In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historical Patterns of Interpersonal Violence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Common Theoretical Approaches
  • Data Sources
  • Methodological Issues
  • Violence in Classical Antiquity
  • Violence in Non-Western Societies
  • Men, Masculinities and Violence
  • Women and Violence
  • Case Studies of Violent Crimes
  • Explanations of the Long-Term Decline in Violence
  • Explaining US Exceptionalism

Criminology Historical Patterns of Interpersonal Violence
Rosemary Gartner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 April 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0090


A number of definitions of violence have been proposed by scholars, but probably the most widely accepted is something close to the following: the use of physical force intended to inflict injury on others. Throughout the 20th century, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and other scholars have had an enduring fascination with the history of war, state violence, and forms of collective violence, such as riots and rebellions. In contrast, academic interest in historical patterns of interpersonal violence dates from the late 1970s when mainly British historians began to study patterns of homicide and other serious forms of interpersonal violence from the medieval period onward. Since then, research on the nature of, trends in, and patterns of interpersonal violence in a wide range of times and places has flourished. Some of this research is concerned with tracing short- and long-term trends in violence and explaining why the form and frequency of violence vary from one time period to the next. Here the focus is on understanding the social, economic, cultural, demographic, and political forces that shape violence. Other scholars see historical studies of violence as a lens through which to examine the everyday lives of elites and nonelites, including their interpersonal relations and conflicts, habits and manners, sources of livelihood, and leisure activities. Here the focus is on using violence as a means to illuminate other aspects of social life at different points in history. Finally, another group of scholars study interpersonal violence as a way to reveal broader conflicts and relations between the sexes, different ethnic and racial groups, and different social classes in different times and places. Regardless of the focus, all historical studies of violence face such issues as how to define and measure interpersonal violence, how to evaluate sources of information on it, and how to distinguish it from other types of violence. This entry highlights recent and some of the classic research on historical patterns in violence up to the early 20th century. While many of these studies discuss legal and criminal justice responses to violence, popular attitudes toward violence, and representations of violence in different historical eras, work that focuses solely on these topics is not discussed in this entry.

General Overviews

Although levels of interpersonal violence appear to have decreased over the long term, at no point in human history has any grouping of people, whether small communities or large nations, been violence-free. Walker’s 2001 review article discusses evidence of traumatic injuries from ancient skeletal remains, suggesting that intracommunity homicide and assault were not uncommon in prehistoric societies and cannibalism was widespread. At the same time, this review also shows that distinguishing between interpersonal violence and warfare or state violence can be difficult in human history until the Middle Ages. Some commonalities in violence before and after the Middle Ages can be gleaned from the historical record, as the entries in this section demonstrate. Pinker 2007, in his short but sweeping lecture, summarizes research showing that males have always dominated violence as its victims and perpetrators, and that competition over scarce resources (broadly defined) has been one of the most common sources of interpersonal violence. Both Pinker 2007 and Payne 2004, who also reviews evidence on violence throughout human history, challenge what they term “the myth” that humans have become more violent over time. In the first effort to synthesize the findings from dozens of historical studies of violence in Europe and North America, Gurr 1989 comes to a similar conclusion about trends in interpersonal violence over the last five centuries: interpersonal violence declined from the 15th century onward. Eisner 2003, drawing on a larger dataset, provides further support for this finding and elaborates on Gurr’s work—for example, by showing that the forms, frequency, and technologies of violence have varied greatly over time and place. The collection of essays in Carroll 2007 presents a range of examples from Europe and elsewhere of this variation. The contributors to the Johnson and Monkkonen 1996 volume offer case studies to support the editors’ argument that the long-term decline in violence occurred more slowly in rural areas and regions distant from major population centers. Spierenberg 2008, along with a number of other scholars, attributes both the long-term decline in violence as well as occasional departures from it to the steady but uneven growth of the framework of institutions that make up states, which reduced violence by claiming a monopoly on it.

  • Carroll, Stuart, ed. 2007. Cultures of violence: Interpersonal violence in historical perspective. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    A collection of essays by historians on diverse forms of violence—banditry, kidnapping, female dismemberment, serial killing, and more—in European and non-European societies throughout the ages.

  • Eisner, Manuel. 2003. Long-term historical trends in violent crime. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 30. Edited by Michael Tonry, 83–142. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A reanalysis and extension of Gurr’s 1989 quantitative work that also includes evidence about characteristics of victims and offenders and an overview of theoretical approaches that may explain the long-term decline in violence in Europe.

  • Gurr, Ted Robert. 1989. Historical trends in violent crime: Europe and the United States. In The history of crime. Vol. 1. Violence in America. Edited by Ted Robert Gurr, 21–54. Violence, Cooperation, and Peace. An International Series. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    The first and pathbreaking effort to marshal data from a number of countries and document a massive drop in serious interpersonal violence in the Western world from the 15th century onward.

  • Johnson, Eric A., and Eric Monkkonen, eds. 1996. The civilization of crime: Violence in town and country since the Middle Ages. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    The theme emerging from these essays is that the long-term decline in violence in Europe from the 14th century onward began in cities and towns and spread slowly and with fits and starts to remote and rural areas.

  • Payne, James L. 2004. A history of force: Exploring the worldwide movement against habits of coercion, bloodshed and mayhem. Sandpoint, ID: Lytton.

    A political scientist reviews the history of different types of violence (which he views as synonymous with force), including various forms of interpersonal violence, and argues that the use of force is on a long-term decline.

  • Pinker, Steven. 2007. On the myth of violence.

    In this lecture, the award-winning experimental psychologist charts the decline of violence from biblical times to the present and argues that we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

  • Spierenburg, Pieter. 2008. A history of murder: Personal violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    A detailed presentation of historical evidence by one of the main figures in the historical study of violence; Spierenberg attributes the long-term decline in murder to shifting notions of masculinity and honor, and to the emergence and consolidation of the state.

  • Walker, Phillip L. 2001. A bioarchaeological perspective on the history of violence. Annual Review of Anthropology 30:573–596.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.30.1.573

    A review of bioarchaeological research and evidence showing that interpersonal violence, especially among men, has been prevalent throughout human history; and that no form of social organization, mode of production, or environmental setting has been violence-free.

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