The Fall and Rise of Human Violence
Why crime plunged in the 17th century
but is rising again in the 21st
by Berit Kjos
As centuries come and go, history occasionally reveals sudden, momentous changes that transform cultures in ways that defy human logic. One of these astounding leaps began about 400 years ago. It brought light into the darkness of the Middle Ages and safety to people bound by fear, superstition and tyranny.
Resources to aid your Understanding
Historian Randall Roth explains what happened. His research showed little variation in the rate of human violence between the 14th and the 16th centuries. “Then in the 17th century, there is a very big, dramatic drop,” he says. “It’s so sudden and rapid that it seems too hard to explain with a gradual, civililizing process."
Mr. Roth ought to know. From his base at Ohio State University, he had uncovered detailed documentation of 16th and 17th century murder rates which suggested "that countries don’t become more or less civilized that quickly."
Journalist Alexander Stille explores this remarkable shift in his New York Times article, "Did Knives and Forks Cut Murders?" Basing his observations on studies done by historians during the last 60 years, he summarizes their findings:
"Although there were no national statistics centuries ago, some historians discovered that the archives of some English counties were intact back to the 13th century. So in the 1970's they began diligently counting indictments and comparing them with estimated population levels to get a rough idea of medieval and early modern crime rates. Historians in Continental Europe... came up with findings that yielded the same surprising results: that murder was much more common in the Middle Ages than it is now and that it dropped precipitately in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries." 
Why this drop? How did people suddenly become less violent and more civil?
These are important questions, for an accurate answer would also help nations deal with today's rising rate of violence. So in his informative article, Mr. Stille cites some proposed answers to these crucial questions. One such explanation points to the social changes caused by industrialization and urbanization. But this theory was countered by James A Sharpe, a historian at the University of York in England. He showed that the "big statistical dip in violence preceded industrialization and urbanization by more than a century."
Other explanations for the plummeting crime rates proved flawed as well. Some scholars have suggested that the nature of crime merely "shifted from bodily assault to crimes of property." But, wrote Mr. Sharpe, "The great decline in homicide in the 17th century was not accompanied by a rise in property offense prosecutions, but rather by their diminution."
In other words, theft as well as murder plummeted in the 17th century. People had actually changed their values. They had become more honest as well as peaceable. But why?
Mr. Sharpe doesn't answer that question. Instead, he wrote that "this drop... remains inexplicable."
Historian Edward Muir (Northwestern University) proposed another answer. In “Mad Blood Stirring,” a book on the history of murder, he writes that the Republic of Venice tried to end the violent family rivalries among its nobles by punishing murder and by encouraging one-to-one duels rather than all-out family feuds. In other words, "...they learned to replace the clan feud with the individual duel, an important shift from collective violence to individual responsibility," wrote Mr. Stille.
But that argument is countered by Mr. Roth's observations that the murder rates in Italy and Greece didn't come down until the 19th century. He debunks other popular answers as well:
"The data we are getting doesn't line up with most theories of either liberals or conservatives about crime. The theory that crime is determined by deterrence and law enforcement, by income inequality, by a high proportion of young men in a population, by the availability of weapons, by cities, most of those theories end up being wrong."
Tom Cohen, a history teachers at York University in Toronto, seem to come closer to solving the puzzle:
"Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation put a lot of emphasis on individual conscience... The conscience becomes the internal gyroscope. There is the growth of introspection — the diary, the novel, the personal essay.... personal self-control....” 
But while Mr. Cohen hints at the cause, he cloaks it in the humanist terms of today's progressive educator. Therefore, he can't explain how the "conscience becomes the internal gyroscope." Introspection, diaries and personal essays... none of these can tame man's capricious human nature.
Instead, Mr. Cohen's answer begs two more questions: How did the people suddenly develop their "individual conscience" and "personal self-control"? And how did their numbers grow to the point where cultures and nations actually reflected this personal transformation?
The seeds of change were actually sown in the 15th and 16th century by a few courageous reformers who dared to resist the corrupt religious establishment of their times. Willing to face persecution and death, men like Jan Hus (Bohemia - burned on the stake in 1415), John Calvin (Geneva - 1564), John Knox (Scotland - 1572) and John Foxe (England - 1587) chose to follow their conscience and teach the life-changing truths that would -- by the 17th century -- transform northern Europe.
Martin Luther led the way. As a Catholic priest, he had access to the Scriptures, and his Bible-based conscience could no longer tolerate the twisted doctrines of self-serving bishops nor their cruel exploitation of the poor. He knew that souls were saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not through forced "indulgences" and submission to oppressive human edicts. His rational challenge to the papacy (in 1518) birthed the Reformation and became a beacon of hope to those who longed to know the truth and live in freedom.
The surrounding culture didn't change overnight. The first sprouts from the seeds of the Reformation were still too few to accomplish a change in public consciousness. Many of the early Protestant churches were too closely tied to established traditions and state alliances to freely demonstrate the Christian life. They needed time to study God's Word, clarify the doctrines and define the unfamiliar terms. And their followers had to learn a lifestyle of faith that would resist and endure what the Encyclopedia Britannica called "savage persecution" involving the torture and death of "thousands of humble victims."
Their courage and commitment bore fruit. Persecution has always built faith rather than failure in God's flock. As Tertullian said back in the 1st century AD, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."
Ruled by the Spanish King Phillip II, whose deadly campaigns aimed to crush every rebel against his religious empire, Dutch believers faced the brunt of these deadly assaults. But in 1609 the Dutch Republic won independence from Spain. "Protestantism was now firmly established in the northern provinces," and throughout most of northern Europe.
By God's grace, people in northern Europe were suddenly free to print and read the Bible, live by faith and follow their conscience. A century later, the evangelistic zeal that spread God's truth and love throughout Europe began to cross seas and continents to reach the earth's most distant lands and oppressed people.
In the wake of this mission movement which grew quickly in the 19th century, nations were transformed. You might argue that financial exploiters and many colonial leaders served human greed and ambition. That's true. But faithful Christian missionaries did the opposite. They gave all they had -- comforts, security, health... in order to share God's love. Facing all kinds of dangers, they built hospitals, schools and churches in distant lands. And as they spread God's truths, moral standards and respect for human life, the world changed. The global slave trade ended, human violence ebbed, kindness and civility grew and travelers no longer feared for their lives.
Christianity had taught men to protect, not abuse, women. So in 1912, when the passengers of the sinking Titanic climbed into a limited number of lifeboats, "women and children came first." You may recall more recent ship and ferry accidents in which men trampled the women in their path in order to save their own lives. But when the Titanic hit the iceberg, most of the men demonstrated self-sacrificing kindness and old-fashioned chivalry:
"Lifeboats were quickly made ready and women and children were ordered to get into them first. There were 12 honeymooning couples on board the ship. Though all of the brides were saved, only one of the grooms survived." "While 'Unsinkable' Titanic Sank, John Harper Preached"
Today, we still reap the benefits of a violent world pacified by the spread Christianity. But we also see a reversal of that tide that first flooded Europe with truth. Many powerful leaders -- religious as well as political -- are determined to snuff out the light of God's Word. And the new global education and human resource development systems are designed to replace the personal freedom we have in Christ with a collective society based on religious pluralism and global idealism. Aware of the rising wave of violence in schools and communities, they ban the only viable solution. Psalm 127:1
As history repeats itself, the civilized world is regressing. Paganism, promiscuity, brutality and violent crime are on the rise, while the growing hatred for Biblical Christianity is fanned by a global entertainment industry that wants nothing more than the death of morality.
At such a time, it is good to remember what God has done in the past. It helps us look with hope toward a future in which God will continue to reign, no matter what happens.
Pastor Hollis Read knew that well. He saw God's sovereign purpose in all the ups and downs of history. Back in the 1860's, he shared his insights in a wonderful book titled The Hand of God in History:
"Perhaps no century was more remarkable in this respect than the seventeenth. That was an age of great men for the defense of the truth....
"Indeed, all history is but an exponent of Providence; and it cannot but interest the mind of intelligent piety, to trace the mighty hand of God in all the changes and revolutions and incidents of our world's history....
"The preservation of the church, amidst all the changes and revolutions of nations, is a standing providence.... Often has the whole civil authority of the world confederated against her; often has she been brought to the brink of ruin; and often have great kings and mighty kingdoms rejoiced over her supposed complete overthrow; yet, she has stood....
"Let it then be our chief concern that we be reconciled to God; that our discordant sprits be hushed into harmony with the Spirit that controls all events in the wide universe according to His sovereign will. And then, though His chariot wheels roll on in their resistless course, we shall not be crushed, but, drawn by the sweet influences of everlasting love, our spirits shall find rest from every sorrow and rest in God forever."
1. Alexander Stille, "Did Knives and Forks Cut Murders?" The New York Times, May 3, 2003.
2. While the source of this quote by James A. Sharpe is Alexander Stille's article (listed above), much more information can be found in the first chapter (written by Mr. Sharpe) in the book, The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages. Written "by scholars from North America and Europe," it "demonstrates that both rural and urban communities in Sweden, Holland, England and other countries were far more violent during the late Middle Ages than any cities are today." (University of Illinois, 1996, back cover).
3. Eric A. Johnson (Editor), The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages (University of Illinois, 1996) In chapter 1, Mr. Sharpe writes, "We have a number of samples of homicide statistics from the Middle Ages. These show massive variations in homicide rates...[but] a cluster of samples, however, suggest a typical thirteenth-century rate of around 18 to 23 per 100,000. We then have more samples to suggest that the rate dropped a little, perhaps to 15 per 100,000 in 1600, and then fell dramatically over the middle of the seventeenth century. This drop... remains inexplicable." (page 22)
4. Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 19 (Chicago: William Benton, 1968), page 48.
5. "By 1815, Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States had agreed to prohibit the transatlantic slave trade.... In 1817, Spain also agreed to abolish the slave trade north of the equator and, in 1820, to abolish it completely. ...The major effort to enforce the ban on slaving was undertaken by Britain.... One Brazilian leader... stated that: "With the whole of the civilized world now opposed to the slave trade, and with a powerful nation like Britain intent on ending it once and for all, can we resist the torrent? I think not." How Britain Ended Slavery Around the Globe. Yet, other forms of "slavery" exist in many parts of the world..
6. The statistics vary, but here are some samples: Crime and Punishment: "From the early 1960s to the early 1970s, the violent-crime rate rose sharply while the incarceration rate actually fell.... In the 1980s lawmakers delivered mandatory minimums--statutory requirements for harsh sentences.... All those policies filled prisons...."
Millions Of Crimes Go Unreported: (March 10, 2003) "Only about half of the violent crimes counted in the survey were reported to police. The report showed a 10 percent decrease in the violent crime rate for whites... However, those figures were not given the highest grade of confidence because of analytical formulas that suggest they could be flawed."
Crime-jacked: "Violent crime is up 11 per cent; Robbery is up 28 per cent; Murders are up 4 per cent; Rapes are up 14 per cent...."
Speed blamed for crime rise: "...newly released statistics show violent crime is at an all-time high."
Crime rate increasing in major cities: "...the most 'dangerous' cities are Hamburg, Berlin and Frankfurt...."
Don’t tell New York, but crime is going up: "The number of murders grew by 3 percent, and robberies by 3.9 percent.
7. Rev. Hollis Read, The Hand of God in History (Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Company, 1870); 115, 118-119
Provided to Cutting Edge by Berit Kjos of Kjos Ministries
Books by Berit Kjos
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