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.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

Excellent points, cogently made. Keep em coming!

Humphrey said...

Ta - I have just added a bunch of footnotes because I thought some of the points - e.g the impact of modern medicine on murder rates could be elaborated on a bit.

BHodges said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BHodges said...

I enjoyed elements of Pinker's book, but it was abundantly clear that he was no historian, that is certain, and of course, he erred on the side of making religion in general look pretty bad. Over and over. Thanks for putting some of his numbers into a better context. Seems like it took some time, and I'm happy that the internet provides an outlet for such discussions.

Tim O'Neill said...

I've often come across people quoting some of the funnier (to us) bits in Medieval etiquette manuals and concluding that this means people in the Middle Ages must have needed to be told not to relieve themselves in front of ladies, befoul the hangings with filth or touch their dangly bits in public.

What these people (and, it seems, Pinker) don't understand is that these books were written for the instruction of household pages. These were not adults, but small boys between six and fourteen years old. And these instructions would have been for the new pages - ie the six to seven year olds.

Anyone who has been in the company of a large number of six to seven year old boys will know that they need admonitions about passing gas, playing with themselves and public urination regularly in any age.

Pinker doesn't understand what he's reading here.

Ilíon said...

"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."

When the members of a society consistently believe that justice can be had without personal resort to violence, then the incentive to personally resort to violence is diminished or eliminated, which then leads to the diminishment or elimination of vendetta.

It really isn’t the centralization, pre se, of a monopoly on violence which has made our present-day less violent than most times and places in history, but rather the general belief and trust that that centralized violence is yoked to justice. Destroy that trust, and the generalized violence will return.

Anonymous said...

Just off topic, did anyone else see QI last night, where the 'Christians opposed chloroform for women giving birth' myth was resurected. What with their championing 'Mithras was Jesus' and the human dissection tropes in past episodes, I'm beginning to suspect they may have one or two Conflict Thesis junkies on their staff...

Anonymous said...

I don't have any information on murder or violent assault, but I do have a view on sexual assault. The 17th and 18th century court records of the Old Bailey, London's major court, are on line and are very interesting. They clearly show that no charge of rape would be made against a man if the woman was older than ten years old. Above that age, it would be assumed that the sex was consensual. An exception was made for "gentlewomen" and the only rape cases recorded for women over the age of ten were when the woman was in the upper classes.

Ilíon said...

... and that may well explain why British "officers and gentlemen" stationed in these Colonies thought that our "wenches" were "above themselves".

Humphrey said...

Very interesting Anon - I read elsewhere that rape shifted from being a property crime in the 17th century to being a sexual crime against a women's will. The problem then being that women who claimed rape had to be above reproach or a certified virgin. Of course - as I remember from my legal studies - the 17th century was when the infamous marital rape exemption was established and we didn't get rid of it till the 1970s.

chuff said...

Hmmm, I haven't clicked the link above yet, but I get the feeling it might be a ruse...

Either way, I have to say that this has been an excellent series so far and that I'm looking forward to the next installment (hopefully there is one). I actually find it pretty fascinating to watch the historical breakdown of what seem to be rather innocent facts on first glance. It's a pretty fun and informative process.

Humphrey said...

^^ Yep - Jerry Coyne certainly attracts a classy readership these days.

medieval outfit said...

Medieval settings are very fascinating. i just love the medieval era. It makes me feel like a princess. And this is really a good read.


Anonymous said...

Humphrey, do you think Pinker's broad thesis holds up despite its problems, or do the cumulative errors sink the ship?

Humphrey said...

Ah, good question. I suppose a good counter to Pinker's thesis would be Niall Fergusson's 'War of the World'. In the introduction he writes:

'The hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest
century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as
absolute terms than any previous era. Significantly larger percentages
of the world's population were killed in the two world wars that
dominated the century than had been killed in any previous conflict
of comparable geopolitical magnitude'

If that is true (which I believe it is) then that is a significant blow against Pinker's thesis that the world has got progressively less violent. However if you just took the period after 1945 it would look a great deal more plausible. The problem is that the 'long peace' of the post-war period I think is ultimately due to the restraint enforced by nuclear weapons (which weirdly Pinker fails to properly consider as a factor)

Joel said...

I understand that Pinker ranks World War II beneath the Atlantic Slave Trade on the "top ten atrocities" list? That seems like a dubious comparision. One took six years, the other spanned centuries.

Steve Sailer said...

Excellent analysis.

I would add something that I pointed out in my review of Pinker's book:

Pinker then skips the long Dark Ages, during which the Catholic Church tried, with the slowest success, to turn the illiterate Conan the Barbarian warlords who had overrun Europe into gentlemen. He lands next in the high medieval period. To Pinker, feudalism must represent anarchy because there is no overweening Leviathan to enforce order. To Europeans alive at the time, however, their newly mature feudalism provided them with “stationary bandits”—to use economist Mancur Olson’s term—who protected them from the more terrifying “roving bandits.” The French monk Raoul Glaber exulted in the 11th century that it was as if “the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.”

To the visual historian Lord Kenneth Clark, host of the 1969 PBS documentary “Civilisation,” the construction of towering Gothic cathedrals demonstrated that the 12th and 13th centuries were self-evidently better ordered than the wasteland centuries that had preceded them. But Pinker can’t plot the Middle Ages’ improvement over the Dark Ages on his charts because there is no data from the Dark Ages. So he feels free to ignore the considerable progress that Christendom made.


nooffensebut said...

I also found examples of questionable scholarship on the part of Pinker, which I describe here and here.

Gyan said...

Even granting Pinker's facts , there is no need to assume that violence requires a centralized state to suppress. In fact, a centralized state requires a peaceable population even to exist. And what makes a people peaceable?. Do the instructions and exhortations of the Church and the example of Saints counts for
Pinker does not even consider this possibility.

Anonymous said...

"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."

I don't think it's unlikely at all.

In a modern city non-domestic killings are generally the preserve of impulsively violent individuals. In certain segments of the population there are a lot of impulsively violent individuals. In other segments there's very few.

All that needed to change between the middle ages and now is the proportions of those two segments.

Throughout history urbanization has led to selection pressures against impulsively violent individuals through the mechanism of prison or execution leading to them having fewer children than the non-impulsively violent.

Urbanization and a harsh criminal justice system gradually breeds out impulsively violent behaviour.

Groups with the longest history of urbanization e.g. Japanese, have the lowest rate of impulsively violent behaviour.

The critical metric in this would be the number of executions for murder in Norwich over the last 1000 years.

David B Marshall said...

The murder rate in Japan is not much lower than in countries consisting of people who have only recently been urbanized, like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and North Dakota. These are introverted cultures; they tend to kill themselves more than other people, except during wars and government-sponsored mass murders.

Bogart Whitcher said...

Violence is a tool used to control masses..WWl and WWll execellant case studies in the use of mutual mass murder/WAR for stimulating monetary centralization as well as consolidating power.
random acts of violence in the common citizenry are most generally a product of ignorance ,programming and fouled up epigenetic gene pools....if you breed a dog to be prone to violence and then subject those dogs to enough stress they WILL bite and kill.....the same dog can be loved and nurtured into a trained family protector,that will love your kids and the neighbors as well ...until they are threatened.The genetics will produce either a loving warrior or a psychopathic murderer.
this whole world has been under stress and our genetics have altered so that we breed for ....WAR

Anonymous said...

Sorry Mr. Whitcher, but WW2 is, if anything, an "execellant" case study in mass murder as the consequence of ideology. To deny or reduce this to matters of "money and power" is to engage in a rather ugly vulgar-Marxist revisionism that should have no place among educated people.

Ilíon said...

"... but WW2 is, if anything, an "execellant" case study in mass murder as the consequence of ideology. To deny or reduce this to matters of "money and power" is to engage in a rather ugly vulgar-Marxist revisionism that should have no place among educated people."

Which is to say, the denial is of a piece with the very mind-set and sort of ideology that brought about WWII.

Andy JS said...

After reading Pinker's book a few weeks ago, I decided to take a look at the homicide rate in London for 2012 as the year progresses. And the statistics are pretty amazing. So far, (from January 1st to February 19th) there have been just 8 homicides in Greater London, which has a population of about 8 million, almost the same as New York City. So Pinker's theory about declining violence really does seem to be true. This is the blog that is keeping track of the figures:


Anonymous said...


If Pinker's theory "really seems" to be true then why are violence rates escalating to such highs in parts of the world?


Could it be that Pinker's view is merely wishful thinking and not solid science? Is not possible then, that Pinker's book is merely the faith of a man hoping for things unseen?

Andy JS said...

Interesting fact: over the last 26 weeks, there have been just 37 homicides in Greater London. See the MurderMap website for further details.

Anonymous said...

Heh. If you think sampling Greater London over that period of time equals "woah Singer was right", you're kind of deluded and apparently haven't even read the very post you're commenting in.

Academics make so much money off naifs.

hasnain raza said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.