2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

Violence and Culture:
Bloodshed in Two or Three Worlds

Pieter Spierenburg

Department of History and Criminology, Erasmus University

This article reviews the historical evidence about interpersonal violence in Europe and America and concludes with a brief look at Asia. It discusses this subject in connection with the level of monopolization of violence by state institutions and the prevalence of a male honor code which stresses bravery and toughness. In medieval Europe, where no stable state structures existed, the vendetta was common and homicide rates were high. Homicide rates started upon a secular decline in the sixteenth century, simultaneously with the rise of stronger and more stable states. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the level of interpersonal violence was still relatively high, and fights were often ritualized. Gradually, however, concepts of male honor started to change, becoming more spiritual and based on notions of virtue instead of the violent defense of one’s honor. All this led to even lower homicide rates from the eighteenth century onward. The duel remained the last stronghold of the older notion of honor and ritual fighting, surviving until the First World War. From then on, despite a slight upsurge of violence since about 1970, European societies were relatively pacified.

In America—that is, the territory that became the United States—this long-term decline of violence was much less marked. Although the twentieth century overall was less violent than the nineteenth, homicide rates continue to be much above the average European level, as is the case even today. At the same time, the traditional macho honor code tends to hold sway. It first took root among Southern whites before the Civil War, was adopted after slavery by Southern blacks and then taken to the inner cities throughout the U.S., reinforced by new immigrants. The article presents the hypothesis that the persistence of high levels of homicide in the U.S. are related to the prevalence of a self-help culture that originated at the time of the American Revolution. Democracy became associated with the idea of a right to self-defense.

Some scattered data from Asia suggest that countries which have stable state structures (in the present, though this may have been different in the past) also witness relatively low levels of homicide as well as notions of male honor that do not focus on violent self-defense. Less stable states have higher homicide rates and the traditional macho honor code is more prominent. Finally, it is suggested that, rather than imaginary “world civilizations,” various regions of the world are meaningful units of analysis for understanding processes of long-term change and their trajectories.


Keywords: violence, homicide, honor, state formation processes, world-wide comparisons