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29 Mar 2017

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A study of 15,471 skeletal remains of individuals who lived over the past two millennia in Europe reveal signs of weapon wounds and trauma to the head, which generally result from deliberate acts of violence. Several interesting patterns emerge from the new research by Professor Joerg Baten and colleagues, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference: 

  • First, the overall trend in the prevalence of such violence was downwards from the pre-medieval to the industrial period, falling by slightly more than half (males and females combined). 
  • Second, the prevalence of deliberate trauma was approximately twice as high for men compared with women. 
  • Third, there was a significant spike in injuries during the late Middle Ages, interrupting the long-term decline. 
  • Fourth, the study finds generally lower violence in the north-western part of Europe, with a minimum value at the continental North Sea coast (today’s Netherlands and parts of north-west Germany). In general, the Mediterranean and central, eastern and south-eastern Europe had higher levels of violence during the medieval period. 

What are the possible explanations? The researchers suspect the violence crisis of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was associated with the collapse of political structures associated with feudalism and their aggregation into larger entities. Further, the ‘Little Ice Age’ and land conflicts after the Great Plague event contributed to this. 

As to the sex differences, many studies of violence from ancient to modern civilisations have shown greater prevalence among men, who were larger and stronger than women and more likely to have been involved in warfare. 

Finally, the study compares the differences in violence by countries and regions with a large number of economic variables, such as rough estimates of income, inequality, demographic structure and education. It turns out that countries with a more rapid progress in education had earlier reductions in violence. 


Joerg Baten (University of Tuebingen) 


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