In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Violence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Violence and Gender
  • Violence and the Experience of Slavery
  • Crowd Action, Customary Rights, Subversion, and Revolution
  • Violence, Religion, and National Redemption

Atlantic History Violence
Geoffrey Plank
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0063


In recent years scholars have become increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of violence in the early modern Atlantic world. The growing attentiveness to the issues surrounding the coercive or injurious use of force has stemmed partly from a long-standing, widespread historiographic trend. For decades scholars have been encouraged to consider topics at least partly from the perspective of groups that received less attention from earlier generations of historians. This project of writing history “from the bottom up” is hardly new, but the large volume of work conducted since the 1960s has vastly expanded our knowledge and made us more aware of the ways in which class relations, race relations, and sexual relations in the early modern era were affected by violence. In pursuing these themes, historians have been influenced by many theoretical works, including those of Robert Cover (see Judicially Imposed Violence) and Elaine Scarry (see Cannibalism, Severed Heads, and Terror), which call attention to ways in which unseen violence continues to order much of modern life. Of course, sometimes violence is quite visible. It has been known for centuries that relations between colonists and indigenous peoples could be violent. Nonetheless, our understanding of those early colonial bloody encounters has been complicated and enriched over the past several decades by scholars who have sought to understand the distinct meanings various groups of native peoples and colonists attached to their actions. Slavery, similarly, has been associated with violence for as long as it has been discussed, but its violent nature has been reconceived in fundamental terms since 1959, when Stanley Elkins stimulated a reexamination of the impact of everyday violence on the lives of North America’s slaves (see Violence and the Experience of Slavery).

General Overviews

Much of the scholarly literature on violence begins with changes in European culture identified by Elias 1978. Ruff 2001 builds on Elias’s work in the author’s survey of violence in early modern Europe, and scholars such as Pinker have employed Elias’s analytical framework on a global scale (Pinker 2011). There is no single-author work that gives an overview of the role of violence in the history of the Atlantic world. The best introduction to the literature can be found in two edited collections, both with insightful introductions. Smolenski and Humphrey 2007 is a collection of essays proceeding from a 2001 conference convened by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. In 2006 the Journal of World History devoted its first issue to violence in the early modern Atlantic world.

  • Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. New York: Urizen, 1978.

    Examining a range of behaviors including table manners, nose-blowing, and sex, Elias identifies a trend toward self-restraint in early modern European culture that had the effect of reducing the incidence of violence.

  • Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity. London: Penguin, 2011.

    In a sweeping, popular survey of violence around the world, Pinker argues that the incidence of physical violence has been steadily declining almost everywhere for centuries.

  • Ruff, Julius R. Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    In a survey encompassing Europe, with separate discussions of crime, criminal justice, representations of violence, and warfare, Ruff identifies a wide-ranging decline in violence in the early modern era.

  • Smolenski, John, and Thomas J. Humphrey, eds. New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

    This wide-ranging collection of essays covers Dutch, French, English, and Spanish colonies, and violent acts ranging from rape to dueling. It gains coherence from its consistent focus on the role of violence in establishing order and authority within colonial regimes.

  • “Special Issue: Forum: Violence in the Early Modern Atlantic World.” Journal of World History 17 (2006).

    This short volume has an excellent introduction by Brian Sandberg and essays on 16th-century Mexico and Brazil and the earliest English colonies in North America.

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