Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800

Julius R. Ruff

Cambridge University Press 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Violence in Early Modern Europe presents a broad-ranging survey of the forms of violence in Western Europe, and their evolution, from around 1500 to 1800.

Ruff begins with the dissemination of news and representations and perceptions of violence, emphasizing the changes that came with the introduction of printing and the rise of a print culture. Fear increased even as violence decreased, in a way that seems remarkably modern.

He covers the availability of weapons in the community, the violence of armed forces, especially in provisioning themselves, and the use of armies to maintain order (and problems with that). By modern standards states remained weak, duels and arbitration outside the justice system were commonplace, and judicial systems and police forces only slowly extended their reach. Judicial torture almost disappeared during the period, along with punishments which involved extremes of violence.

Ruff considers four areas of interpersonal violence: assault and homicide, domestic violence, rape, and the murder of newborn infants. He describes some of the manifestations of ritual group violence, in organised youth groups and in carnivals and festivals. He covers the violence that came with popular protests, which ranged from intimidation and other "weapons of the weak" through riot to outright rebellion. And he finishes with the organized crime of bandits and smugglers.

This is a lot to cover in under 300 pages, but Ruff manages to avoid bland summary. He touches on the underlying reasons behind long-term changes, in particular the role of elites, in supporting and leading popular unrest and in shaping attitudes and preferences. He also touches on some debates — for example critiquing both Hobsbawm's ideas of banditry as a form of social resistance and hypotheses about criminal subcultures.

Violence in Early Modern Europe offers no great surprises for those familiar with the period, but it is a nice synthesis with some fascinating details, especially in individual cases. It would make a good introduction for students, perhaps as a core supplemented by primary sources. Further reading bibliographies are given at the end of each chapter but there are no detailed references, with the footnotes providing sources only for quotes and a few works of particular historiographical significance.

October 2008

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%T Violence in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800
%A Ruff, Julius R.
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2001
%O paperback, footnotes, index
%G ISBN 052159894X
%P 269pp