Violence in historic terms is going down in frequency and our society is safer than ever. So argues the author and academic Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature where he paints a picture of a very violent medieval past to prove that the present is a much better place.
The ultra-violent nature of the medieval world
To illustrate his point, he gives examples of random acts of brutality in the Middle Ages that appear to have been everyday occurrences. Some are truly awful while others almost make you laugh in disbelief.
What are we to make of this, re-quoted from historian Barbara Tuchman, describing a ‘sport’: “Players with hands behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws…” And that was nothing compared to the more bizarre spectacle of a pig being clubbed to death for popular amusement.
Violent shopper in medieval England
Then there is the angry medieval shopper that Pinker re-quotes from a book written by historian Barbara Hanawalt: “It happened at Ylvertoft on Saturday next before Martinmass in the fifth year of King Edward that a certain William of Wellington, parish chaplain of Ylvertoft, sent John, his clerk, to John Cobbler’s house to buy a candle for him for a penny. But John would not send it to him without the money wherefore William became enraged, and, knocking in the door upon him, he struck John in the front part of the head so that his brains flowed forth and he died forthwith.”
Violent mutilation of medieval noses
Historian Valentin Groebner has written an article called ‘Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town’. It deals with the prevalence of nasal mutilation in the Middle Ages as a punishment and as a way of exacting revenge on an enemy. So common was this activity that medical textbooks of the period even speculated whether a severed nose could grow back!! Cutting off your nose to spite your face referred to real attacks on noses. In case you think this practice has died out – I’m afraid to say the Taliban think it’s acceptable to do this to young girls in today’s Afghanistan.
- Roast unicorn anybody? What they ate in the Middle Ages! (thetemplarknight.com)
- Medieval Journey in the town of Santa Maria da Feira (thetemplarknight.com)
- Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (reason.com)