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A key issue in criminology is to account for variation in rates of violence across time and place.  An important variable largely neglected in the literature is individualism. Building on theoretical ideas proposed by Durkheim, Black, and Baumgartner, we illustrate the role ...

Published onNov 13, 2023


A key issue in criminology is to account for variation in rates of violence across time and place.  An important variable largely neglected in the literature is individualism. Building on theoretical ideas proposed by Durkheim, Black, and Baumgartner, we illustrate the role of increased individualism with a case study: the decline of homicide in England, 1250-1750.  The qualitative historical materials we present reveal the growth of more individualized conflicts evident in less third-party partisan intervention and a reduced concern with honor.  More individualized conflicts were, in turn, a product of a more individualized society, one characterized by increased social distance and mobility.  Our argument has implications for understanding contemporary criminal violence.

Keywords: Violence; historical criminology; long-term European homicide decline; third parties; honor; individualization of conflict.

Violence varies greatly across place and time. Globally, homicide rates range from a high of 62 per 100,000 to a low of 0.2 per 100,000 (UNODC 2019: 17). Nationally, rates of violent crime (homicide, aggravated assault, rape, and robbery) increased in the United States from 161 per 100,000 in 1960 to 758 in 1991 before declining to 379 in 2019 ( A central task in criminology to account for this variation. Well-known explanations include the civilizing process, inequality, social disorganization, and demographics (e.g., the prevalence of young men in the population). Drawing on work by Emile Durkheim, Donald Black, and M.P. Baumgartner, we develop a line of explanation that has attracted less scholarly attention: the degree to which conflict is individualized (but see Shoemaker 2000; 2004). Individualized conflict is characterized by fewer clashes between groups and fewer clashes about honor. But when will conflict be more or less individualized? We contend that one important source of conflict individualization is the degree of individualization of the society at large. More individualized societies tend to produce more individualized conflicts – and less violence.

One way to preliminarily test this theory is to examine a society over time and compare its level of individualization and its rate of violence. With a tradition of centralized, bureaucratic government stretching back almost a millennium, the history of England provides the best opportunity for such an analysis. We therefore support our argument with the well-known, albeit imperfectly-documented, decline of homicide in England, 1250-1750. Although our case study is historical, our explanation has implications for explaining differences in rates of violence more broadly, including within and across contemporary societies.


Scholars of the past have proposed that over several centuries homicide rates across Western Europe declined steeply. Drawing on a variety of historical sources, Norbert Elias (1939: 190-217) described a reduction in European violence from the Middle Ages. After Gurr (1981) assembled some more systematic data showing a steep drop off in English homicide rates historians began to uncover a similar pattern in other regions of Europe, including Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland), Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy (Eisner, 2001; 2003; 2014). Manuel Eisner has conveniently assembled all the data in a single inventory, the History of Homicide Database.


Eisner’s Database has grown substantially over time as more information has accumulated. By 2014, the section that covered the years 1200-1750 comprised 823 local estimates from 115 historical studies (2014: 71). The data reveal a consistent, but not linear, downward movement in homicide rates across Western Europe, though one beginning at different times with more northern and western countries experiencing the transition earliest (Eisner, 2003). The trend appears to have spread from the top down, with rates of elite homicide waning before those of other social classes (Eisner, 2003: 115-119; Spierenburg 2008). And it was driven overwhelmingly by a reduction in lethal violence between men (Eisner, 2014: 85-6). Some historians have questioned the accuracy and comparability of earlier demographic estimates and homicide records, suggesting instead that homicide rates have not so much fallen as fluctuated considerably across time and space or that the homicide rates of the times are impossible to compute with any accuracy (McMahon, Eibach, and Roth 2013; Butler 2018). Other historians disagree, seeing the calculated rates “as imprecise, yes, but as valid indicators of broad patterns of change” (Kesselring 2019: 11; see also Cockburn 1991; Sharpe 2016). Certainly, there is reason to be cautious when relying on historical records of lethal violence, including that victims may not have been found, that victims may only have been found after decomposition, making it uncertain whether they had died violently, that the proper authority (coroner) may not have been informed of the case, or that the coroner may have failed to hold an inquest (see King 2010: 675-678; Eisner, 2017: 568).1 However, unless these factors fluctuated widely over time, the breadth and consistency of Eisner’s data makes it is difficult to resist his conclusion that “the big decline in homicide was real” (2014: 91).

The country for which there are the longest time series and the greatest number of data points is England. Eisner’s database reveals that by 1700-1749, the mean homicide rate was 2.0 per 100,000 persons, down from 5.2 in 1500-1549, and from 14.7 in 1200-1299 and 21.4 in 1300-1349. As with most long-term trends, the decline was not geographically uniform or temporally linear (Eisner 2017: 570). For example, Eisner (2014: Table 4) estimates that the homicide rate for England and Wales 1551-1600 was 5.2 but rose to 5.8 in the years 1601-1650. Moreover, the rates were influenced by factors other than the sheer amount of violent conflict. While increased medical intervention likely saved more lives that was offset, to an unknown degree, by the greater lethality of weapons. However, even allowing for non-violent factors, for considerable inaccuracies in the data, and for significant temporal and spatial fluctuations, the overall drop in homicide rates – over 90 percent from the 1300-1349 peak – appears, again, to be too large not to have a basis in reality (see also Sharpe and Dickinson 2016; Kesselring 2019: 9-19).

The homicide rate continued its downward trend after 1750, falling to 1.4 in the period 1750-1799 before rising to 1.6 between 1800 and 1874. Subsequently, the rate fell to .8 from 1900 to 1975 – a 60 percent drop from the 1700-1749 rate (2014: 15, Table 4). However, we are here primarily concerned with the much larger absolute and relative decline in English homicide rates in the 500 years preceding the Industrial Revolution. The most prominent explanation of that decline is Elias’s (1939) theory of the civilizing process.


Elias proposed that beginning in the late Middle Ages, Europe underwent a long-term civilizing process as people became more restrained, sensitive to inner psychological states, considerate of others, and conscious of the long-term consequences of their actions. This more restrained personality manifested itself in multiple ways, including in a gradual decline of violence in everyday life. With its emphasis on self-control, Elias’s theory is compatible with Gottfredson and Hirschi’s (1990) general theory of crime. But Elias was much more interested in tracing the broad historical processes that lay behind the trend, of which he specifies two. The first was the gradual rise of the state which enabled European monarchs to slowly reduce violence through the creation of law courts and standing armies (Elias, 1939: 524; Eisner, 2003: 125-7). The second macro-level change was the appearance of more complex dependency chains. Where the warrior elites originally sustained themselves with the produce of their estates, the emergence of markets coupled with their relocation to the court resulted in their adopting more eusocial, self-restrained behaviors conducive to maintaining long-term trade relationships (Elias, 1939: 368-369).

Spierenburg (2008: 224) argues that the evidence on European interpersonal violence from the Middle Ages to the present “provides powerful support for the theory of civilization” (see also Pinker, 2011: Chapter 3). Eisner’s (2001; 2014) analyses of his data set are broadly consistent as well, confirming a correlation between state monopolization of violence, elite pacification, and a heightened sensitivity to violence within society as evidenced by an increased concern with infanticide, torture, and gruesome executions. Eisner (2014: 28-34) adds nuance to Elias's initial model through Gorski's (2003) work on civilizing offensives in which a society's elites actively attempt to instill their values in the masses. However, Eisner also notes some patterns contrary to Elias's model. For example, in England following the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Netherlands under the Dutch Republic (1579-1795) homicide continued its downward trend despite a weakening of absolutism (Eisner, 2001; 2003). Eisner, therefore, highlights the importance of additional factors, such as the rise of Protestantism with its internalization of shame, repugnance, and social anxiety (Elias, 1939: 417, 421). He further cites the increase in self-control caused by the spread of literacy, the proliferation of printing presses and formal schools, the development of the restrained skills needed to read and study, and a decreases in alcohol consumption, especially in public places (Eisner, 2014: 43-53). All of these changes produced more self-disciplined actors less likely to escalate small conflicts into lethal violence (2014: 93).

Elias’s theory has not gone unchallenged. For instance, given the impulsive nature of many homicides today, is it safe to conclude that people today are, on average, more self-controlled than their medieval counterparts? (McMahon, Eibach, and Roth 2013). We do not take a position on this issue. Instead, we argue that self-control theory illustrates a more common limitation in the study of violence: the unit of analysis.


Since it is individuals who commit violent acts, resting the explanation of violence on the characteristic of individuals, such as self-control, seems reasonable. However, doing so has a significant disadvantage: imprecision (Black, 2004a). Self-control fashions an ordered and prudent individual less likely to engage not just in violence but in many other behaviors, such as belching, spitting, eating without tableware, or appearing nude in public (Elias, 1939: Ch. 2). Moreover, while low self-control might explain a tendency to be violent, it does not explain when precisely that tendency will manifest itself. An individual’s level of self-control is largely constant after a certain age (approximately 10, according to Hirschi and Gottfredson, 2001: 90). Yet violent acts are rare. Even the most violent individuals are non-violent most of the time (Black 2004a: Collins, 2008). Individual self-control does not, therefore, predict when an individual will become violent, against whom, under what conditions.

Complexities such as these help explain why some have turned away from person-based theories. Randall Collins (2008), adopting a broadly phenomenological viewpoint, emphasizes violent situations or encounters instead. From a different perspective, Donald Black (2004a) recommends a focus on violent conflict structures (i.e., their social composition). Given the difficulty of measuring psychological variables, such as self-control or confrontational tension (Collins), especially in historical studies, we believe Black’s approach has the virtues of greater parsimony and testability.

For Black (1983; 2004a), violence is typically (though not invariably) a means by which people respond to conflict. The central theoretical issue then becomes: under what conditions do conflicts attract violence rather than any of the alternatives, such as avoidance, negotiation, law, or toleration? Black and others have tackled this large question by breaking it down by types of violence, including suicide (Manning, 2020), criminal homicide (Cooney, 1998a; Phillips, 2003), family honor killing (Cooney, 2019), terrorism (Black, 2004b), genocide (Campbell, 2015) and lynching and other forms collective violence (Senechal de la Roche, 1996, 1997). These theories emphasize, among other things, the importance of third parties (those who know of a conflict but are not the main adversaries or principals) in shaping the response to conflict (Black, 1993a, 1993b; Cooney, 1998a; Senechal de la Roche, 2001; Phillips & Cooney, 2005).2 Third parties also form an integral part of Baumgartner’s (1988) analysis of suburban conflict management which, using a Blackian framework, links individualized conflict arising out of weak social ties to non-violence. Although the available data are far from ideal, we apply and extend Baumgartner’s argument to the historical trend (see also Baumgartner, 1998). Since our focus is conflict, we do not address that minority of homicides arising out of other circumstances (e.g., infanticide; predatory robbery and rape killings), though they too become less common over time. And we concentrate on homicides in the public sphere, most of which involved men, rather than domestic homicide, as they underwent the greatest decline.3

Our theory employs a version of the “Coleman boat,” a diagram drawn by James Coleman (1990: 8) to model the interaction between macro and micro levels of analysis. Coleman argued that the distinctive mission of sociology is to explain macro-level phenomena (e.g., revolutions, the rise of capitalism), which can usually only be adequately explained by the actions of individual actors (micro-level). However, micro-level behavior is constrained by macro-level forces. Hence, the challenge is to incorporate both levels of analysis. Coleman worked within a rational choice framework; we reconfigure his vessel to accommodate our structural reasoning as follows:


We begin with the second nexus (how the individualization of conflict reduced its lethality) before returning later to the first.5


The decline in third-party participation we call the individualization of conflict. Instead of drawing in outsiders either as loyal partisans or as members of an audience who must be impressed, conflicts increasingly involve the two principals alone. First, consider partisanship.


Partisanship consists of taking sides in a conflict (Black, 1993a).6 The support that partisans provide varies in strength, measurable by “the amount of assistance they give and by the extent of risk and hardship they assume” (Black & Baumgartner, 1983: 88). Supplying snippets of information to one of the adversaries is a relatively weak form of partisanship, joining in a fight a strong form.

Partisans do not necessarily lead to more violence as their presence can deter aggression by raising the stakes of confrontation (see, e.g., Given, 1977: 78-9). Yet partisanship can increase the risk of violence if only because its strongest form is physical force. And once violence begins, the presence of additional actors on both sides feeds the conflict: more bodies become available to be injured and killed.

Partisans have attracted less attention from scholars of violence than their importance warrants (but see, e.g., Felson et al., 1999; Felson and Paré, 2005). A notable exception is Black’s (1993a) theory of partisanship. Treating partisanship as a form of “social gravitation,” Black proposes that partisan attraction is a function of social closeness to one side of a conflict and social distance from the other side. Thus, family members or close friends will tend to provide strong support – provided they are strangers to the other side. The closer third parties are to both sides the more likely they are not to take sides but to remain neutral or non-partisan. Senechal de la Roche (2001) adds that the strength of partisanship is also a function of the social closeness of the partisans themselves (see also Cooney 1998a: Chapter 4).

Blackian theory predicts, then, that partisanship will flourish among tight-knit social groups strongly demarcated from other such groups, a characteristic of early modern European societies with their close, extended families and relatively isolated villages. The homicide data, unsystematic though they are, are consistent. Describing thirteenth-century England, Given (1977: 41) observes that “one of the most striking features of medieval homicide [was] its markedly collective character.” Some lethal conflicts had partisans entering on both sides; some on one side only. An example of the latter is a case described by Sara Butler (2020) from Cumbria in 1287. A man beat his wife for selling tainted meat and imperiling his commercial reputation. As he assaulted her, her father intervened and attacked the husband with his sword. However, the husband overcame the father and stabbed him to death.7 Given found that 60 percent of individuals named as killers in the eyre (i.e. court) rolls acted with a companion.8 The number of accomplices ranged from one to over 20. Relatives were the most common accomplices: brothers supported brothers, parents supported children, and spouses supported each other. Some 35 percent of incidents had more than one victim, the number ranging from two to over 20 (one case). For the period 1300-1348, Hanawalt’s (1979: 189-190) study of the coroners’ and gaol delivery rolls of eight counties found that 59.5 percent of homicides were committed by more than one person. These numbers must be treated with caution. Some of the homicides did not arise out of conflicts but were predatory attacks carried out in the course of robberies or rapes that may have been particularly likely to have involved groups of offenders (Greenberg, 2003: 1409). And homicides with more than one participant may have had a higher likelihood of winding up in the court records. 9 Consequently, the numbers supplied by Given and Hanawalt provide only rough estimates of the proportion of lethal conflicts to which partisans contributed.

The second principle in Black’s theory is that partisanship is greater in an upward than a downward direction. Lower status people should therefore provide more support to higher status principals than high-status principals provide to their social inferiors. Thus, just as citizens today fight for their country, so medieval villagers supported the gentry, the gentry supported the aristocracy, and the aristocracy supported the monarch. The many servants that the wealthy employed were an abundant source of support in times of conflict, frequently acting as his “watchdogs” (Spierenburg, 2008: 25). On occasion, they risked their own lives for their high-status overlords. The strong partisanship that servants often seemed to provide is not a sociological surprise, for at least some servants were not temporary hired hands but were long-standing members of the lord’s household who had entered their master’s employ at a young age and remained there for many years, perhaps their entire life (Given, 1977: 49). This combination of social inferiority and intimacy produced a willingness to intervene in the conflicts of the master, sometimes on their own accord, sometimes at his behest. Cases Given (1977: 50-1) describes include:

  • A subdean of Lincoln cathedral, one William Bramfield, was murdered in the church by another cleric. The victim’s servants immediately attacked the killer, hacking his body into pieces.

  • Osbert seized a cow from Richard, a servant of Adam. Adam ordered two servants, Walter and William, to recover the cow. They went to Adam’s land with a bailiff. There they met Thomas, one of Osbert’s servants. Walter asked Thomas who had the cow, striking him lightly on the shoulder with a staff. Osbert appeared with two other servants, Nicholas and Walter Smod. The parties quarreled and fought. In the brawl, Walter Smod killed Adam’s servant, Walter.

  • Ketel and James had been in a fight. Ketel, along with three servants, broke into James’s house and kidnapped him. They imprisoned him in Ketel’s residence, where he died.

Partisanship appears to have been directly related to the high homicide rates of the day. Given found that homicide rates were higher in rural than in urban areas. Where London, Bristol, and Norwich had homicide rates of about 12, 4, and 16 per 100,000, respectively the rural areas of Bedford, Kent, Oxford, and Warwick had approximate rates of 22, 23, 17, and 19 (1977: 36, Table 2; 84). This pattern may seem puzzling, since the cities had high rates of in-migration, serving to throw together high numbers of unrelated strangers. However, as Given notes, they were strangers with fewer partisans:

“Immigrants from the countryside brought with them a group of behavioral patterns that included collective assault. But in the cities and towns the groups from whose ranks people normally recruited allies – family, friends, neighbor, parishioners – were largely absent. When confronted by a situation in which they would have reacted violently had they been in their home villages, these new immigrants were unable to find the allies they felt necessary to support a violent confrontation. And therefore they let the injury or insult pass unavenged. When they could find allies, they did react with violence. But the only people who were in a position to do this were those who were native to the town or had sufficient time to become established in it. Thus, homicide rates in England’s urban areas tended to be lower than in the countryside” (1977: 176).

Moreover, in the countryside, “areas where relatives tended to aid one another more frequently were also, with the exception of Norfolk, the areas with the highest homicide rates” (1977: 155).

Partisanship resulted not just in more homicide but in more varied forms of homicide, including fatal faction fights (see also Hammer, 1978). A dispute over ownership of a Lincoln church in the 1290s between rival factions resulted in the death of one man, the wounding of three others, considerable damage to the church itself (unsurprising, given that 200 men attacked it), and attacks on another church and a monastery (1977: 71). In Norwich in 1272, a conflict erupted between the townspeople and the priory’s servants in which a townsman was killed. The quarrel festered, and some months later the prior’s men began firing arrows at the townspeople, supplementing their forces with three barges full of armed men from another town. They and the reinforcements entered the town, looting and burning three houses. In retaliation, the townspeople attacked the priory, burning down a church. Thirteen men were killed. The following day the prior killed another man. Eventually, the King had to come personally and restore order (1977: 186-7). Inter-village violence was common as well. In one case from around 1305, the men from an outlying village came to Bridgnorth in Shropshire for a festival and got into a dispute with the local men. The fight spiraled, and the local men had to blockade themselves in the town while the visitors fired arrows into it. In the fight, one of the attackers was killed (1977: 163). Overall, Given (1977: 163-4) estimates that in at least 55 percent of homicides in which he was able to infer the residence of the parties involved villagers supported one another.

Group lynching, too, was not unknown, particularly for thieves. In 1267, two convicted thieves managed to break out of prison and flee to the sanctuary of a church. There, they remained for 40 days after which they were entitled to leave the country, though they could never return (“abjure the realm”). However, as they sought to make their escape, they were set upon by twelve men and beheaded (1977: 208). In a 1262 case, another convicted thief obtained sanctuary and abjured the realm. Four men sent by the sheriff of Northampton waylaid him on the road to Dover, beating him so severely that the flesh on his back and arms putrefied (1977: 208-9).

The waning of partisanship was slow. Groups formed around members of the landed gentry continued occasionally to fight and kill into the fifteenth-century and beyond (Payling, 1998. Kesselring (2019: 72) notes that “such conflicts look very much like private warfare between lords with sizeable private armies” but adds that they “diminished in time with the Tudors’ efforts to limit the retaining of large numbers of servants uniformed in the livery of their masters.” Sharpe (2016) opens his commanding account of English violence with a description of a collective fight in Nantwich, Cheshire, in which one Roger Crockett was killed in December 1572 over a dispute about the leasing of a profitable piece of pasture. The current lessee, Richard Halsall, did not want Crockett to gain control of the land. Factions formed on both sides, and they exchanged blows. One of Crockett’s supporters was injured. When Crockett came to assist his friend, Halsall’s men attacked him. Crockett later died of his wounds. This was not an isolated incident. In 1589, Sir Thomas Langton aided by 80 men launched an attack on Thomas Houghton and 30 men at Lea Hall, Lancashire (Wrightson, 2003: 168). In an entry for September 1661, the diarist Samuel Pepys described

“A dispute over precedence between the French and Spanish ambassadors [that] spiraled into a street fight between their servants in which a number of Frenchmen, two Spaniards and several of the French Ambassador’s coach horses were killed, along with an unfortunate English bystander who was shot accidentally” (Sharpe, 2016: 37).

As social ties gradually loosened, these collective affrays became less common. Third parties were less inclined to intervene in the disputes of others. Increasingly, they needed a reason to get involved beyond simply having a tie of kinship or co-residence. Even when they did, they were less likely to support the cause wholeheartedly by putting their own lives on the line.10 By 1700, homicide seems to have become largely a one-on-one crime. Meyer’s (2013: 29) study of all homicide cases that came before London’s Old Bailey between 1689 and 1710 reports that 78 percent were committed by a single perpetrator.

One manifestation of the decline of collective violence is the evolution of popular rebellions. The revolt of 1381 saw the killing of several hundred people, including the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Treasurer, the destruction of considerable amounts of property in London and elsewhere, and promises of political concessions from the king (Richard II) (Sharpe, 2016: 52-63). Subsequent revolts in 1450, 1497, and 1549 were not on the same scale, in part because the more prosperous and powerful were no longer attracted to the causes of their less fortunate countrymen (Sharpe, 2016: 64-5). Over time, peasant revolts gave way to urban riots. Eighteenth-century city dwellers were quick to assemble and express a collective grievance in a public and boisterous manner (see, e.g., Beattie, 1986: 133-5). Rioting surged in the period in the half-century from 1690 to 1740, declining though not disappearing for the remainder of the century (Shoemaker, 2004: 112). The complaints of rioters were many and varied, triggered by economic, political, religious, and other events (Sharpe, 2016: 346).

Urban riots and peasant revolts both expressed mass discontent at shared grievances, but they differed in important respects, including the relationships of the participants. Peasant revolts could draw upon deep interpersonal ties to generate high levels of partisanship. In contrast, the greater average social distance of city dwellers meant that urban riots attracted somewhat lower degrees of partisanship. As a result, urban riots were more likely to involve targets of convenience or symbolic value rather than rival partisans, as was often the case in rural conflicts. By the eighteenth-century, then, urban rioting was, with some exceptions such as the Gordon Riots, directed mostly against property rather than people (Shoemaker, 2004: 120).

The decline of partisanship helps, too, to explain the decline of elite homicide. The medieval aristocracy maintained large households with many retainers who were expected to provide armed support for their master in times of trouble. Over time the size of aristocratic households shrank, and the lethal public mêlées once found between aristocratic retinues increasingly came to be a thing of the past (Stone, 1965; Sharpe 1984: 96-9; Cooney, 1998a: 100-1).


“Honor” refers in the study of conflict to bravery, courage, a willingness to fight when insulted or challenged (see, e.g., Cooney, 1998a: Ch. 5). Honor is a social status based on force (Black, 2011: 71). Over the centuries, honor has been a prominent theme in violent conflict (Spierenburg, 1998; 2008). Honor is often associated with masculinity, though women may do battle over honor, too. In social groups that prize honor, a reputation for being fearless is a priceless asset. An honorable individual must be prepared to use violence no matter how overwhelming the odds. As James (1978: 7-8) notes of the Tudor elite, “honor was not authenticated at the bar of success or diminished by failure …but by the steadfastness with which they [opponents] were confronted.” Conversely, public knowledge of a failure to confront brings immediate loss of status.

Many of the homicides described by Given likely arose out of honor contests. However, the legal documents on which he had to rely reveal little about the social context of the underlying conflicts. With a wider variety of materials available to them (e.g., newspaper accounts, diaries, contemporary literature), historians of early modern England have been better positioned to provide richer descriptions of cases of violence, and the centrality of honor has become clearer. Most violence at the time arose between men seeking to demonstrate publicly their courage and independence in the face of well-understood insults, such as being called a liar or cuckold, being spat upon, or having their ears boxed, hat struck off, or beard pulled (see. e.g., Shephard, 2003: 143-7; Meyer 2013: 52-59).

Not all affronts to honor led to deadly fights. Early modern men and women could display moderation and restraint in the face of provocation (Pollock, 2007). Still, public insults, challenges, and allegations of lying ignited many conflicts that took a lethal turn (Beattie, 1986: 91-94). The challenge, “Thou villain, if thou darest, meet me at the town’s end” lead to a fight with cudgels that ended in a death during Elizabeth’s reign (Kesselring 2016:13). The alehouse appears to have been particularly prone to displays of competitive masculinity (see, e.g., Foyster, 1999: 178). In an incident in 1698, for example, John Millman was killed in a quarrel with another over their drinks bill. In another case, a drunk in an alehouse announced he would fight the best man in the house. He nominated Thomas Moss, who accepted the challenge. Next day, they fought, and Moss lost the fight and his life. A dispute over a wager at a Highgate tavern led to a man asking John Everett, “What for a man are you” to which he replied “A man, or piece of man, as well as you” which led, in turn, to a fight resulting in Everett’s death (Shoemaker, 2004: 154-155).

Many of these honor conflicts assumed the form of boxing matches (Spierenburg, 2008: 95). Faced with an affront in a public place, one man might challenge his antagonist to a fight. Once the challenge was accepted, the parties stripped to the waist and went at each other bare-knuckled, sometimes to the death. Boxing duels were fought according to rules of fair play in front of an enthusiastic audience that often wagered on the outcome. Manly honor was the underlying theme: who was or was not a liar, who was or was not a coward, who was or was not the best man in the tavern. Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, boxing became less frequent and lethal, turning into a commercial spectator sport conducted according to rules that limited injury (Shoemaker, 2004: 194-214).

Higher up the social hierarchy lay the gentlemanly duel. The formal duel emerged in fifteenth-century Italy and quickly spread across Europe (Kieran, 1988: 46-91). Class-restricted and rule-bound, duels were confined to the nobility and conducted according to explicit rules designed to ensure a ‘fair fight’ so that neither party had an advantage. Once a challenge was issued and accepted the parties (the principals and their assistants or seconds) settled on a time and place for combat and the weapons to be used (see, e.g., Andrew, 1980: 412). Underlying the conflict was, again, the notion of honor that had long underpinned elite violence (see, e.g., James, 1978; Eisner 2017: 577). Common triggers of duels were allegations of cheating at cards or of telling lies, boasts of physical prowess, slurs cast against the virtue of a woman, and various other slights that had to be met forcefully or face disgrace as a coward. Initially, the parties fought with swords. Seconds often got in on the action as well, resulting in greater numbers of injuries and deaths. In the eighteenth-century, pistols replaced swords. Despite the greater lethality of the gun, dueling fatalities sharply declined over time. To practice shooting in advance came to be frowned upon; seconds increasingly adopted the role of peacemaker; the parties stood further apart and fired fewer shots, and they often terminated the duel as soon as blood was drawn. Where more than 20 percent of the parties to sword duels died, only 7 percent of pistols duelists met the same fate (Shoemaker, 2004: 180-191).

With the growth of commerce and then of industry alternative forms of masculine status emerged. A greater range of occupations opened more avenues for upward mobility: a man could rise in the world without having to rely on a display of physical courage. Indeed, a belligerent sensitivity to insult became more of a hindrance than a help in securing the admiration of peers. Public interaction changed too, a factor emphasized by Shoemaker (2000; 2004) in his work on London violence. As the city’s population expanded (from about 200,000 in 1600 to 900,000 in 1800), the pace of life quickened. Living physically close to someone no longer guaranteed friendship or even acquaintanceship. Witnesses in court cases increasingly testified that they only knew the disputing parties by sight, though they lived near them (2000: 126). In this more anonymous milieu, London homicides declined over the century by more than six times, driven in good measure by the waning of honor conflicts:

"Violent assaults provoked by insulting words also declined… This led to a change in the relationship between words and violence in male behavior, with the former less often directly leading to the latter. Although some murders continued to be provoked by insulting words, from the mid-eighteenth-century there are increasing reports of men who failed to respond to such language" (Shoemaker 2004: 172).

One such case occurred in 1761 when three men taking shelter from the rain in a Covent Garden tavern were insulted liberally and challenged to a fight by a group of sailors. Ignoring the provocation, the men went to leave. Only when one of the sailors blocked their path did a fight erupt (ibid).

Pockets of reputation-rich environments remained, particularly for the working class. But for the middle and upper classes, "collectivities such as neighborhoods and crowds lost their powers to shape individual reputations and behavior" (2004: 298). Consequently, the public began to turn against dueling, leading to its eventual demise (Andrew, 1980: 434). Other reputational forms of social control also faded in the eighteenth-century (Shoemaker, 2004). Shame-based punishments, such as the pillory and public whippings and hangings were phased out. Public insult litigation gradually disappeared as well: cases fell from a peak of 70 per 100,000 London residents in 1633 to 0.1 by 1827-29. These trends were further responses to the weakening hold of people's opinions about one another:

“As the individual ceased to be so closely watched by the community, estimations of honor and reputation became less publicly defined…Public life came to consist of ‘privatized individuals’ who came together in public spaces which were now ordered by the rules of civility and the state…The power of collectivities such as neighborhoods, guilds, and crowds to shape individual reputations and behavior was undermined to be replaced by other forces” (Shoemaker, 2000: 129-130).

In sum, over time, conflict individualized both because partisans intervened less often and reputations for toughness ceased to matter as much. The consequence was a decline in lethal conflict, itself a reflection, as Shoemaker emphasizes, of changes in the structure of everyday life.


Conflict individualized because society at large did so, too. Over time, a process of individualization expanded the capacity of people to act independently of groups, institutions, and other people. No person or group is entirely free of all social ties or obligations: pure individualism is never found in practice. Nonetheless, as scholars across multiple disciplines have observed, individualism is a variable aspect of social life (see, e.g., Lukes, 1973).


The growth of individualism – individualization – has long been a central theme of historical sociology. Ferdinand Tönnies (1887), for example, saw the transition from a collective Gemeinschaft (community) to an individualistic Gesellschaft (society) as the distinguishing feature of modernization. Individualism and lack of community have been cited for many ills of modern society, including violent crime (e.g., Shaw and McKay, 1942). However, Durkheim (1950: 110-120) argued the opposite, drawing attention to the link between increasing individualism and declining homicide rates.11 Analyzing the falling rates of nineteenth-century Europe, Durkheim proposed that homicide arises out of feelings of attachment to collectivities (family, tribe, nation). When collective sentiments are strong, the individual may be sacrificed, even killed (e.g., in the name of clan honor). As societies differentiate, people come to feel less attached to the group. Increased individualism weakens the obligation of collective sentiments and values such as “political beliefs, the sentiment of family honor, the sentiment of caste, and religious faith” (116). Simultaneously, individualism strengthens respect for the welfare and integrity of the person: individual pain and suffering becomes “a hateful thing” (1950: 112). From the higher valuation placed on the individual declining rates of homicide flow naturally.

For Durkheim, then, individualism is detachment from sentiments centered on the collectivity and attachment to sentiments centered on the individual. Both his concepts of individualism (how we think of and feel about the individual) and collectivism (how strongly we feel attached to the group) are highly psychological. But how strongly people feel about something is difficult to measure, especially in historical studies. Hence, we use the term to refer not to a cultural property but a structural property with two principal components: social distance and social mobility.


Social distance includes relational and cultural distance (Black, 1976). Relational distance or intimacy is the degree to which people’s lives are intertwined (1976:40). Family members and close friends occupy one end of the spectrum; strangers several degrees removed occupy the other end. Indicators of relational distance include smaller and more nuclear families, greater privacy, and, to some degree, modern urbanization with its more fleeting encounters. Cultural distance is the difference between items of culture, or the diversity of culture (1976: 73-74). English and French, for instance, are more culturally similar – culturally closer – than English and Mandarin. Indicators of cultural distance include the presence of different languages, religions, beliefs, or ethnicities.

Social mobility encompasses horizontal and hierarchical mobility. Horizontal mobility is interactional change. At the low end of the spectrum, people live and work around the same small group their entire lives. At the high end, people live and work with many strangers and interactions are varied but brief. Indicators of horizontal mobility include travel, trade, and job shifting. Hierarchical mobility is a change in the vertical position of actors, their status. At the low end of hierarchical mobility, people's social status does not vary over time relative to that of others. At the high end, people can move quickly and distantly up and down systems of stratification – the lowly born can attain great riches, or the powerful can lose everything. Indicators of hierarchical mobility include the making and losing of wealth, power, and prestige and, more indirectly, economic expansion and contraction.

To argue that English society underwent a process of individualization between 1250 and 1750 is to risk stating the obvious. However, that which appears to be obvious sometimes turns out to be wrong. It is, therefore worth briefly confirming eight concrete but non-exhaustive ways in which average social distance and mobility increased over the half-century under consideration.

  • Marriage and kinship: England in 1250 was characterized by high degrees of family solidarity. The basic unit of society was the family headed by the husband, who was “held responsible for the good behavior of the members of his household. If they did evil, he was bound to produce them in court and even answer for the damages they had done” (Homans, 1941: 209). Parents were heavily involved in the marriage decisions of their children (see, e.g., Maddern, 2006: 129). Over time, fewer marriages were fully arranged between the prospective spouses’ families. Most unions appear to have been “neither arranged nor individually chosen but subject to the ‘multilateral consent’ of all interested parties” (Pollock, 2017: 65). Marriages at the upper end of the social pyramid began to span greater geographical distances, thereby forging ties between more distant regions of the country (French, 2017: 276).

  • Community: Thirteenth-century village life was highly communal. “Most people lived in a village, worshipped in a parish, and worked in a manor…. Work on a manor was to a large extent collective and remarkably participatory” (Tombs, 2014: 92). Villagers cooperated in plowing, sowing, harvesting, weeding, haymaking, and other tasks. The community took a keen interest in the lives of its members and was capable of influencing the inheritance of land and even the choice of marriage partner (Schofield, 2003: 102-7). In dealing with the lord of the manor and the outside world, the villagers tended to act as a single community (Homans, 1941: 333). Beyond the village was the town or borough, a center of craft and trade that was similarly collectively organized. For instance, just as “the men of a village were collectively responsible for all fines and other charges laid upon the community [so] were the burgesses for all charges laid upon the borough” (Homans, 1941: 338). This changed gradually. With the strengthening of the state, villages and towns became integrated into a national network. In the wake of the Reformation came local divisions between Catholics and Protestants, Church of England Protestants and Puritans. With the enforcement of the Poor Laws, a division grew between those who paid the tax (the poor rate) and those who benefitted from it, between those who truly belonged to the parish and those who did not (Gaskill, 2017: 93-4). Community ties never died, but they weakened (see, e.g., Wood 2020).

  • Labor: In 1250, a majority of manorial tenants were unfree serfs or villeins. They could not leave the manor without the lord’s permission, could be sold along with the manor, and were subject to the jurisdiction of the lord’s court rather than the king’s courts – the common law. However, customary practices provided some protection for tenants: they could not be evicted arbitrarily and could usually bequeath their tenancy to their heirs (Schofield, 2003: 12-7). The catastrophic Black Death struck in 1348, killing up to one-half of the population (Dyer, 2002: 272). Tenants who had survived the plague sought to take advantage of the demographic shortfall by securing greater rights, though not without stiff resistance from lords who wanted to freeze rents at previous levels. But tenants held the upper hand. If the lord’s rent was too high, other lords were only too happy to have some rent rather than none at all. Villeins were able to purchase their freedom, and by 1500, serfdom had disappeared from England (Robisheaux, 1994: 86). Servants were a feature of many households, but they became a less stable and unchanging group. For example, “Samuel Pepys had 38 servants from 1660 to 1669, 13 of whom stayed less than six months” (Pollock, 2017: 61).

  • Land: Faced with a diminished supply of tenants following the Black Death, landlords found a new, often contentious, way of increasing their income: the conversion of open fields to pasture, or enclosure. Pastoral farming required fewer tenants than crop farming, and with wool prices holding up well enclosure became economically attractive (Wrightson, 2000: 102-103). Once enclosed, the land was no longer available for communal use but owned by one person (Whittle, 2017: 159). The individualization of agriculture increased with the continued enclosure of agricultural land. After a lull in the early sixteenth century, a new wave of enclosures began around 1575 (Wrightson, 2000: 162). By 1700, some 70 percent of England’s cultivable land had been enclosed (Wrightson, 2000: 326).

  • Towns: The England of 1250 was an overwhelmingly rural society. Towns grew gradually in number and size such that by 1500 some 3.1 percent of the population resided in town and cities of over 10,000 people, rising to 8.8 percent by 1650. A century later one in every six people in England and Wales (16.7 percent) resided in towns of over 10,000. A large part of the increase was due to London’s share of the population growing from 1.9 percent in 1520 to 11 percent in 1750. But other towns of over 10,000 became more populous, too, increasing their percentage of the total population from 1.4 percent in 1520 to 5.7 percent in 1750 (Withington, 2017: 176-8)

  • Industry: From being an overwhelmingly agricultural society, England became considerably more industrialized. The late sixteenth-century witnessed the invention of new textiles, the growth of glass-making, the development of iron and lead production, and the increasing exploitation of coal resources (Wrightson, 2000: 166-171). Over time, the number and type of products made expanded greatly. Industry became more urban-based. Towns like Manchester, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton experienced significant industrial growth. Increasingly, industries consolidated in particular regions of the country (e.g., metalware in Sheffield; coal production in the north-east; the boot and shoe industry in Northampton) (Wrightson, 2000: 240-5). As industry slowly began to replace agriculture, living and working and living around long familiar faces came to be gradually supplanted by living and working around strangers and distant acquaintances, some of whom, in addition, likely carried distinct regional cultures.12

  • Travel: Travel from one part of the country had long been possible, albeit slowly, but by 1500 changes in “technical and physical matters, such as in harnessing, cart design, ship-building, and increased bridge-building all made moving around easier, cheaper and safer” (Childs, 2006: 275). New roads and canals, more navigable rivers, and more active ports all facilitated the movement of goods and people. In 1700, it took about 256 hours to travel from Edinburgh to London; by 1750 that was down to 150 hours. Travel-time between English towns declined as well (Porter, 1990: 192).

  • Economic opportunity: Upward mobility was comparatively rare in medieval England: “throughout the period 1200-1500 successful careerists were the exception, not the rule, and that for the vast majority of people social immobility remained the norm” (Maddern, 2006: 133; emphasis in original). This was particularly true for women, to whom many occupations were barred (Maddern, 2006: 122-3). Gradually, opportunities opened up. The dissolution of the monasteries (1536-41) transferred vast tracts of lands to private hands. The primary, though not the exclusive, beneficiaries were highly placed aristocrats. An active land market saw the continued expansion of the gentry, such that by 1640, 57 percent of gentry families had achieved that elevated status since 1500 (French, 2017: 273-4). The greater prosperity was not equally distributed (Wrightson, 2000: 182-201). While the national income of England and Wales doubled in the period 1560-1640, economic inequality grew too. Seasonal fluctuations in demand for labor, low wages, and rising prices combined to expand the wealth gap. With the growth of credit toward the end of the sixteenth century, indebtedness followed naturally in its wake (Muldrew 1998). Poverty had always existed, but now “a larger proportion of the national population was more deeply mired in a perennial struggle for economic survival” (Wrightson, 2000: 200). Yet the expansion of industry and commerce also created a new class of wealthy individuals whose fortune was not tied primarily to land. Of perhaps greater significance were the increased number of manufacturers, merchants, lawyers, bankers, independent tradesmen, commercial farmers and others who made up the upwardly mobile middle class.

To summarize: compared to a half-century earlier, by 1750 the average English person was less closely tied to family and community, less confined to the same occupation or economic status for life, had more opportunity to travel and to buy and sell goods and services, and was more likely to work for wages than to engage in subsistence-level farming.13 


“The family that slays together stays together” is a familiar idea among historians of violence (see, e.g., Hanawalt, 1974: 16). Combining ideas from Durkheim, Baumgartner, and, especially, Black, we would reverse that aphorism: the family that stayed together slayed together. But the primordial social ties of both family and community weakened over time. As social distance and mobility increased third parties became less willing to settle disputes but, more important, less willing to support one side unreservedly. Having to stand alone, disputants became more inclined to avoid their adversary or forgo conflict altogether. With the growth of commerce, the expansion of the division of labor, and the move to town living, varied routes to status opened up, and reputations for toughness ceased to be quite as fateful. Honor conflicts did not disappear, but they became less common and intense, beginning with the higher ranks. While individualism is often cited as the source of many social pathologies, the historical expansion of individualism, far from promoting violence, served to inhibit it. In sum, a more individualized society resulted in more individualized conflicts, and more individualized conflicts resulted in a less violent society.14

Our analysis leaves many questions remaining unanswered, such as the timing and location of the homicide decline. Also required is stronger confirmation of the points and links in our Coleman boat – for example, the extent of conflict individualization, the degree to which it can be attributed to societal individualization, as well as the degree to which the decline of homicide was driven by a decline in the proportion of conflicts that became lethal (rather than, say, a reduction in the rate of conflict). The decline of homicide is well established for western European and Scandinavian countries. We predict that those who search for it will find evidence of the individualization of conflict there, too. We further predict that additional reductions in lethal violence after 1750 will be associated with additional increases in individualization.

Once stated, these points seem unsurprising. However, they have been largely neglected in the literature. Eisner’s (2012) survey of the literature lists seven factors that distinguish low and high homicide societies, including some characteristics of the parties (intimates vs acquaintances/strangers, non-elite involvement vs elite involvement, and female victims vs male victims). Although his review mentions the organization of offenders, honor conflicts, and Durhheim’s thoughts on individualism in passing they are loose threads that are not woven together into a coherent whole.

None of this is to contend that the factors identified by other scholars are irrelevant. The growth of the state, the expansion of literacy, the elongation of chains of dependency, and other changes surely contributed to making violence less attractive. A major long-term trend invariably has multiple causes. Individualization is consistent, and may even partly overlap, with the causal factors scholars have previously pinpointed. Nor does our argument necessarily imply reverse causation (see Lieberson 1985: chapter 4). Although greater individualization tends to reduce violence, less individualization (more collectivism) does not invariably increase it. That is a separate issue requiring separate analysis.

Compatible though our argument is with the substance of previous explanations, it presents a different form of explanation. We do not seek the cause of declining homicide rates in changes to the psychology of individuals. Instead, we locate the decline in the social situations that produce most homicides: conflicts While the psychological approach extends beyond homicide to a range of other behavior, the changes it posits (e.g., greater self-control) must be inferred from behavior. By contrast, the change in conflict structures can be directly observed. Moreover, since homicide is an extremely rare event, but individual psychology is largely constant over the adult life course, psychology is a much better predictor of non-homicide than of homicide. By switching our focus to the structure of conflict, we can begin to zero in on the precise conditions under which those rare violent acts occur: who commits them, against whom, when (Black 2004a).

Nor do we explain the decline of homicide with societal-level variables, such as economic inequality or political centralization. If societal-level or other macro-level processes affect homicide rates they do so by changing the structure of individual conflicts. Our argument therefore is not simply one about modernization. While modernization processes undoubtedly increase individualism, they do so imperfectly. Pockets of more collective arrangements may survive within highly individualized societies. And collectivism may fluctuate over time, increasing or decreasing within a society and, with it, altering how conflict is handled. The growth of organized crime or the rise of political upheaval, for example, can re-collectivize conflict and push up rates of violence. Conversely, the attenuation of drug markets can reduce disputes between rival groups of dealers, pushing down rates of violence. Individualization should therefore help to explain contemporary criminal violence. While a full discussion of this issue must be postponed for a future occasion, assaults and homicides today appear to be most frequent where conflict involves partisans organized in contending groups (e.g., between U.S. neighborhood gangs, Central American drug cartels). Even without organized adversaries, violent conflict remains a feature of settings, such as working-class bars, in which close social ties foster a concern with reputation-maintenance in the form of pugnacious honor (e.g., Hochstetler, Copes, and Forsyth 2014). On the other hand, violence is rarer where people handle their conflicts largely without the support of committed partisans or away from the gaze of observing audiences (e.g., middle-class suburbs: see Baumgartner, 1988; Jacques and Wright 2015). In short, variation in the degree to which conflicts are individualized appears to harbor considerable potential to shed light on the key criminological issue of variation in rates of violence across space and over time.


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