutilation, and a variety of public execution methods, ranging from hanging to the infamous drawing-and-quartering. Dramatic and sometimes gory punishments were the only reassurance that weak governmental authorities could offer their fearful constituents. Given the rudimentary state of forensic investigation, judicial torture also played an instrumental role in interrogation and conviction.

The same direct correlation between weak government and “private justice” is evident in a variety of past and present societies, from the American Wild West to Somalia in 2013. Poverty and the “stand-your-ground” culture are also closely related. In other words, poor societies with weak governmental controls and traditions of self-redress create conditions that both support more killing and maiming and provide fewer remedies for reducing the same.

By contrast, modern affluent societies (such as our own) with relatively strong law enforcement (bolstered by sophisticated technology) tend to experience proportionately less much violence of this nature, with some internal areas of exception, such as poor, urban centers. Greater restraints on the carrying of firearms, still absurdly modest in the U.S. by European standards, are directly related to the decline of this type of violence in our society. Most modern Americans, consequently, are far less likely to be killed in an ambush or bar fight than the average individual in sixteenth-century Germany or modern-day Afghanistan.

This gradual growth in state power has been balanced by a second, more recent, and even more fundamental distinction between these two worlds: the development of the notion of inalienable human rights. This has provided at least a theoretical and legal basis for limiting state coercion and violence, even in the pursuit of justice. While no Western country has a spotless record on the use of governmental coercion, the U.S. is in that fortunate club where such extreme measures on a routine basis are unthinkable. Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, neither recognize such externally imposed restrictions nor place the sovereignty of the individual on par with sovereignty of the state. Frantz Schmidt would have agreed that even apprehended criminals had a right to due process, but the idea that this right included protection of their bodies following incriminating evidence or conviction for a serious offense would have been incomprehensible. The executioner in fact lobbied his superiors to moderate and standardize state violence, but abolishing it outright would have been far too great an intellectual jump for anyone in his society.

If we want to have a more informed discussion of the role of guns in our country, we must stop thinking of violence solely in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. What most separates those of us in the “civilized” modern day from our ancestors in the violent past is not the degree of aggressive impulses or even the number of yearly homicides. It is our collective response to all forms of violence in our day.

In the instance of reducing gun killings, that means understanding the importance of a clear state monopoly on violence and the subsequent rule of law. Untreated mental disorders and the availability of military weaponry, exacerbated by a cultural celebration of violence, put all of us at greater risk in a variety of ways. Indeed, a leap backwards for us is not inconceivable. It is in fact what some of our political leaders are considering: a return to “private justice” at the hands of a citizenry armed with military weapons, coupled with calls for less-restrained interrogation methods and more extreme state punishments for terrorists and other violent criminals. I find the world of pre-modern Europe fascinating, but I have no desire to live in it. We must be ever vigilant about the balance between individual rights and state authority, but at the same time we cannot deny that reasonable government restrictions on private violence have made all of us safer. Even a sixteenth-century executioner knew that.


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About The Author:

Joel F. Harrington is Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and author of The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013).

  • Euan Page

    Interesting – thanks. It’s been a while since I read Pinker’s book, but I’m pretty sure that it does spend quite a bit of time addressing the qualitative shift in attitudes to violence you allude to, doesn’t it?

    • Joel H.

      Yes, except that he addresses the qualitative shift more in terms of changes in human nature, especially regarding empathy and emotions about killing, not about other forms of violence (to my recollection). I don’t see the same emotional shift over the past five centuries, but I do see different social and legal structures emerging. In short, I don’t believe people in modern developed societies are “more rational,” just that we are the collective heirs of a more effective law enforcement regime.

  • Scott P.

    “Perhaps the most obvious indictment of modern internalized violence is
    the global spike in suicides during the past 40 years, particularly
    among the young. According to the World Health Organization,
    self-killing today accounts for four times as many intentional
    fatalities as war or other state violence, and 15% more than
    homicide—the inverse of Frantz Schmidt’s Europe.”

    Given that suicide was considered a mortal sin in 16th-century Europe, isn’t it likely that a large proportion of suicides were classified as “accidents” to avoid the shame and embarrassment to the family that a suicide would have brought? I don’t think we can claim anything close to accurate statistics on suicide rates in the 16th century.

    • Joel H.

      I completely about the dampening effect of suicide as a mortal sin on 16th century numbers, and would in fact expand that skepticism to a wariness about all premodern statistics. At the same time, the religious stigma around suicide likely also lowered its actual incidence in Frantz Schmidt’s day. Also, the spike I was most emphasizing was since the mid twentieth century.

  • stevesailer

    Thanks. Your book sounds fascinating. You might find my review of Pinker’s magnum opus interesting:

    • Joel H.

      Very interesting and thought-provoking indeed. Thanks Steve!

  • XanderDeWijs

    If your point that we are still as violent as 500 years ago, I totally agree, but this is a tat well-duh!-Captain-Obvious as well as superfluous since evolution works over millions of years, not centuries.

    You’re wrong of course, when your assertion is that violence hasn’t changed, it has, I guess you admit as much, but the following jump is rather bizarre: internalized violence is of the same importance as externalized violence, as in gun sprees etc.? I bet the parents of the 20 Sandy Hook kids strongly disagree.

    Perhaps I’ve missed it, but you don’t mention the most obvious explanation for the drop in violence is wealth increase, not “a better armed citizenry”. People don’t have to fight to survive anymore the way they had to. This is supported by the data that poor areas of the world, Africa, Central America, etc, still have the medieval levels of violence.

    What’s more you make a couple glaring errors, which are rather egregious.
    The first is:
    “ the two developments—decreased homicides and a better armed citizenry—are in fact closely related.” This is a variation on the rightwing NRA mantra
    that ‘an armed society makes a polite society.’

    This is rather a ridiculous notion when we look at the difference in violence levels between the USA and … frankly everybody else.
    But limiting ourselves to the the OECD countries:

    With almost two and a half more residents (2.37) the other OECD countries (pop: 746mil) have barely half of the gun homicides the US has. 7,100 vs 15,200. To put that in one number, taking the OECD as the norm, the USA has about 5 times the gun homicides the rest of the OECD has. You can argue that down to perhaps 4 times, but not much lower. This is very high, especially considering the US is much wealthier per capita than the OECD. The downside of the huge income gap is a factor there.

    Now, if you define politeness as “high numbers of gun homicides”, I guess that slogan is correct. But in NO WAY can one state that a better armed citizenry leads to a decrease in homicides. And the data does NOT suggest that other countries compensate fully by knife killings or some such.

    The second error:
    “According to the World Health Organization, self-killing today accounts for four times as many intentional fatalities as war or other state violence, and 15% more than homicide—the inverse of Frantz Schmidt’s Europe.”

    A curious observation indeed! If the suggestion here is that “things are just as bad or worse” than in 16th century Europe, I’d strongly reject that notion! It stands to reason that we have four times as much suicides as war killings, because we have much less war, not MORE suicides.

    A third glaring error is that this article is very euro-centric, it completely ignores the level of violence in Bhutan, Benin, and the Australian interior (low violence) and in Sri Lanka, Liberia and Serbia (high violence)

    A fourth short coming is that this article tries to have single/double-factor explanations for something quite complex as the level of violence.

    • Joel H.

      I’ll admit that I’m perplexed by this comment, since I am in fact
      refuting the very points you think I’m asserting. A better armed
      citizenry does NOT make for a safer society; It is people like Pinker
      who are proposing radical changes in human nature
      over the past five centuries, not me; internalized violence–including the decline of civility on the
      Internet– is not equivalent to gun violence but does in fact contribute to
      it, etc. And yes, violence is a complicated phenomenon–that is
      actually my main thesis. We seem to actually agree
      on most points. Please reread the article if you have the time.

  • Timothy U

    General issue— I think we all tend to simply insert claims like this without checking them out, but 30 seconds of googling show suicides have not spiked in the last 40 years, and for the US have remained in a band of between 10 and 13 per hundred thousand since 1955 (in a WHO data set).

    • Joel H.

      Thanks for this comment. I am hardly an expert on this question, so I was going by a WHO estimate that global suicide rates have increased by 60% since the 1950s, mostly outside the U.S. ( Of course, given the reporting challenges, this is hardly a precise matter. But I do think that there seems to be a general global trend.