The long tail of elite violence

An enthralling new study demolishes the old idea that the rise of the modern European state was a civilising process.

Seventeenth-century Dutch peasant with two daggers attacks another card player in a dark tavern wields a knife.
Seventeenth-century Dutch peasant with two daggers attacks another card player in a dark tavern wields a knife. Credit: Florilegius / Alamy Stock Photo

Enmity and Violence in Early Modern Europe, Stuart Carroll, Cambridge University Press, £30

Voltaire twice set out to kill someone. The first time, it was an agent provocateur who had been responsible for his being incarcerated in the Bastille. The second time, it was the duc de Rohan. In both cases Voltaire’s enemies had got in first by having him beaten up: a thrashing, administered by servants, was a mark of contempt. In the case of Rohan, Voltaire challenged him to a duel, which Rohan carefully avoided. In seeking to find Rohan and force him to fight, Voltaire claimed to have nothing but Rohan’s interests at heart: he was trying to restore to him his honour. Rohan, of course, thought the upstart ‘de Voltaire’, who had been born ‘Arouet’ and had given himself a fancy, new aristocratic name, was not worthy of the respect a duel implied. The government locked Voltaire up, and then permitted him to go into exile in England, but he snuck back in the hope of catching Rohan unawares and killing him. He was perfectly serious, buying weapons, practising shooting, and taking lessons in swordsmanship. There were limits to Voltaire’s tolerance when he believed his honour was at stake.

These were merely the first of a series of bitter enmities that disfigured Voltaire’s life: he even sought to have his critic, the Protestant La Beaumelle, arrested on the (false) capital charge of being a Protestant minister. Even as an old man, Voltaire was still trying to kill off his enemies. And his enemies responded in kind. One publisher collected an anthology of attacks on Voltaire under the title Guerre littéraire, and writing for Voltaire was always a form of warfare.

Young Voltaire was vulnerable and touchy: he had been locked up for circulating seditious poems, and his social status was ambivalent. When Rohan had him beaten up for answering back, the official line was that Voltaire was a poet (not a gentleman) – the beating of a poet by an aristocrat was part of the normal course of things, and not a matter for the police.

Stuart Carroll (once a colleague of mine) has written an important book about the normal course of things in early modern Europe. Two features of the book are particularly admiable. First, it covers a long period, from 1450 to 1720. It is full of details, yet it is never overwhelmed by them. It offers a birds-eye view which enables Carroll to trace long-term shifts in behaviour and in social norms. Second, it is comparative, providing parallel studies of Italy, Germany, France and England. These two features place what might have proved to be intolerable burdens on Carroll, who has had to familiarise himself with a vast array of archives and primary sources, not to mention secondary literature, in four languages. But the scale of argument he mounts requires nothing less.

The book is sure to provoke criticism, some of it likely to be fierce, but it opens up a whole new perspective on early modern history, and will be an essential reference point for those who come afterwards, even if they disagree. It can be compared to Lawrence Stone’s wonderful The Family, Sex, and Marriage 1500-1800 (1977): a platoon of scholars made their careers out of arguing Stone was wrong, but it was he who invented the questions to which they provided different answers. Stone’s book, though, was confined to England: Carroll’s comparative approach pays dividends in helping to clarify the nature and extent of English exceptionalism.

Carroll’s primary target is the view, orthodox among early modern historians, that violence, particularly between members of the elite, declined steadily from the fifteenth century onwards. The rise of the modern state went hand in hand with – indeed was directly responsible for – a civilising process in which assault and murder were replaced by litigation. Blood ceased to flow in the gutters of European towns, and lawyers got rich.

Carroll conclusively demolishes this happy story. There was a sharp increase in violence in the sixteenth century across Europe, and not just because of religious conflict. Levels of violence remained high throughout the seventeenth century, and only began to sharply decline from the 1720s – Voltaire’s attempted murders lie at the very end of this long era of vicious conflict, which set factions and family members against each other, where disagreements quickly morphed into vendettas and feuds. Carroll is particularly adept at exploring the diaries in which such feuds were recorded. Such texts may at first seem like private documents, but often they were written to educate the next generation, who would inherit, either an ongoing conflict, or, if they were lucky, an uneasy peace.

Carroll makes his case by assembling innumerable stories but also, where possible, by collecting telling statistics. Strikingly, he demonstrates that contemporaries did not choose violence or litigation – over and over again, they chose violence and litigation. Voltaire pursued the agent provocateur who had had him beaten up through the courts, as well as hunting for him up and down the country, sword and pistol to hand. Vendettas, feuds, and duels were usually outlawed; this did not discourage their practice, but merely altered the terminology applied to describe them in the accompanying court cases. Thus duels were usually passed off as the innocent products of self-defence when enemies simply happened to bump into each other, though in reality such encounters were far from accidental.

In the case of Italy, the evidence for a tsunami of violence is copious and convincing. What is fascinating is the way in which murder and mayhem went hand in hand with a preoccupation with peace making; together they generated an elaborate, erudite literature on the proper limits of revenge. Those killing each other were sometimes sophisticated humanists, often hired ruffians. The peculiar (as it seems to us) complacency with which Machiavelli describes and advocates violence takes on a quite different complexion when placed in the context of these stories of everyday mayhem.

Where Carroll is likely to meet pushback is in his handling of England. There he argues that members of the elite killed each other and their social inferiors much more often than one would gather from the skimpy English trial records. Juries of presentment refused to bring charges; coroners were corrupt; and the gentry and the aristocracy murdered with impunity. The English legal system differed from those in Italy, Germany, and France because it relied on jury trials, which took place within the space of a day and whose outcome could not be controlled. On the continent, justice was bureaucratic and endlessly deferred; instead of seeking criminal convictions the judicial authorities sought to broker setllements between families. Elite killers rarely faced imprisonment or execution, but they were forced to pay compensation and to make amends, by, for example, erecting crosses recording their victim’s death. Blood money was not just a medieval practice; it was the norm in continental Europe until the Enlightenment. In England, by contrast, the courts did not require restitution, compensation, or atonement. Feuds and vendettas still took place, but they were settled privately, and leave no trace in the skimpy court records.

Carroll started his career as an historian of the French Wars of Religion. The article on the Wars of Religion that every undergraduate reads is by Natalie Davis: ‘The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France’ (1973). It may seem natural that Carroll should have progressed from a study of religious violence, to a book on violence in general in sixteenth-century France, and then to this broader study of the rites of violence in early modern Europe. But it has taken fifty years to get from Davis to Carroll; what has stood in the way is the assumption that the early modern state suppressed violence, when in fact, as Carroll shows, what it consistently did was turn it into a revenue source, selling pardons retail and, on occasion, wholesale. (Again, England is the outlier here, for the English state never succeeded in monetising elite violence.)

This is, as it stands, an important book (underpinned by a series of recent pathbreaking articles on Italy and Germany). But Carroll’s refutation of the orthodoxy simply leads to a new question: if violence did not decline until the eighteenth century, why did it decline then? Carroll promises a following volume that will provide an answer. He implies that what mattered was a new understanding of ‘society’, a term whose meaning changed radically in this period. It looks as though what we will get is an intellectual and cultural history of the construction of a pacific social order. Voltaire, we must assume, will look like the odd man out when it comes to eighteenth-century philosophers, who for the most part did not carry swords, let alone unsheath them.

Carroll writes movingly of the stone crosses that used to be scattered across rural France, recording deaths in duels and assaults. Most have disappeared, falling victim to the Revolution and to nineteenth-century French anticlericalism; this book will outlast such memorials, a fitting monument to so many who died in what might seem to us petty squabbles, but were for them bitter and lasting enmities. Had Voltaire managed to catch up with Rohan, he too might have found his place within these compendious pages. As it is, we can now better understand the fury that drove him to seek the death of his enemies. For such furies were never blind; enmity had its special rites, and violence its peculiar ceremonies. Carroll has rediscovered the rules, both written and unwritten, that governed violent encounters between declared enemies; one can only look forward to his study of the disarming and pacification of the eighteenth-century elite.


David Wootton