Steven Pinker’s view of the Middle Ages as an era of hyperviolence, in which governments engaged in democide and civilians lived in terror, is not supported by the evidence. By analyzing Pinker’s sources for the medieval period and providing a clearer understanding of the difficulties involved in extracting statistical data from medieval England’s criminal justice system, this article hopes to demonstrate that Pinker’s thesis about the civilizing process is not tenable. While the medieval world was violent, we cannot definitively say just how violent it actually was, and whether it was any more or less violent than we are today.
Sara M. Butler is King George III Professor in British History at The Ohio State University. She has written on the subjects of marital violence, suicide, abortion, and divorce in medieval England. Her most recent book is Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England (London: Routledge, 2015).