Murder, mobs, and public shaming: are we predisposed to fight each other?

A new book by James Sharpe investigates of our deep-rooted addiction to brutality.

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Everyone has their dirty little secrets. Mine – well, one of mine – is a love of sensationalist murder magazines. They seem to be breeding on the top shelves of newsagents these days. Every time I go in, there is another title: Murder Casebook, Master Detective, True Crime. They are full of florid headlines, blocky neon fonts, agonising prose and close-up images of mutilated bodies – and their horribleness is part of their appeal.

Like a tabloid newspaper, they sometimes pretend that they are taking a moral line, but nobody is fooled. They know that dangling violent crime in the public’s face has always been a recipe for profit, and I continue to prove it by buying them.

As James Sharpe explains in his encyclopaedic history of violence in England, these magazines are just the latest manifestation of an old tradition. The first recorded “murder pamphlet” in England can be traced back to the 1570s. It told the story of the murder of George Saunders by his wife and her lover, and it sparked off four and a half centuries of cashing in on the human love of violent stories, and perhaps of violence. We are fascinated by violence, argues Sharpe. We condemn it and we worry about it, but our films, novels, music and games are saturated with it, now more than ever.

There is no doubt that human beings have always been violent creatures. Here we are reminded that the first inventors of stone tools, the African australopithecines, used their inventions not only to hunt but to kill each other. It seems pretty clear that the tendency towards physical violence is seeded deep within human biology. Or perhaps we should say human male biology: one of the striking facts in this book is that the great majority of violence is caused by men, who also make up the great majority of victims.

Not that women are slouches. There are some grim tales here of abuse, murder and deception committed by women, usually against lovers or children. Yet, as with other primate species, so with human beings: the male is the aggressor and it shows.

If biology matters, so does culture. Overall, England is a less violent place than it was, say, 600 years ago, and this seems ascribable both to changing attitudes and to the growing power of the state. Yet it is worth noting, as Sharpe does, that there is no consistent story of steady progress through the centuries. Instead, we experience peaks and troughs of violence as the culture shifts and changes. For example, the level of reported violent crimes rose steadily from a low base in the 1920s until the 1950s, but then shot upwards in the 1960s until the end of the 20th century. In 1950, there were 346 homicides in England and Wales. In 2002, there were 1,047. Then murder rates began to fall again and have been falling for the past 15 years. Nobody knows what caused either the rise or the fall, but such cycles of violence – and changes in the forms that it has taken – have been common for centuries.

Today, the chances of being attacked, let alone murdered, by a stranger in England are vanishingly small. In the Middle Ages, it was almost an everyday risk in some parts of the country. The ubiquity of weapons – most people carried at least a knife and a staff, and many of them swords – didn’t help, and it is notable that by the 17th century, as dangerous weapons become less common, the murder rate seems to have decreased. But social turmoil, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the Wars of the Roses, as well as the lack of any kind of police force, also seems to have created an atmosphere in which random violence was a common occurrence.

The counterbalance to this was the Church. In early medieval England, murder was dealt with by ecclesiastical (rather than royal) courts, and religious writers, monks and priests would inveigh daily on the Christian message, with its injunctions to love thy neighbour and turn the other cheek. God’s wrath, it was made clear, would descend upon the sinner.

For centuries, the message of Jesus and his Church was the main cultural counterbalance against violence. But as the early modern period dawned, new forces arose. With the rise of the bourgeoisie and the resulting growth of individualism, violent crime came to be regarded not as evidence of God’s anger with His sinful people, but as a manifestation of individual wrongdoing.

Later, as the Church slowly retreated, it was these bourgeois, individualist attitudes that began to act as a brake on violence – at least among the middle classes. The decline in everything from boxing and duelling to wife-beating as the 18th and 19th centuries progressed was a manifestation of this new polite reality. For men in particular, violence was no longer considered a necessary proof of masculinity, but a failing of moral character. “Men of education and refinement,” wrote J W Kaye in 1856, “do not strike women; neither do they strike each other.”

As the Victorian age progressed, the bourgeois suppression of violence widened into the sterilisation of popular games and traditional sports (rough, village-wide football games, for example, became organised into association football). Attitudes to violence had now become polarised by class. While the working classes still regarded fist-fighting as an expression of masculinity, the “men of education and refinement” were increasingly horrified by the prospect of a scrap. Visit an English town centre on any Saturday night and you can still see this class division at play.

A Fiery and Furious People is a doorstopper – almost 650 pages long, excluding end matter – and it can read at times like a catalogue of abuse, fighting and inhumanity. Although comprehensive, it is not comparative and so we never find out whether England has been any more or less violent than its European neighbours. This is an old-fashioned history book: there is no thesis, but plenty of empirical evidence piling up. As a result, it can sometimes feel as though Sharpe has lost sight of the forest in his fascination with the trees.

Despite these flaws, Sharpe’s book will tell you much about the creativity of the human mind when it comes to conceiving of ways to mistreat others. Some of those methods we will hopefully never see again: the scold’s bridle; hanging, drawing and quartering; burning at the stake; short-drop hanging (in which the victim chokes to death; it can take up to an hour); the splitting of skulls during chivalric combat; the burning of entire towns; “baby farming” (a specialist female crime, for a while: you accepted money to look after orphans, and then murdered them). Some types of violence, on the other hand, appear to grow more common over the centuries. Over recent decades, for example, there has been an increase in mass shootings.

Then there is the violence that seems to recur throughout history in different forms. I was struck by Sharpe’s description of the early modern tradition of the “charivari”, or “skimmington” – in essence, public humiliation. A mob would descend on the home of an accused criminal or disliked public figure and proceed to hound and shame them for their actions, real or alleged. Sometimes, this would be a case of drumming, dancing and mockery in the street below their windows. At other times, it would grow more violent: the accused would be dragged from their houses and beaten, or worse. The purpose seems to have been to destroy an individual’s public reputation through abuse, shaming and mockery. It was hard, when reading this, not to think of howling hordes of social justice warriors aiming their hashtags at proponents of incorrect speech. Some things, it seems, don’t change much at all.

Paul Kingsnorth’s most recent novel, “Beast”, is published by Faber & Faber

A Fiery and Furious People: a History of Violence in England by James Sharpe is published by Random House (752pp, £30)

This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind