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‘Till Death Us Do Part’: The Comparative History of Domestic Homicide in Early Modern Europe

Final Report Summary - CHDHOM (‘Till Death Us Do Part’: The Comparative History of Domestic Homicide in Early Modern Europe)

Murder of family members has been deemed as especially heinous for centuries. Law and custom prosecuted family killers more vigorously than other murderers. However, some types of domestic homicide such as spousal murders and infanticide have been more visible than others such as parricide or fratricide. In early modern Europe, family hierarchies provided opportunities for (ab)using patriarchal power to ensure order and loyalty. The project ‘Till Death Do Us Part’: the Comparative History of Domestic Homicide in Early Modern Europe has focussed on the detailed and nuanced study of the uses and abuses of patriarchal power resulting in violent resistance, mainly, homicide within the family in early modern Europe. It has addressed domestic homicide as a complex phenomenon of private violence emerging during this period as an opposition to increasing state monopolisation of violence and control over human behaviour.

Utilising court records, legal, medical, and didactical sources, the project thoroughly investigates case-studies of England, Scotland, Sweden, Russia, Italy, and France. I argue that the nature of domestic homicide changed over the course of the early modern period to reflect the state’s active intervention within the family by limiting a household head's authority to punish and kill family members as well as to make the family a space for policing. These alterations had immense implications for the definitions of the public and private spheres as well as social and political attitudes to violence. The state and community came to condemn any use of violence within the family denying the head of the household sovereign’s rights to build transparent and controllable hierarchy within which only the state and state’s agencies were permitted and expected to use violence. Therefore, the community (neighbours and friends) limited their intervention into violent families expecting the official authorities to do that.

The project has produced a number of publications including a monograph with the same title to be published in 2017, which is the main outcome of the project. The book being the first comparative study of parricide, filicide, fratricide, spousal murders and other siblicide in early modern Europe contributes to the development of several academic fields, namely (1) family history, highlighting reconfiguration and re-negotiation of the family union as a space for policing; (2) history of violence, underlining the stable nature of domestic homicide, that is, prevalence of spousal murders and murders of children, in particular, infanticide, and more or less the same ratios of domestic murders, contrary to the previous studies insisting that with the decline of public violence private violence increased; (3) gender and women’s history, arguing that although women were the main victims of spousal homicide, but female responses to violence, especially in cases of parricide, and female offending did not necessarily revealed their victimhood but rather provided them with agency; (4) historically informed criminology, providing criminologists with long-term data and models in family violence to avoid assumptions about very contemporary nature of such crimes as parent abuse and parricide, suicide via infanticide and horizontal family violence such as fratricide or sororicide.

The project’s results have been widely disseminated via knowledge transfer and collaboration with other research groups, namely Crime and Gender, 1600-1900 network based at the University of Leiden (leader: Prof. Manon van den Heijden) and Violence Against Parents in the North of Europe, based at the University of Tampere and organized by Dr. Raisa Toivo and myself. The project facilitated creation of the new research agenda both history and criminology of family violence with continuation projects in the history of parent abuse and patriarchal authority (Nordic collaboration between Finland, the UK, Estonia, Canada and Russia) and history of emotions and private violence (in collaboration with Max Plank Institute of Human Development). Project’s results have been incorporated in teaching such courses as History of Family Violence and Social Problems in Modern Society.

Overall, the project has provided unique opportunities for rising awareness of family violence in our society as a long-term historical phenomenon to be dealt with not only through therapy and prosecution, but through understanding the family as a hierarchical and historically rigid institution rather prone to provide an institutional framework for conflict than vice versa.