Violence as Aggression or Communication? Breaches of ‘Home peace’ 1550–1650
Based on a study of around a hundred breaches of ‘home peace’ in Sweden between 1550 and 1650, this article investigates the cultural meaning of acts of violence and the relationship between masculinities and violence in early modern society. A central theoretical assumption is that violence has a cultural meaning. Furthermore, in legal proceedings, violant acts was loaded with meaning by the parties, witnesses and judges.
In Court records certain symbolically charged elements tend to appear frequently. A central element is that the aggressor appeared at the home of the defendant in arms, knocked loudly on the door and insulted the defendant. The aggressor thereby signalled the existence of a conflict and challenged the defendant to fight it out. According to the records, the defendants typically declined the challenge and tried to stop the attack. Many defendants hid themselves, others sent out their wives to meet the aggressor or attempted to calm him down. Violence exercised in conjunction with breaches of ‘home peace’cannot be said to be signs of a failure to exercise self-restraint. Rather, such violence was charged with symbolic meaning, which was interpreted against the backdrop of a number of written and unwritten norms.
Court records describe the aggressor as a rash and uncontrolled man—the opposite of the ideal man. His actions were characterised by fits of rage and unwarranted hostility. In contrast, the defender was described according to a positive stereotype. An important part of this stereotype was the refusal of the defendant to accept the challenge to fight and his attempts to avoid bloodshed. Previous research has argued that the male ideal of the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries demanded that men defended their honour with violent means if necessary. This study demonstrates the existence of a more complex set of norms surrounding violence and manliness. It also shows that self-restraint was an important element of male ideals already in the early modern period, even in violent conflicts. Failure to appreciate this aspects of the male ideal are due to the failure of present day observers to appreciate the nuances and the shifting meanings of acts of violence in early modern society.
2006. Vol. 126, no 3, 429-452 p.