Do you think that city living, with its anonymity, crowding, immigrants, and jumble of cultures and classes, is a breeding ground for violence? What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer. And that brings us back to the ideas of Norbert Elias, the only theory left standing.
Elias developed the theory of the Civilizing Process not by poring over numbers, which weren’t available in his day, but by examining the texture of everyday life in medieval Europe. He examined, for instance, a series of drawings from the 15th-century German manuscript The Medieval Housebook, a depiction of daily life as seen through the eyes of a knight.
In the detail shown in figure 3–5, a peasant disembowels a horse as a pig sniffs his exposed buttocks. In a nearby cave a man and a woman sit in the stocks. Above them a man is being led to the gallows, where a corpse is already hanging, and next to it is a man who has been broken on the wheel, his shattered body pecked by a crow. The wheel and gibbet are not the focal point of the drawing, but a part of the landscape, like the trees and hills.
States were ineffectual, and the king was merely the most prominent of the noblemen, with no permanent army and little control over the country. Governance was outsourced to the barons, knights, and other noblemen who controlled fiefs of various sizes, exacting crops and military service from the peasants who lived in them. The knights raided one another’s territories in a Hobbesian dynamic of conquest, preemptive attack, and vengeance, and as the Housebook illustrations suggest, they did not restrict their killing to other knights. In A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, the historian Barbara Tuchman describes the way they made a living: These private wars were fought by the knights with furious gusto and a single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy by killing and maiming as many of his peasants and destroying as many crops, vineyards, tools, barns, and other possessions as possible, thereby reducing his sources of revenue. As a result, the chief victim of the belligerents was their respective peasantry…
The private wars and tournaments were the backdrop to a life that was violent in other ways. As we saw, religious values were imparted with bloody crucifixes, threats of eternal torture, and prurient depictions of mutilated saints. Craftsmen applied their ingenuity to sadistic machines of punishment and execution. Brigands made travel a threat to life and limb, and ransoming captives was big business. As Elias noted, “the little people, too—the hatters, the tailors, the shepherds—were all quick to draw their knives.” Even clergymen got into the act.