A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present
by Robert Muchembled
Polity, 388 pages, $29.95

To those used to worrying about violence, the point of departure for Robert Muchembled’s book may come as a shock: Interpersonal violence is at a historic low. What accounts for the hundredfold drop in Europe’s murder rate since the Middle Ages? On the face of it, this simple fact would appear to confirm the common tale of Western progress from medieval religious barbarism to modern, more secular and therefore less violent, civilization.

The way that Muchembled tells the story, however, is not so simple. It is sex, not religion, that takes pride of place in his analysis. Since young men do the lion’s share of the killing, he argues, the key to understanding violence is the way that young men find their place in society in relation to each other, to women, and to older men.

According to Muchembled, author of previous histories of the devil and of the orgasm, violence in traditional European society is best understood as the effect of a system of honor among bachelors who required outlets for their pent-up sexual energies while awaiting marriage. Violence “had a positive value, maintaining the hierarchies and regulating material and symbolic exchanges.” And in a world of clan and kinship, violence often spread because honor was collective.

The cause was not so much rebellious sons but their fathers, who made their sons undergo long rites of passage before inheriting property and gaining the right to marry. Youth festivals, in which brutality was common, were one way of venting the frustrations of young males temporarily denied access to power and sex.

Manly violence went from being tolerated to discouraged in Western Europe (the United States is another case entirely) through the building of a disciplinary state by those whose interests the violence threatened. The story is not one of general pacification, however. Interpersonal local violence was minimized mainly through diverting murderous energies outward in war and conquest.

The first to try to tame traditional behaviors were the rulers of cities in the fifteenth century, who imposed fines and expulsions for violence to promote an environment more amenable to business. The spaces between cities”especially the lawless roads where the expelled criminals roamed”were pacified through the rise of sovereign states in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

“The nascent modern state,” Muchembled observes, “was all the more eager to instill fear in that it lacked real means to punish the majority of delinquents.” Contrary to the popular portrayal of torture as “medieval,” it was the early-modern monarchies that inaugurated “the golden age of judicial torture,” along with offering spectacular public executions that reflected the fragility of the new state’s monopoly on violence.

The modern state was not, in its initial appearance, a force of secularization and rationalization; rather, as Muchembled makes plain, it took on God-like pretensions. Public ceremonial torture and execution “produced an effect of the sacred.” Indeed, the state’s monopoly on violence was one with the state’s assumption of the sacred. The value of each individual life, furthermore, assumed an increased importance when it was taken in the name of the prince who represented God on earth.

By the mid-seventeenth century, such spectacles had declined because the state’s hold over the populace had been consolidated. This hold was not simply imposed from above but was the result of a new consensus, promoted by church and state but increasingly accepted and advanced by people who saw the advantages of limiting violence. Propertied and married men especially benefited by linking their interests with those of the state against the bachelors whose violence they saw as a threat.

Nevertheless, the process of internal pacification did not prevail without resistance. Muchembled explains both the development of dueling among the nobility and rural revolts against the centralization of authority as reactions against state repression of traditional codes of violence: “In each case, the participants claimed an eminent right to a straight fight, even if it resulted in the death of the adversary.”

There were, for example, 8500 popular movements in France from 1661 to 1789, with thousands more continuing well into the nineteenth century. Oppressive taxation and hunger were significant factors, but Muchembled insists that the revolts can fully be explained only by peasant resistance to the attempt “to strip them of their age-old rights to ritual violence.”

Given Muchembled’s hydraulic treatment of male sexual energies, removing one outlet for such energies must result in their coming out in another. So he argues that after 1650 the delegitimation of domestic violence was accompanied by a legitimation of armed service to the prince and later to the nation. “This prohibition was imposed, nevertheless, without completely inhibiting the aggressive potential of the young men, which was necessary to the ‘just’ wars of a civilization increasingly interested in conquest after the Great Discoveries.” Male aggression was made “useful rather than destructive.” Thus emerges a dual model of masculine behavior: the imperial man capable of brutality abroad and the responsible citizen who maintains peace at home.

When young men were not conscripted into armies, they were increasingly channeled into schools, factories, and prisons, all of which helped to inculcate the ban on violence. Schools educated young males in the new civility, factories sublimated productive energies, and prisons were reconfigured as “penitentiaries” intended to lead them to internalize remorse. From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, crime fiction also served to sublimate and redirect violent energies into harmless channels, and from the nineteenth century onward, sports served as another increasingly important outlet.

The result of this long process of punishing personal violence and redirecting bachelors’ tendencies to violence is a post-World War II murder rate in Western Europe that is one percent that of the medieval period.

Is Muchembled’s analysis convincing? He bases his argument on gender analysis but avoids a merely biological account of violence by arguing that the crucial factor is not simply the innate drives of men but also the relationship of young men with their elders. How and when young men take their place in society is the key. He makes clear that neither violence nor peaceableness is simply biologically innate; both are social productions.

That being said, he often makes his big idea about the gendered basis of violence bear more weight than it can:

The proliferation of constraints around the blood taboo profoundly altered the psychic equilibrium of young males, at a time when other prohibitions, of a sexual order, bore heavily down on them. The sons of privileged or wealthy bourgeois families were sometimes driven to suicidal despair, and more often, by a mechanism of sublimation, to types of legitimate competition put at the service of the community: the army, colonial conquest, missionary work among remote peoples, commercial enterprises and extreme sports.

Here, as elsewhere, he shoehorns nearly everything into his thesis about sublimation. Much of his book relies on careful primary research based in legal documents he has unearthed, but at other times his argument is based on little more than fanciful speculation about the “psychic equilibrium” of earlier generations of young males”to which he could not possibly have access.

Nevertheless, even if sex is not the only key to explaining violence, Muchembled makes a good case that it is an important and neglected factor. An interesting and suggestive aspect of his gender-based analysis is the near-total absence of religion as a cause of violence, unlike standard liberal narratives that attribute the progress of Western society to the taming of religious passions through secularization.

When Christianity does appear, it does so only as a rather weak check on manly brutality. In his account, the Church’s attempts to tame violence through preaching humility and peace had a negligible effect on the ancient traditions of manliness until its efforts were joined with the state’s in the early modern period.

Muchembled also resists a Western triumphalist narrative by suggesting that the taming of domestic violence was not simply the result of a progressive civilizing process”marking European civilization as the height of human evolution”but came at the price of colonial conquest on other continents and terribly destructive wars among nations in Europe.

What is perhaps most suggestive in the book is its implication that, even if the “civilizing” process in Europe was successful, something important was lost in the process. Here Muchembled might find himself in the company of Charles Taylor, whose massive project to explain the secular age suggests that the creation of the disciplined, rule-governed, disengaged modern subject comes with the danger of imprisoning us in dehumanizing structures of rationalized control. The loss of traditional, collective, and ritualistic forms of life and the loss of a transcendent horizon are accompanied by the loss of spontaneous and contingent forms of human action”what we might call freedom, if the word had not been so severely abused.

The book ends on a disquieting note. Muchembled wonders aloud whether the lack of military outlets for disinherited European males since World War II will lead to new outbursts of violence, especially among inner-city youths. I suppose only time will tell.

But the larger and more interesting question, which Muchembled does not directly address, is whether or not human beings are capable of progress in the moral life, whether or not we need war as an outlet for our violent tendencies”in particular, whether or not it even makes sense to say, with Pope Paul VI, “No more war, never again war.”

I am inclined to hope, with Renè Girard, that Jesus Christ might show us the way to overcome violence, not simply relocate it. But to do so is not a matter of ever more rational management of human contingency but precisely the kind of contingency that Jesus summons in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

William T. Cavanaugh is professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University.