The idea that violence is declining runs against the grain of how we think about the world. We continually worry about domestic disputes, street crime, civil unrest and war.
Manuel Eisner’s groundbreaking work brings us back to the real underlying trends. He started with books on the aristocracy in the Middle Ages, counting up the number who were murdered or were murdered. He found violence among the ruling classes to be ubiquitous.
The following segment of the paper gives a flavour of the time:
Symonet Spinelli … (went to the house of Godfrey le Gorger) with Richard Russel his Servant. A quarrel arose and Richard and Symonet killed Geoffrey. This is an entry in the plea roll of the eyre court held in London in 1278. The eyre was a panel of royal justices empowered to judge all felonies and required to inquire into all homicides hat had occurred since the last eyre. The story is typical of the situational structure of lethal violence in thirteenth-century London—a disagreement, a quarrel leading to a fight, and a fight resulting in a death. It could arise in different situations, often after drinking or over women, sometimes during a feast, but rarely premeditatedly. In two of the 145 instances of homicide recorded in the London eyre court rolls of 1278, the quarrel broke out after a game of chess.
But between 1200 and to today violence has declined. Excluding war, the rate of deaths resulting from violent episodes reduced from 32 per 100,000 in 1200 to 1.4 per 100,000 in the last century.
Pinker’s book Angels of Our Better Nature builds out from Eisner’s work, and includes the data on deaths from warfare (also declining).
The full analysis is recorded in a paper available here.