Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America.
In this useful volume, nine historians bring together the history of gender with the history of violence to explore ritualized combat in Europe and the U.S.. The articles range from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth as they examine such behaviors as the duel and lynching. The title of the book suggests that the reader will learn about gender, violence, honor, and ritual. Descriptively, that is true, but the authors do little in an analytical sense with honor and ritual, especially when one considers the rich anthropological literature on those topics. While the essays by Ut Frevert, Robert Nye, and Pieter Spierenburg study the meanings of the ritual structure they describe, most of the authors assume the importance of rituals and direct their analytical efforts elsewhere. Likewise, these essays tend to treat honor as a concept that is already understood, so it is fortunate that Spierenburg illuminates the mutual relationships among concepts of the body, honor, and gender in his introduction.
Generally, though, it is the exploration of links between manhood and violence that makes this book valuable. The essays, taken together, imply a larger narrative, one which will sound familiar to readers of Norbert Elias' work on the civilizing process (indeed, Elias is the most frequently cited author in the volume). The implicit narrative runs as follows. By the seventeenth century, European men had developed the custom of settling certain disputes outside the law through violent ritual combats. The disputes that occasioned these combats involved redeeming or upholding the honor of a man or a group. The ritualized nature of this violence distinguished it from brawls or vengeance feuds which proceeded without rules. Proponents claimed that the combats preserved social order because they confined and directed passions.
Although ritual combat was deemed a civilizing replacement for brawls and feuds, a larger cultural and political process emerged to stigmatize duels and other staged combats. The primary vehicle for this process was the extension of the criminal justice system, which went forward throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, generally progressing from north to south in Europe and the U.S.. This extension of state power arose from an underlying shift in cultural values from violent to non-violent self-expression, from justice by physical power to justice by abstract principle, from "rudeness" to "refinement."
This historical change is given its sharpest gender focus by Martin Wiener's provocative essay, "The Victorian Criminalization of Men." Wiener looks at British law and court records in the early nineteenth century. He finds that the ratio of male to female arrests shifted heavily in the male direction, a result of legal changes that criminalized physical aggression and reduced the legal severity of crimes more typically committed by women. Wiener writes that "this 'masculinization' of crime and punishment was one of the most notable, but least noticed facts of nineteenth-century British (and, indeed, western) criminal justice." (p. 209) Given the fact that physical aggression had traditionally been a male habit in Anglo-America and Europe, the criminalization of physical aggression meant the devaluation of men. Thus, according to Wiener, "the 'civilizing process' was fundamentally and deeply gendered." (p.200) That statement finds support in every essay of this volume.
The implications of Wiener's interpretation are enormous. He is suggesting that the civilizing process we associate with Victorianism had as repressive and confining an effect on men as it did on women. This is not fully accurate. The crucial point in Wiener's argument is that the "criminalization of men" stigmatized physical aggression. Yet it did not stigmatize other forms of aggression--economic, social, political--that were traditionally associated with men. Indeed, in a market economy where social and political advancement were opening up to all white males, the non-physical forms of aggression were stimulated and affirmed. In other words, the "civilizing process" was suppressing one traditional form of male behavior in favor of another. This was not (as Wiener seems to imply but never says) a case of "male" behavior being stigmatized while "women's" behavior was endorsed. Rather, it was a change in the style in which (white) men could pursue power over each other and over women.
While Wiener's argument (as he himself admits) is not completely fleshed out, it is a significant one with broad implications. Outside the context of the rich, varied detail and interpretation presented in the other essays, Wiener's piece would not have the resonance that it does. Taking all its parts together, this book advances our understanding of manhood and violence significantly and brings important new distinctions to our understanding of the "civilizing process."
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|Author:||Rotundo, E. Anthony|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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