Making An Impact On Violence

Deeply researched, thoughtfully considered and vividly written, this serious history of the violence of the English challenges assumptions and ill-considered assertions.

The Babes in the Wood ballad, coloured woodcut, 1595.

Rarely an evening goes by without a television detective solving a horrific killing; more often than not the victim is an attractive young woman and the killer some kind of paranoid serial murderer. The popular press delights in showing graphic images of grannies having been robbed of their pension and television news is little different. A violent incident, such as a child’s murder, is followed by politicians and the media debating the condition of society, looking for scapegoats and promising tougher punishment. Yet there is also the notion that somehow past centuries were more violent than our own. This raises important questions. Has English society become less violent and, if so, why and how, and how can you measure it? Why do people commit appalling acts of violence? These issues are central to James Sharpe’s deeply researched and vividly written book.

Arguments about how far male humans are inherently violent and how different forms of violent behaviour may be measured can appear remote and indigestible. What most readers want are colourful stories of individuals. Sharpe provides both. The theorising has to be there, as, too, the point that arguments about evolutionary psychology and ‘the civilising process’ remain unresolved and will probably remain that way, even if Sharpe sees considerable value in the latter. The reader is swept through the book by the personal stories which colour and illustrate the narrative.

Sharpe’s cast of characters include some pathetic victims. Repeatedly, poor Jane Buttersworth was unable to do the errands demanded by her mistress as she had been beaten, starved and had her hands plunged into scalding water. Her continuing failures, caused by her injuries, merely produced further cruel assaults that led to her death. Neighbours opened her grave; her brutal mistress and her daughter were tried and convicted of murder. On the way to their trial in May 1740 they were pelted and attacked. The authorities decided to hold their execution early to limit the crowd and the likelihood of mob violence. 

Many victims are unknown: the soldiers killed after the Battle of Towton, who have yielded historians much but are known only by a letter and a number; and the babies killed by mothers frightened for their positions or unable to care for a child in a society where reputation was all important.

Courage and skill with arms were central to knights in the Middle Ages and to soldiers long afterwards. But some of these individuals were also quick to anger and, even if they were in circumstances where they would hardly be expected to draw a sword, they could lash out with anything. As a young man, Sir John Reresby had fought on the Royalist side in the Civil Wars and followed the defeated Stuart court to France. On the Restoration he returned, restored his family fortunes, became a justice of the peace and entered politics; but he maintained an addiction to violence. On one occasion, dining with the Duke of Norfolk during the West Riding Quarter Sessions, he got into an altercation with a fellow justice and threw a large inkwell at him, at which the two squared up to each other with drawn swords. The rest of the assembly finally succeeded in reconciling the two.

Though this incident ended without bloodshed, its occurrence in the early 1680s coincided with the revival of the duel. The duel is a singular manifestation of violence in the past, but Sharpe carefully dissects its shifting forms from the ideas of knightly chivalry, through the complex social code of the Renaissance gentleman, to the 18th- and early 19th-century gentleman with his duelling pistols and, finally, to English pride in a fair fight with fists.

It is difficult here to do justice to Sharpe’s wide-ranging commentary on medieval peasants’ revolts and the city riots of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, via the ‘mob’ of Georgian England. Similarly with his discussion of the impact of various manifestations of Christianity and subsequent secularisation.

Modern researchers are supposed to produce work with measurable ‘impact’. In a society where politicians and the media took notice of serious academic work that challenged prejudice and assumption, Sharpe’s book would have real impact. Read it; think about it; and engage with ill-considered assertions and assumptions – but not violently.

A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England
James Sharpe
Random House Books 768pp  £30

Clive Emsley is Emeritus Professor of History at the Open University.