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The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages.

Professors Eric Monkkonen and Eric Johnson, editors of The Civilization of Crime, have long belonged to what was originally, in 1973, known as "the Dutch Group," which has metamorphosed into the International Association for the History of Crime and Criminal Justice; Monkkenon has been especially active in keeping the more parochial members of the Social Science History Association in touch with their counterparts across the water. These ten essays on English and West European subjects is one fruit of this longterm exercise in networking. This assessment will follow the inescapable formula for reviewing an anthology: a capsule description of the central purpose, a wholly inadequate sketch of the separate contributions, a reluctant, head-shaking pronouncement that the lot is both "uneven" and not as coherent as might be, a few quick summary judgements, a concluding wish for what-might-have-been.

The Introduction seems to bear Monkkenon's imprint more heavily than Johnson's. What holds (most of) the lot together, it points out, is that with the weight of a great deal of historical evidence it pounds what is surely the last nail into the coffin of the idea that city is inherently more violent than countryside. In addition, in the course of showing that the longterm trend in crime has clearly been down, at least for what in the Anglo-American American tradition are defined as common law crimes of violence, several of the essays challenge the theoretical arguments of the usual dead Germans and Frenchmen - Marx, Tonnies, Weber, Durkheim, even Foucault. The editors and some others suggest instead an alternative theorist, the largely neglected Norbert Elias, whose two German language volumes on The Civilizing Process, originally written in the 1930s, were published in English in 1982.

Elias argued that since the Middle Ages a "civilizing process," originating in the growing power of the state, above all its increasing monopoly on arms and violence, has acted to curb impulsive individual aggressivness. The key period was the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the leading actors princely courtiers, followed by city folks. Eventually most of us, with the state as superego, have learned to behave in more rational and less routinely and impulsively violent fashion. In practice not all of these essays rely upon or even mention Elias. In Part I, however, "Longterm Assessments: The Middle Ages to the Present," two of the three do so, notably Pieter Spierenberg's "Longterm Trends in Homicide: Theoretical Reflections and Dutch Evidence, Fifteenth to Twentieth Centuries," which despite its title is far more concerned with careful methodology in reliably establishing criminal statistics (concentrate on homicide, ignore infanticide, use the equivalent of coroner's body counts rather than court figures) than in placing them within any single interpretative framework. Eva Osterberg, in "Criminality, Social Control, and the Early Modern State: Evidence and Interpretations in Scandanavian Historiography" has some reservations about the "civilizing process;" the changing function of the courts, from forums for the settlement of individual disputes to bureaucratic agencies of social control, is her main focus. And in Sweden, at least, the seventeenth-century era of the greatest growth in state power was a notably bloody one, in large part because of the depredations of soldiers, in and out of service, on their own nationals. James Sharpe, in "Crime in England: Long-Term Trends and the Problem of Modernization" mentions Elias not at all; his concern is less to establish than to attack a thesis, the notion of "modernization." "Modernization" theory, which he identifies as a contemporary, (largely American), version of ideas variously outlined by Marx, Weber, and Tonnies, would suggest that feudal violence, or interpersonal crime, was over time replaced in the Bourgeois Era by property crime. While not wholly incompatible with Elias, this idea was not in fact his, and in any case Sharpe demonstrates pointedly that such a transition never occured.

A focus on attacking existing theories rather than constructing bold new ones characterizes most of the essays here, and in fact more than Elias what may be said to unite a good half of them is that, like Sharpe, they devastate the idea of a transition "de la violence a la vol," a thesis which Jan Sundin, in "For God, State, and People: Crime and Local Justice in Preindustrial Sweden" identifies not with American academics but with French. While the ten scholars here represent six nations: England (2), Italy, Israel, the Netherlands (3), Sweden (2), and the U.S., and they deal with several more than that, it is perhaps significant that the Modern Motherland of Theory contributes none of them. Only one, Esther Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, deals with France at all; her article on "The Hundred Years' War and Crime in Paris, 1332-1488," leads off Part II, "Shorter-Term Assessments: Fourteenth to Twentieth Centuries."

Emphasis on attack is most evident in the final and rather disappointing essay by Eric Johnson. Johnson has been analysing the criminal statistics of Imperial Germany for many years, but his "Urban and Rural Crime in Germany, 1871-1914" is something of a caricature. In his eagerness to establish the relevance of his studies he sets up an especially flimsy straw man. Identifying the long discredited notion that increasing crime rates inevitably follow urbanization with the authors of "anti-urban, anti-ethnic, and moralistic political policies," he holds that such "conservatives" and their views are responsible for the "sorry urban wastelands and soaring crime rates in much of present-day Britain and America, to name only two glaring examples." (p. 218) Not content, like most contemporary students of historical crime, with repudiating the Founding Fathers of Sociology, he beats their dead bodies unmercifully, together with those of other less identifiable villains. Johnson promises to show among other things that "crime is not primarily irrational or the preserve of incorrigible ethnic groups who turn to crime because they are somehow biologically determined to do so." (p. 218) Later, however, he argues that "pure irrationality" is a major contributor to crime rates (p. 235), while boldly concluding that they owe much to "detrimental social and economic conditions and discrimination." (p. 218)

But even this conclusion is weakly supported by the evidence Johnson adduces. Almost all other contributors to this volume wrestle in nuanced and sophisticated fashion with the relation between "crime" and recorded rates of crime, or criminal statistics. In addition to those mentioned above, notably Spierenberg and Osterberg, Barbara Weinberger, in "Urban and Rural Crime Rates and Their Genesis in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Britain," deals with this issue in sensitive fashion, attempting to disentangle the rather different objectives of police and authorities in Birmingham and Warwickshire, respectively, from what may have actually been happening in both places. Johnson has a greater faith in the literal accuracy of his Germanic sources than either his own ideology or his colleagues would warrant. But despite an array of far more elaborate crosstabulations and other statistical tables than any others in the volume, his measurements of "crime" deal only with the number of various offenses reported in each bureaucratic reporting district, figures that say virtually nothing about the individual characteristics of offenders, let alone the operations of the justice system. He informs us, as he has in other published works, that the areas with the heaviest concentrations of Lithuanian and above all Polish immigrants were those with the highest crime statistics, but cannot tell us how much is in fact due to poverty, how much to culture, to discrimination in the system, or indeed anything - including who were the perpetrators. Perhaps the poor Slavs were actually victims of criminal German neighbors?

The last of the bonds which unites many of these essays is the degree to which they take the English experience, and English scholarship, as their model. Even Michele Mancino's "Ecclesiastical Justice and the Counter-Reformation: Notes on the Diocesan Criminal Court of Naples," on its face the narrowest and most parochial of the essays here, deals (without acknowledgement) with an issue long familiar to those raised in the Anglo tradition: the struggle between state and church courts over the punishment of criminous clerics, the one that led to the twelfth-century murder of the Archbishop Thomas a Becket. Two things account for the prestige of the English. One, as Sharpe points out, is that any model which looks to the Industrial Revolution (if indeed it ever happened) must account for the English experience, although in practice, and significantly, most of the evidence here follows Elias in locating the key drop in actual rates of violence back in the sixteenth and above all seventeenth centuries. The other thing, more important, is that there is simply more English evidence, in large part because the English kept better records and their historians got to them earlier.

It is sobering for an American, used to deficiencies in the scholarly and statistical record over here, and to a somewhat lesser degree acquainted with parallel problems in England, to confront the even greater obstacles faced by colleagues researching Continental Europe. No place, apparently, has the kind of medieval records Barbara Hanawalt and James Givens have mined for whole English counties in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Esther Cohen, in order to conclude, tentatively, that the chroniclers may have exaggerated the disorder created in Paris by the Hundred Years War, has only two surviving runs of figures to work from, one of court cases kept by a small ecclesiastical jurisdiction from 1332 to 1357, the other a citywide arrest record for half of 1488. For the seventeenth century on, the Dutch and Swedes have rather better sources, intelligently mined by Florike Egmond, Herman Diederiks, and Jan Sundin. But they, too, must in many ways turn West for comparison, and inspiration.

Not too far West, however. If there is anything missing here, despite the nationality of the editors, it is American scholarship on the American experience. It is true that a focus on the early modern era in several of the essays makes direct comparison difficult; Puritan Massachusetts and slaveholding Virginia have little enough in common with each other, let alone the Sweden of Gustavus Adolphus. Still, empirical work over here seems more advanced than that on the continent, in some areas more advanced than in England, and to consult it might have saved some effort and opened some interesting paths. Again and again, an American is struck by suggestive parallels, between as one example the loosely networked urban underworld of seventeenth-century Holland, as described by Egmonde, and its counterpart in the late nineteenth-century United States, both dependent on ease of transportation, along canals in one case, railroads in the other, for the ability to make forays into the countryside and to travel among cities.

It is impossible, in short, to read these pieces without learning much; and, as with most anthologies, to wish that one could learn even more.

Roger Lane Haverford College
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Author:Lane, Roger
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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