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A Fiery and Furious People by James Sharpe

A Fiery and Furious People by James Sharpe
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For a book about the history of violence in England, A Fiery and Furious People is surprisingly cheering, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Though its pages overflow with “duelling, hooliganism, domestic abuse and even serial killing”, the story it tells is basically one of progress. As a country, we’ve become markedly less violent over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, robbing and rioting were so endemic that you were more likely to be killed by a stranger than by a family member. Oxford’s homicide rate in the 1340s – 120 deaths per 100,000 – was “higher even than in contemporary Caracas”. We were terrified by the riots of 2011, but compared with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, during which thousands were butchered, they were a “vicarage tea party”. Sharpe enlivens his “gigantic survey” with a great many unforgettable anecdotes, such as the story of poor Henry Butler, an 18th century servant whose mistresses were so stern that, as he told a judge, “I beshit myself” – whereupon the women “took my turd, thrust it into my mouth, and made me eat it”.

One of Sharpe’s strengths is that he avoids “sweeping” explanations, said Ted Vallance in the Literary Review. Nonetheless, an important influence on A Fiery and Furious People is Norbert Elias’s idea of “the civilising process”, which holds that the decline of violence was inextricably bound up with the rise of state power and its monopolisation of violence. As it grew, people were forced to curb their disorderly tendencies. Nobles were transformed from a “warrior caste” into “courtier-servants” whose love of “bloodletting” was channelled into duelling, hunting and sport. Though Sharpe might at times have broadened his focus – he fails, for instance, to mention Slavoj Žižek’s thesis about unequal societies being inherently violent – his overall argument is “persuasive and powerful”.

Besides being “wonderfully entertaining”, this book is “enormously astute”, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. Most studies of violence are dominated by statistics, but Sharpe is “suspicious of what numbers can reveal”. He points out, for example, that the nearly fourfold rise in serial killings between 1960 and 2006 seems shocking “until we consider that Harold Shipman – who killed at least 215 people – single-handedly caused the increase”. The history of violence, Sharpe contends, is “formed from a welter of individual stories”. By recounting so many of them, he brings his subject memorably to life.

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