Measuring homicide in Britain

by Rumbold
14th January, 2009 at 9:48 pm    

We have a problem in this country; few people believe the official crime figures. This lack of faith in official statistics has helped to undermine trust in the criminal justice system, and made it easier for people to claim that Britain was much safer in the good old days, when we had hangings, public executions and stocks, and murderers were executed rather than just locked up for a few years. But did the England/Britain of previous centuries, when such punishments were at their height, see more or less homicides than the modern age? The short answer is that we are not really sure. The long answer follows.

Lawrence Stone examined homicide statistics for parts of England in the early modern period (between about 1450-1750) and argued that such statistics offered the best opportunity for proving that England was in the process of being civilized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they represented the most extreme form of violence and were perhaps the best preserved. Such figures, according to Stone, demonstrate that homicide rates in these centuries were some five to ten times higher then they were in 1983 (when Stone’s piece first appeared). For Stone, this showed that “interpersonal violence was a recurring fact of rural and urban life.” However, these assertions soon unearthed a skeptic in James Sharpe, who argued that Stone was wrong to make such a claim, for a variety of reasons. Sharpe’s critique was published in 1985, while Stone’s response occupied the same issue of Past and Present. Although the two protagonists did not resolve this issue, the discussions that they had nonetheless provided valuable insights, especially about the usefulness and reliability of homicide statistics in early modern England.

Admittedly, Stone confessed in his first article that the data for homicide is quite haphazard, to put it mildly. This point was picked up by Sharpe who said that he himself did not attempt to estimate such rates because “some fifteen years working on the relevant sources has left me less sanguine than Stone about the usefulness of such calculations.” Partly, Sharpe contended, this was because local record keeping differed in efficiency, focus and survival. To illustrate his point, Sharpe mused that he found it difficult to believe that “the homicide rate of Oxford in the 1340s was over twenty-seven times that of Bristol in the previous century.” Such an argument has a certain rationality, given that if the information is so patchy, then such calculations might be seen as worse then useless, especially if they presented a distorted picture supposedly backed up by the weight of quantative methods. Historians should always recognise when the information is poor, and not expect too much more from it if that is the case. Rightly though, this line of thinking was challenged by Stone. He contended that by refusing to estimate changing homicide rates, Sharpe was adopting a “sterile position.” Stone pointed out that for many historians, imperfect data or information is all they can ever hope for, so to refuse to make better calculations until better data emerges is just completely unrealistic and impractical. If we accept this assertion, and we must, otherwise many historians would be left floundering, then the question emerges of where can we look for such statistics?

As there was such a furious debate about whether the possibility of calculating rates was practical, it becomes clear that there is never likely to be much of a consensus on this issue. This is not a criticism however, merely an observation, since a consensus is dangerous because it discourages debate (usually). What hope then, of finding an island of reliable data in the early modern ocean of potential statistics? Stone has looked to coroners’ reports to help him, a move that Sharpe criticised, on the basis of their unreliability. Again the question of good data comes up, and Stone partially deals with this by pointing out that they were probably no better in the medieval period, yet a huge decrease in homicides has still been recorded. However, though correct in some ways, this approach still failed to deal with the problem of inaccuracy and how to overcome it. Incidental records, such as the life of John Aubrey, might present a clearer picture on the basis that they are more complete (for each individual). Aubrey was nearly killed three times by a sword: “once in a London street by a drunk he had never seen before; once during a quarrel among friends in legal chambers in the Inner Temple; and once by the earl of Pembroke at a disorderly parliamentary election.” Enjoyable and graphic though this account might be, it is still very difficult to tell from individual accounts whether such experiences for the general population were a normal occurrence or a rarity. Why were these particular events recorded, and why were they singled out by Stone? Unfortunately for historians, such stories might well be abnormal, which is why they have been preserved, though it is as difficult to prove that as it is to prove the opposite argument, that these were average happenings. While the above example could not have been submerged into homicide statistics anyway, given that the assailants failed, records of attempted homicides are still useful because it is then possible to try and gleam from the records an ideal about levels of homicide (though such a process could only be very imperfect).

Could culture then provide us with part of the answer? Both Sharpe and Stone think so, and in a slightly bizarre twist, each criticises the other for coming to that conclusion, albeit with different evidence. Sharpe used preachers’ sermons to show that violence was not an overwhelming concern, given that they did not talk about it a great deal. Stone critiqued such an approach, as he believed that preachers always focussed more on sins such as greed and lust, therefore even in a time of great violence the congregation would have been regaled with other matters. However, Stone then falls into the same trap by using contemporary literature to show that violence was a concern, and subsequently failing to point out that literature might not be entirely representative of society either. Perhaps the best approach to quantifying homicide and other forms of violence is not to rely on one type of source (not that the aforementioned historians did so), but attempt to draw information from as wide a field as possible, though, as with all historical ideals, time and access will always be limiting factors.

If homicide statistics can tell something, then what can they tell us? Stone tended to stick to the classical line, advanced by N. Elias and others, that the early modern period was characterised by being very violent at the start, and then becoming more civilised, as a fivefold drop in homicide in England from 1660-1800 supposedly shows. To explain this process, Stone put forward two reasons, one of which argued that “the taming of upper-class violence by the code of the duel after the late sixteenth century was followed by the transformation of manners in the late seventeenth century,” and then by the Enlightenment. The other reason, linked in some respects to the first, was that there was a shift from a feudal to a bourgeois society and the accompanying change in attitudes to violence. Honour became less important as those wronged turned to the courts and other institutions for redress, rather than fighting a duel or hiring some vagabonds to take revenge. Thus, there was a commercialisation of values as people became less concerned with protecting their name and more willing to listen to alternatives that would augment their property (though in truth legal cases were long, arduous and would often leave both parties appreciably poorer). Sharpe however, disputes this whole theory. He contended that even if you accept that the statistics do show a large drop in recorded homicide, it does not necessarily follow that such a society became less dominated by violence. Though this sounded like a curious contradiction, Sharpe explained himself by citing the example of Britons going to America today (in 1985), even though the homicide rate there was ten times as high. It is an interesting point, and raises the question of how aware people were of violence? After all, one can live in a city with a high homicide rate, yet never really be touched by it as you do not know anyone who had been killed. Violence in the early modern period might simply have been more accepted, and therefore more difficult to class as violence. Today, things are classed as ‘violent’ or ‘dangerous’ which would not have borne that tag forty years ago, so can we look back and easily label acts? As homicide would be exempted (probably) from such an analysis, given its severity, it raises the question of whether or not homicide can tell us about violence in this period.

Sharpe and Stone also disagree over the state of the early modern village. Stone believed it to be a place infected with violence, while Sharpe stood by his theory that the village was not as barbaric a place as its historical detractors are prone to point out. One notable victory was won by Sharpe when Stone admitted that his use of litigation to analyse villages was slightly misguided, given that court cases always show individuals and communities at their worst. However, even if litigation presents a somewhat distorted view of life, it still made sense for Stone to draw on it, as it is a source and it does show on what issues people were willing to involve the authorities. Often though the parties carried on with extra-legal means, which happened to run concurrently with the court case. While condemning this approach, Sharpe does not really offer up alternative forms of assessment other than the ones already mentioned above (i. e. the coroners and preachers’ sermons). Nevertheless, the main weakness with using litigation was that violence tends to be a criminal rather than a civil affair (though the boundaries were more blurred in the early modern period). Stone might have attempted to draw too much from such statistics, and Sharpe too little.

Is the Sharpe and Stone debate though a relatively anomalous one? Can the lessons be applied to other areas in the early modern period, or are the concerns particularly English? A recent example can be found in a recent book by Stuart Carroll, Blood and Violence in Early Modern France. While Carroll does not talk about Sharpe and Stone explicitly, the problems he encounters are very similar. He points out that “as ever, the statistics tell us more about record survival than actual levels of violence.” Furthermore, there is even the problem of how to classify particular crimes, especially homicide and its related variants. Even if we accept the legitimacy of the state monopoly over violence, then who represents the state? Do the local lords, or the militia, or even the mob (when officially overlooked or encouraged) come under such a category? As Carroll emphasizes, “it is not always possible to distinguish…a legitimate action during civil war from a private feud.” In truth, all statistics face these sorts of questions of classification at any point in history. What makes the early modern periods different, in general, from the modern period, is that the records are much more dependent on age, location and luck, thus being a great deal less uniform. So, in other words, we will probably never really know for sure.

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  1. Cyburn — on 14th January, 2009 at 10:12 pm  

    People would read tabloids like the Daily Mail, wishes for the “good old days” when people were shunned just for either being gay or for a woman to have sex before marriage etc…

  2. shariq — on 14th January, 2009 at 10:56 pm  

    Anyone who has seen ‘The Wire’ (aka the greatest tv show ever made) will have a hard time swallowing police statistics ‘showing’ that crime has decreased.

    Having said that, I’m not sure what the solution is. One way to go is to say that don’t look at the police but go by your own experiences. On the other hand that goes against one of my pet peeves, which is people extrapolating from anecdotes and personal experiences and missing the bigger picture.

  3. Roger — on 14th January, 2009 at 11:23 pm  

    There are difficulties in calculating homicide rates even now. Harold Shipman caused a pretty big bump in the rate without anyone noticing at the time. A lot of people disappear every year and are not recorded as homicide victims- we now know that a few of them met Fred West- how many more cases are there like that?
    Finally homicide depends on someone dying. Modern methods of emergency treatment mean that people who would have been murder victims ten years ago are still alive. Compare with medical techniques five hundred years ago.

  4. douglas clark — on 15th January, 2009 at 9:42 am  


    Fascinating stuff. The past is indeed another country.

    Do you really think though that we have a nostalgia for times that long ago? My impression of social conservatives is that their folk memory only goes back to the mid 20th C, say the 1930s’ to 1950s’, which absent WW2 – or on second thoughts perhaps not absent at all – they seem to eulogise as a ‘golden age’, when it was, of course, nothing of the sort.

    Just for clarity, does this mean:

    To explain this process, Stone put forward two reasons, one of which argued that “the taming of upper-class violence by the code of the duel after the late sixteenth century…..

    that the duel decriminalised the death or that fear of a duel decreased the overall homicide rate? It is also probably worth asking whether the age of exploration and settlement, particularily in the Americas, which more or less matches this era, may have removed the more, shall we say adventurous, individuals from English society.

  5. Rumbold — on 15th January, 2009 at 10:19 am  

    Heh Cyburn.

    Good points Shariq and Roger.



    “Do you really think though that we have a nostalgia for times that long ago? My impression of social conservatives is that their folk memory only goes back to the mid 20th C, say the 1930s’ to 1950s’, which absent WW2 – or on second thoughts perhaps not absent at all – they seem to eulogise as a ‘golden age’, when it was, of course, nothing of the sort.”

    I don’t know. Obviously some do, but then plenty of others like to throw in references to stocks and the like- public humiliations which had vanished by the time of the 20th century.

    “That the duel decriminalised the death or that fear of a duel decreased the overall homicide rate?”

    Stone (who I think is simplistic on this) means that the duel regulated and legitimised the violence by giving it rules, and it was then gradually replaced by the courts. However, more recent evidence shows that duels and court cases tend to go hand in hand. Certainly in France, as Carroll shows, there are duels and court cases going on at the same time. Oh, and quasi-duels, which are little better than ambushes.

    “It is also probably worth asking whether the age of exploration and settlement, particularily in the Americas, which more or less matches this era, may have removed the more, shall we say adventurous, individuals from English society.”

    That is a fascinating point. I hadn’t though about that. However, there level of immigration is probably not high enough to make a massive difference, while the sort of people to emigrate to America were often quite respectable and not prone to violence (like some of the Puritan sects etc.).

  6. cjcjc — on 15th January, 2009 at 10:42 am  

    Of course the 1930′s and 1950′s were far from a golden age in many ways.
    But no-one is disputing that homicide was *far* lower then are they?

  7. douglas clark — on 15th January, 2009 at 11:09 am  


    No, of course not. It appears to have more or less doubled.

    Page 15, and it’s a bit out of date.

  8. Sunny — on 15th January, 2009 at 3:51 pm  

    Good article Rumbold

  9. Bert Rustle — on 15th January, 2009 at 7:47 pm  

    See the downloadable Civitas booklet by Charles Murray Underclass + 10
    … From the mid-nineteenth century through
    the first three-quarters of this century …
    Britain enjoyed extraordinarily low crime and
    extraordinary freedom. It was a unique, magnificent
    achievement, proving to the world that liberty and
    safety are compatible; proving, indeed, that a genuinely civil society is possible. No longer. Britain is just another high-crime industrialised country. … On every dimension of economic and political division, Britain and used to be a much more riven society than it is now. It was united in one crucial respect: a universally shared consensus of what constituted moral standards and civilised behaviour. And Britain used to have hardly any crime at all. …

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