A Fiery & Furious People: A History of Violence in England. By James Sharpe. Random House; 751 pages; £30.
IF ONE wants proof that the past is, indeed, a different country, it is instructive to look at the rate of baby-killing. In late-Victorian England, a fifth of all known murder victims were under a year old. Infanticide had been a common method to part with an unwanted child for centuries before abortion. Neglect was prevalent and in the most heinous cases, money provided the motive.
Some parents insured the lives of their children in order to cash in on their deaths. Some Victorians were paid to adopt illegitimate children, but soon sold them on as cheap labour; many of those children died from neglect. Not all people regarded the lives of newborn babes as sacrosanct. One commentator declared he had no such “superstitious reverence”.
Infanticide is the subject of one grim chapter of James Sharpe’s new book, “A Fiery & Furious People”, which examines a history of English violence from riots to highwaymen, and from executioners to serial killers. Mr Sharpe is a crime historian of many years and his book’s strength lies in its scope, which allows the reader to survey the changes and customs of English society.
Most obvious, research suggests, is the decline in violence. Average annual homicide rates in 13th-century rural England were 20 per 100,000 of population. Oxford was particularly prone to student riots: one estimate puts the murder rate in the 1340s at as high as 120 per 100,000. Assaults from strangers were more common than today; modern killers are mostly close relations of the victim.
Punishments differed in the Middle Ages, with an emphasis on public shaming. Women could be ducked in the village pond, many simply for scolding husbands or neighbours. Girls with too loose a tongue could be required to wear a bridle, an iron helmet with a bar inserted into the mouth to prevent them from speaking. Punishments in ecclesiastical courts may have involved just giving penance.
Stocks and pillories were common, but their use diminished after 1660 as society grew more secular. Public whipping declined too. It took a little longer for public executions to die out; the last outdoor hanging took place in 1868. At the same time the rate of murders and assaults dropped. Knives and swords were carried less often by Georgians. Rules appeared to develop around duels and even fist fights, such that combatants were not beaten to a bloody pulp. This may have something to do with a growing concern for civility, thinks Mr Sharpe.
Later an avowedly respectable Victorian middle class started to see violence as something done by other people; the violent were a lower class, they thought, operating in a separate moral universe. Murder fell by 70% between 1851 and 1911, even as capital punishment was less routinely relied upon. A more professionalised police force played its role in this.
It may be too early to denigrate a past, blood-spattered age. England in the late 1800s, despite the killings of Jack the Ripper, had similar murder rates to today: 0.9 per 100,000 people. The London of Charles Dickens’s “Tale of Two Cities” was more peaceful than modern London, with 1.1 homicides against 1.7 per 100,000.
Sexual-violence statistics are as high as ever, in part because of higher reporting rates. Riots still happen. And the English still succumb to newspaper-led moral panics, just as their forebears did. Crime rates have fallen, but experience suggests they do not always move in one direction; there were 10.8% more murders in America in 2015 compared with the previous year, according to recent FBI data. In Britain violence has sunk and risen in the past century. The decline of the English murder may prove to be an unfinished story.