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The Civilization of Crime. Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages, ed. Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen

(Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1996). 290 p. ISBN 0-252-02242-4
Herman Roodenburg
p. 135-137
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The Civilization of Crime. Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages, ed. Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1996). 290 p. ISBN 0-252-02242-4.

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1In their introduction to this stimulating volume, the editors pay tribute to the late Herman Diederiks, who was in many ways the leader of the « Dutch group », which was instrumental in the birth of the IAHCCJ. Diederiks played an important role in organizing the many meetings of the IAHCCJ, including the 1990 Stockholm conference on which most of the articles assembled in this volume are based. Indeed, with his no-nonsense though humerous approach to both organizational and scholarly issues, his impact on these meetings was considerable. His skeptical stance towards all theorizing would problably have made him love this volume, as theory is not its strongest point.

2The editors 'contribution is a case in point. Describing an older generation of crime historians, they conclude that these scholars « were far more optimistic about studying everything around crime than about studying crime itself ». « Crime itself, we read, comes down to crime rates and crime trends » ; alternatively, « everything surrounding crime », embraces « legal institutions from the penal system to modes of enforcement, popular and elite attitudes, court systems and crimes coming to courts ». In the middle of the 1990s such « nominalism » is rather surprising.

3Another puzzling aspect is the editors 'reference to the « shadowy figure » of Norbert Elias. One might raise two objections : first, that, at least among European historians, Elias is far from a shadowy figure ; and second, that, of the ten contributors to this volum, only five actually refer to Elias (the index lists four). Even more surprising, is the absence of any mention of Elias in Eric Johnson's own contribution to the book (the other editor, Eric Monkkonen, did not contribute). Taking a closer look, we find that only Eva Osterberg and Pieter Spierenburg have really adopted Elias 'ideas. The other three authors, James Sharpe, Esther Cohen and Jan Sundin, merely mention his work in passing.

4This is not to say that The Civilization of Crime is an uninteresting or even unimportant book. On the contrary, this is a fine collection of essays, offering a subtle combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches, and covering large areas of Europe from the early 14th to the first half of the 20th centuries. Essays by Sharpe, Österberg and Spierenburg make up the first part of the book. Writing on long-term trends, they focus respectively on the homicide rates in England, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Though their findings are similar (Scandinavia lagging somewhat behind with an early 18th-century drop in the rates), each essay displays a thorough knowledge both of the many pitfalls involved in this sort of research and of the particular institutions (and other aspects « surrounding crime ») that were characteristic of each country.

5The seven essays that comprise the second part of the volume concentrate on shorter-term developments, offering interesting comparisons between town and country, and between the late Middle Ages and more recent times. Esther Cohen observes that, while the Hundred Years War may have dislocated entire sections of the civilian population, both in the towns and the countryside, the events hardly affected the picture of urban crime in contemporary Paris. In explanation, she points to official preoccupation with maintaining order, rather than justice. Michele Mancino, looking at cases of rape, murder and other types of violence in late 16th-century Naples, signals an intensifying control of the Neapolitan curia over crimes committed by both laypeople and the clergy. Florike Egmond argues convincingly that the accepted view of early modern organized crime as consisting of rural bands on the one side and an urban underworld on the other does not agree with her own findings for the strongly urbanized Dutch Republic. Also reporting on the Republic (the « Dutch group » is conspicuously present in this book), Diederiks compares six 18th-century jurisdictions : two small harbor towns, two rural jurisdictions close to urban centres and two jurisdictions on the periphery of the country. Interestingly, the strictly rural jurisdictions show more male and violent criminality than the others, most of the offenses being perpetrated by the villagers themselves.

6Jan Sundin sketches a similar though more detailed picture for preindustrial Sweden, collecting his material from both north and south, and pointing, if only in passing, to aspects of honour and dispute settlement. Eric Johnson and the late Barbara Weinberger both write on the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, the latter focussing on the city of Birmingham and the county of Warwickshire, the former on a much larger range of towns from all over Germany. Weinberger's esay is one of the most careful in this volume. She sees no substantive differences between town and country, explaining the differences she did find in terms of differing forms of police management. Similarly, Johnson argues, against many 19th-century German conservative thinkers, that the modernization of German society produced hardly any rise in urban crime rates. Where the rates did go up, ethnicity and poverty were far more important factors than modernization.

7Together the essays in this book argue forcefully that, for a very long time, European society, and the countryside in particular, has been far from peaceful and harmonious ; that is was first of all in the towns that violence was successfully controlled ; that violence, in particular the homicide rates, started to decrease dramatically from the 17th century on ; and, finally, that the number of property crimes declined as well.

8However, why the editors thought it necessary to call on Elias as a sort of pioneer, a « prescient thinker », in this context, escapes me. Elias may have been one of the first to question the views of Tönnies, Durkheim and others on a once harmonious past, arguing instead for a civilizing process over the ages, but his interpretation of the scarce data he put forward and his embarrassing lack of source-criticism have been criticized time and again. The attraction of Elias 'work for Spierenburg and other crime historians seems to be the model he proposed, in which changes in crime rates, interpreted as changes in controlling the self, could be linked to processes of state formation. However this leaves us with the problem of an impulse-ridden medieval society and, more seriously, with Elias'neglect of agency and the symbolic dimensions of culture. His historical subjects are « caught » ; the « objective processes » he describes take place behind their backs. Indeed, the most interesting essays in this book are informed not so much by Elias as by modern cultural history.

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Herman Roodenburg, « The Civilization of Crime. Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages, ed. Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 4, n°1 | 2000, 135-137.

Référence électronique

Herman Roodenburg, « The Civilization of Crime. Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages, ed. Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], Vol. 4, n°1 | 2000, mis en ligne le 02 avril 2009, consulté le 18 juillet 2018. URL :

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Herman Roodenburg

Meertens Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands,

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