The New York Times has an article today about the history of crime stats. No shocker in revealing that the Middle Ages were a bit more murderous than modern times. The interesting part is why. According to the article, socialogists are hotly debating what exactly caused a decline in murder over the ages. This has signficance to our modern times, chiefly because there are all sorts of theories on why crime stats rise and fall.
The gist is that it turns out Rudy Giuliiani was right. The little things, like broken windows, do take care of the bigger crimes.
Widespread evidence indicates that in the Middle Ages physical violence, even to the point of death, was a widely accepted way of resolving disputes and defending one’s honor. Most killings occurred in public in front of many witnesses when a dispute, generally among neighbors, got out of hand.
”People don’t yet treat it as a crime and the perpetrator is not a social outcast,” said Dan Smail, a historian at Fordham University in New York who has studied crime in southern France in the 14th century.” (Still, Mr. Smail said, Elias got it only half right, arguing that it was the greater resources available in the early modern period that made it possible for people to get even with their enemies through law suits and conspicuous consumption rather than with fists and knives.)
That murder was accepted is reflected in the leniency with which it was generally treated, said Barbara A. Hanawalt, a historian at Ohio State University whose work on 14th-century England helped stimulate the interest in the history of murder. ”Only 12 percent of homicides actually end in conviction,” she said. ”That’s lower than larceny, which was 23 percent, and crimes of stealth, burglary and counterfeit,” for which the rate was about 100 percent.
But after the late Middle Ages, Ms. Hanawalt detects a marked shift. ”There is a real change in community tolerance,” she said. ”The state is more prominent, the local community has less control.”
”I think Elias is onto something: people begin to change their notions of how people should behave,” Ms. Hanawalt continued. ”In the 14th century people are concerned with whether someone is of good or ill repute; it’s a collective, community judgment. When you get into the 15th century, the question is about someone’s ‘governance.’ There is a shift from community reputation to an emphasis on internal control.” A proliferation of tracts and manuals on proper behavior trickle down to common, illiterate folks in the form of rhymes and ditties.
If city density and poverty really aren’t the main driver of increases crime, then we’ve been focusing on the wrong things all these years. More civility? Seems like worth a try.