Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Steven Pinker's Medieval Murder Rates

In a highly problematic passage from Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ the professor highlights the fact that homicide rates have plummeted across Europe since the 13th century. He does this with reference to the work of sociologists and historians such as Ted Robert Gurr and Carl I Hammer which show that murder rates dropped sharply across the centuries – 14th century England was about 95% more violent than the present era. What conclusions does Pinker draw from this? He seems to be pushing some theory by Norbert Elias which states that a civilizing process occurred. Medieval people were boorish, animalistic and lacking in habits of refinement. According to Pinker:

‘over a span of several centuries, beginning in the 11th or 12th and maturing in the 17th and 18th, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions.’

By contrast according to Pinker

‘The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia: Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or other filth. • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers. • Don’t slide back and forth on your chair as if you’re trying to pass gas. • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. • Don’t make noise when you pass gas. • Don’t undo your clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up afterwards…..In the European Middle Ages, sexual activity too was less discreet. People were publicly naked more often, and couples took only perfunctory measures to keep their coitus private. Prostitutes offered their services openly; in many English towns, the red-light district was called Gropecunt Lane. Men would discuss their sexual exploits with their children, and a man’s illegitimate offspring would mix with his legitimate ones’

Now at this point once again I have to jump to the defence of the poor benighted medievals. Unlike Steven Pinker I am a regular watcher of the ‘Maury Povich’ show in the United States (for UK readers the immediate point of reference is the ‘Jeremy Kyle Show’) and I have been on numerous pub crawls in UK city centres. All of the gross practices highlighted by Pinker are in evidence – one might say omnipresent - in modern society so it makes little sense to rat on our ancestors for displaying them. Perhaps Pinker needs to spend less like in the urbane, sophisticated environment of Cambridge Massachusetts and more time somewhere like Calton Glasgow. Then he might not have as much confidence in the voodoo like properties of Peter Singer's ‘empathy circle’.

So what to make of Pinker’s historical data? Well, from the start I would expect to see a drop in homicide rates across the centuries for four reasons. Firstly societies have gradually increased centralised power in the state and established a monopoly on violence. Secondly courts of law have become more effective as venues for settling disputes, thereby making the use of violence unnecessary. Thirdly schooling and education have introduced a greater civility – perhaps this counts as a ‘civilising process’? Fourthly, it is now much harder to kill people due to modern medicine and the emergency services. Wounds which would previously have been fatal and resulted in homicide now result in grievous bodily harm*. A Saturday night in Newcastle which in previous centuries might have resulted in a bloodbath now simply results in the A&E being clogged with aggressive drunks. It would therefore not be surprising if homicide rates were higher before these variables developed – what would be surprising is if they were lower.

Before looking at Pinker’s figures I should point out how homicide rates are calculated, as n per 100,000 of population per annum. Basically you take the number of murders and divide it by the population size (of say Medieval Norwich). You then multiply this by 100,000 to give you the murder rate. Pinker has some figures from Gurr which show the murder rate in Medieval London as having homicide rates from of around 50 per 100,000 during the 14th and 15th centuries (the present figure is more like 1.8 per 100,000). He quotes a figure from Carl Hammer showing that the murder rate in 14th century Oxford was 110 per 100,000 which is astonishingly high given how sleepy and civilised the place is today (this murder rate - calculated based on 36 cases of homicide between 1342 and 1348 - is akin to that of cartel ridden Ciudad Juarez in Mexico).

Are the figures accurate? Here we run into a number of problems. You might have noticed that the homicide rates are highly dependent on the population statistics. Michael Prestwich discusses this in Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (p507-508). One estimate he quotes is that London in the first half of the fourteenth century had a homicide rate of between 5.2 and 3,6 cases per 10,000 (equivalent to 52 per 100,000 and 36 per 100,000 meaning London was as violent as present day New Orleans). However this estimate was based on the population of London being 35,000 to 50,000. It’s become increasingly clear that these estimates are wrong. For example it’s clear that building densities around Cheapside were extensive by the end of the 14th century – at levels not reached again until 1600 when the population was 100,000-200,000 including suburbs. According to Prestwich estimates of the city's population now reach as high as 107,900 to 176,000. At a population of 100,000 the murder rate would be 1.8 per 10,000 (18 per 100,000). This would make London’s murder rate equivalent to present day Atlanta or Pittsburgh. A slightly higher population estimate would make the murder rate equivalent to present day Boston across the Charles river from Stephen Pinker’s office – which seems unlikely. If that were correct then the question we would have to ask is why our present day cities are more dangerous than their equivalents in an age of comparative lawlessness** ?

What of the Mexican murder rate for Oxford? Prestwich says that the high figure may be explained by the fact Hammer used coroners records to come up with his statistics. Unlike the present day these report the circumstances of a mortality and do not distinguish between murder, manslaughter or accidental death – hence you end up with an extremely wide range of possible rates***. Given the paucity of data – Pinker seems to have gone for the highest one in order to massage his thesis. Furthermore such records only cover a period of a few years and might reflect a one off crime wave ****.

Any conclusions based on what little statistics we have must therefore be provisional and potentially unsafe. For example, according to Prestwich, the records show that there were ‘only three larcenies in Norwich in 1313, as against 703 in Bedford, Indiana (a town of similar size), in 1975’. It would be ill-advisable to read that statistic and go on to write a book called ‘The terrible daemons of our nature’ showing the slide into criminality of Western Culture – especially since 14th century crime reporting probably less quite a lot to be desired.

*This is perhaps the most important point. For example Randolph Roth author of American Homicide argues that given modern medicine—emergency response, trauma surgery, antibiotics, and wound care—three out of every four people murdered before 1850 would probably survive today.

**The issue of how violent Medieval society was is seriously hampered by lack of evidence. Alternative interpretations exist such as Phillipa Maddern’s ‘Violence and Social Order: East Anglia 1422-1442’ which argued that the allegedly violent landscape of East Anglia (then the most urbanised area of England) was in fact, remarkably free of criminal violence and that this model could be applied to the rest of the country.

***As an example of the difficulties with this approach the only surviving run of coroners’ records for England’s 2nd largest city Norwich are from 1263 to 1268. These document 36 cases, 14 seem to be accidental death or theft. In 5 the conclusion is more ambiguous – either the jury swore the death was accidental or the suspect was cleared by compurgation. That leaves 17 possible instances of murder over 5 years – a proportion of which could classed as manslaughter. If these were all murders the average rate per year given a population of 17,000 would have been 20 per 100,000 – a rate akin to Philadelphia in 2010. If half were murders the rate would be 10 which is slightly less than Boston.

****Oxford was undoubtedly a violent place in the Middle Ages. Of 29 coroners’ reports that have been preserved for the period 1297-1322, 13 are murders committed by scholars. Attacks on townspeople were sometimes countenanced and even led by officials of the university. For example in 1526 a Procter organised a riot in which many citizens were attacked and their houses looted. In 1355 in what became known as the ‘St Scholastic’s Day riot’ an argument in a tavern became a pub brawl which went on for the next 3 days. It began when a group of students at an inn near Carfax disapproved of the wine they were served. The inn-keeper having given them ‘stubborn and saucy language’ the clerks ‘threw the wine and vessel at his head’. The townspeople then seized the opportunity to arm themselves with bows and arrows and attack scholars. Gangs of academics and citizens clashed in the streets and academic halls were burned. Six students and scholars were killed.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Pinker tackles the Albigensian Crusade

In ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ Steven Pinker reels off example after example of ancient, medieval and early modern brutality in order to justify his thesis that the world is getting less violent. Pinker writes:

In the 13th century the Cathars of southern France embraced the Albigensian heresy, according to which there are two gods, one of good and one of evil. An infuriated papacy, in collusion with the king of France, sent waves of armies to the region, which killed around 200,000 of them. To give you a sense of the armies’ tactics, after capturing the city of Bram in 1210 they took a hundred of the defeated soldiers, cut off their noses and upper lips, gouged out the eyes of all but one, and had him lead the others to the city of Cabaret to terrorize its citizens into surrendering. The reason you have never met a Cathar is that the Albigensian Crusade exterminated them. Historians classify this episode as a clear instance of genocide*, **.

In this passage Pinker claims that the infamous Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) took the lives of 200,000 people, though in a footnote he approvingly cites White’s figure for the suppression of the Cathars – one million deaths.

The first step in determining whether these are credible estimates should be to estimate the population of the region and the scale of the conflict which erupted for 20 years. Estimates of the Langudoc’s population in the 13th century are few and far between. According to ‘Heresy Proceedings in Languedoc 1500-1560’, the population in the fourteenth century was about 1.5 million. So I think we can make an educated guess that the population at the time of the crusades (13th century) was a bit lower at 1 million (see also). This means in order for White’s figure of 1 million deaths to be credible, the Crusade needed to have been sufficiently large to slaughter pretty much every single person in the Languedoc (unless of course they bussed in a load of heretics from somewhere else).

In terms of the major cities in the region according to Costen, ‘The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade’. The city of Beziers possibly had a population no higher than 10,000. Toulouse had a population of 20,000, Montsegur at the time it was besieged had a population of 361, Carcassonne had a population of 6,000.

During the fighting itself, almost the entire population of Beziers was slaughtered on the 22nd of July 1209 according to the chroniclers. The legates recorded that ‘our men spared no-one, irrespective of rank, sex or age’ and put the toll for the massacre down as 20,000. In God’s War Christopher Tyerman states that ‘the true figure was almost certainly far less’ (p591). Costen points out that the cities population probably only numbered 10,000 (Tyerman thinks 8-9 thousand) so ‘this claim can be seen as in line with the normal inability of commentators at this period to deal with large numbers’ (p123). When Caracassonne fell, all the citizens were allowed to leave freely (though naked according to some accounts). When a new crusade was launched in 1211, Lavaur was attacked and 400 Cathar perfecti were burnt (New Cambridge Medieval History vol5 p167).

Following Beziers the social order of the region – always a ‘a patchwork of petty lords and nobles who spent most of their time and energy fighting each other’ - collapsed and it became a perpetual war zone. Massacres became a regular event – ‘from the inhabitants of the modest Castrum of Les Touelles to the 5,000 citizens dispatched at Marmande***’ (Tyerman 592). However as the war dragged on these horrors decreased, perhaps reflecting a lack of persecuting zeal or the chroniclers indifference.

Following the death of Simon De Montfort his son Amaury lost ground and retired to Paris. Another crusade led by Louis VIII was sent to the Langudoc upon which many southern cities voluntarily submitted to the king. Upon arrival the crusade was very small due to the departure of many of its original participants and the fact that many had die in an epidemic. In the event it was not attacked and the king died unexpectedly. When war next erupted in 1228 the count of Toulouse sued for peace due to financial considerations and agreed to enforce the heresy laws.

The inquisition’s activities were more restrained than their reputation suggests though they conducted an unprecedented level of investigation and interrogation. Bernard of Caux, inquisitor of Toulouse appears to have sentenced 207 offenders between 12th of May and 22nd of July 1246 (the height of the inquisition’s activity)– burning none, sentencing 23 to imprisonment and ordering the rest to wear crosses. Later in the century some 8 to 9 percent of those sentenced were burned to death.

The Albigensian Crusade must rank as one of the nastiest of medieval wars, resulting in massacres, atrocities, guerrilla warfare and the breakdown of social order. As Malcolm Barbour argues:

‘the Albigensian crusades went far beyond the normal conventions of early thirteenth-century warfare, in the scale of the slaughter, in the execution of high-status opponents, male and female, in the mutilation of prisoners, in the humiliation and shaming of the defeated, and in the quite overt use of terror as a method of achieving one's goals'.

Nethertheless, as Tyerman points out ‘the crusades did not destroy a region’ (p604), once the fighting ended, ‘prosperity returned’. With the exception of the massacre at Beziers the destruction waged in the region was comparatively modest in scale. Aside from de Montfort’s victory at Saint-Martin-Lalande and the Battle of Muret the Langudociens appear to have avoided field engagements and the massacres appear to number in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Coming up with any sort of figure for death tolls appear futile. 1,000,000 deaths is clearly ridiculous, 200,000 – a 20% death rate for the region seems too high. 100,000 might be closer to the truth but given the paucity of evidence any estimate is going to be pure speculative ‘finger waving’.

*Actually the Albigensian crusade hardly touched the Cathars. As Languedoc was restored to southern French rule after 1218 the Cathars resumed the public practice of their faith and were as strong as before. The crusade – always something of a cynical land grab - was a failure that petered out after its leader Simon De Montfort was killed at Toulouse in 1218. The reason the Cathars got their come-uppence was because the French monarchy acquired the Langedoc region of southern France through an advantageous marriage and the inquisitors were allowed to operate there.

**In his account of the capture of Bram Pierre Des Vaux claims that the mutilations were performed as a reaction to atrocities perpetrated by the defenders, reflecting tit for tat violence rather than tactical necessity. Hideous atrocities were perpetrated on both sides, including the reign of terror conducted in the Dordogne valley by Bernard of Cazenac and his wife Elise (the second jezebel) in which 150 men and women had their hands or feet amputated or their eyes put out in the Benedictine Abbey of Sarlat. Elise’s modus oper
andi was allegedly removing women’s thumbs and ordering the removal of the nipples of a poor peasant woman (Tyerman p592).

During the siege of Toulouse in 1217-18, captured crusaders could expect to have their eyes put out, their tongues removed, to be dragged behind horses, stoned, dropped from the ramparts, or drowned with mill-stones around their necks. According to Malcolm Barbour ‘In 1212, Roger Bernard, the count's son, captured some crusaders near Narbonne, took them back to Foix, where he and his men spent their time devising "new and original tortures" for them including suspension by their genitals’.

*Again the numbers seem high here given that the population in later centuries is estimated at numbering around 1,000 but there is little doubt a major massacre took place – the anonymous pro northern chronicler describes numerous assorted organs ‘torn out and tossed aside on the open ground as if they had rained down from the sky’.

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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Steven Pinker and the An Lushan Revolt

Most people – I think – if asked to name the bloodiest century in human history would probably say the 20th. I hasten to add this isn't the kind of question you get on history exam papers nowadays – you are more likely to get quizzed on ‘Household Formation, Lineage and gender relations in the early modern Atlantic world’ or something less bloodthirsty.

In Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘The better angels of our nature’ the wild haired Harvard professor is having none of this. The preference for the 20th century is mere ‘historical myopia’. Instead when one roots around through the
history books for forgotten wars and scales for the world’s population at the time – you find a whole set of lesser known conflicts that dwarf the toll for the first and second world wars. Pinker then presents a table showing the Second World War as merely the 9th most destructive atrocity of all time – lagging behind the Atlantic Slave Trade, the annihilation of the American Indians, Tamerlane’s conquests, the fall of Rome, the fall of the Ming dynasty, the Mid-east slave trade, the Mongol conquests and – most terrible of all – the An Lushan Revolt (something the majority of westerners have never even heard of).

Now at this point one’s proverbial ‘Bullshit-o-meter’ should be sounding – anyone who claims that they have a reasonably accurate ‘death toll estimate’ for something like the Mongol Conquests is being ludicrously over-confident. Pinker’s table looks suspiciously like something that has been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. In fact the figures appear to have been lifted from a site called ‘Necromterics’ authored by Matthew White – a librarian and author whose somewhat macabre hobby appears to be calculating historic death tolls. His scholarly works include such essays as 'Which Has Killed More People? Christianity? or Gun Control' so it's a bit strange that Pinker would consider him the go-to man on the demography of Medieval China.

The An Lushan Revolt, according to Pinker and White, wiped out something like 36,000,000 Chinese over the course of 8 years – a toll equivalent to two thirds (66%) of the Tang Empire’s population. If you scale for the mid 20th century’s population you would end up with an equivalent toll of 429,000,000 people. That would indeed be an astonishing high death rate – by comparison the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia killed around 13% of Russia’s population - over half the population in the regions and countries of Europe where there is data of useful quality died in the Black Death (perhaps the worst demographic disaster in the history of the world). To justify this Pinker and White refer to the fact that at the peak of the medieval Tang dynasty, the census taken in the year 753 recorded a population of 52,880,488. After eleven years of civil war, the census of 764 gave a figure of 16,900,000. None of the figures cited on White’s site appear to come from Sinologists as far as I can see and no context is given for the low census figures*.

Accordingly I have worked through a number of works such as the ‘Cambridge History of China Vol 3’, Mark Edward Lewis’s ‘The Chinese Cosmopolitan Empire – the Tang Dynasty’ and David Andrew Graff’s ‘Medieval Chinese Warfare’ to see if they can shed greater light on what is now claimed to be the greatest holocaust in human history.

An Lushan was a garrison commanding general of mixed Sogdian and Turkish descent who rebelled against the Tang Dynasty in 755. This sparked a civil war across northern China for a period of eight years before the rebels were finally destroyed in 763. During this period of the two capitals of the Tang dynasty, the city of Chang’an was damaged and the city of Luoyang was burned. This suggests that the conflict was highly destructive but when assessing the impact there are a number of difficulties.

Firstly, up until the modern age, population counts were sporadic and incomplete. The first full censuses were not made until 1790 in the United States and 1801 in Britain. In the medieval Chinese era, the government counted households and some or all of the people constituting them, but did not attempt a complete registration until 1953. This was for the purpose of levying troops or more commonly allocating tax burdens. Only a few landmark censuses from the pre-Song era are taken to be reasonably reliable and the taxation records are frequently disrupted by war and administrative chaos. The figures for number of households are held to be far more reliable than those for actual head count

Secondly the census figures vary wildly depending on the contemporary level of government control. For example, in the reign of Taizong from 626 to 649, only 3,000,000 household were registered. Under the previous Sui dynasty (581-618) the figure had been 9,000,000 households. According to Richard Guisso in the Cambridge History of China this ‘sensational decline was not the result of catastrophic loss of life during the civil warfare of late Sui and early T'ang, but of simple failure by the local authorities to register the population in full. Even in the first years of Kao-tsung's reign only 3,800,000 households - certainly far less than half of the actual population – were registered. Considerably more than half of the population was thus unregistered and paying no taxes (p297 Cambridge History of China). This shows that in times of difficulty the highly centralised taxation system could break down – resulting in half the population or more being omitted from the census.

After the An Lushan revolt the situation reached crisis proportions and a new period of warlordism and regional autonomy emerged. The Tang had survived only by carrying out a general decentralisation of administrative power and dispersing power through a new tier of provincial governments. Despite the restoration of peace the empire remained in a state of chaos. China broke into many regions who collected their own taxes and remitted only a small portion to the central government. The Tang could no longer update it’s registers and chart landowning; local tax records were destroyed, scattered and rendered obselete. As Graff writes:

After the An Lushan rebellion, the Tang court lost the ability to enroll, enumerate, and impose taxes directly upon the majority of China’s peasant households. This development is dramatically illustrated by the decline of the registered population from approximately nine million households in 755 to less than two million in 760. (P240 – Medieval Chinese Warfare)

The post rebellion census figures cannot then be relied upon when estimating the impact on the empires population in the 8th century and there are no signs of a catastrophic two thirds population loss. Instead the indications are that China continued to have a large population base into the 9th century with which the dynasty was able to raise professional and conscripted armies to compete with the nomadic powers in dominating inner Asia.

The estimates given by the great Harvard sinologist John King Fairbank in 'the New History of China' (2006) are that ‘the empire’s population may have totalled 60 million in AD 80, 80 million in 875, 110 million in 1190’ (p106). These are of course estimates but they show that the general impression from historians of the period is not one of catastrophic population decline followed by recovery – but of a slow and steady late medieval population boom coupled with a shift in population from north to south. Mark Edward Lewis remarks that that:

‘Between 742 and 1080 (two years for which comprehensive census records have survived), the population in the north increased by only 26 percent, while that in the south increased by 328 percent’

C A Peterson in the Cambridge history of China notes that in the wake of the rebellion:

Large scale shifts of population took place. Many of the war affected areas in Ho-pei and Ho-nan were partially depopulated, and many people migrated to the Huai and Yangtze valleys and to the south (P496)

There are therefore plenty of reasons to be sceptical of Pinker’s claim that An Lushan’s revolt ranks as the most destructive war of all time. In fact he doesn’t appear to have done even the most basic research of research into the credibility of his figures; which is a shame because ‘The Better Angels of our Natures’ is a very good read and presents some interesting questions.

*In his recent book 'The great big book of horrible things' Matthew White goes with a 'more conservative' figure for the An Lushan revolt of 13 million dead - though he obviously didn't tell Pinker.

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