Honour and violence in Europe, through the ages

Originally, to be honourable meant very different things for men and for women. Simon

Ideas about personal honour are a major key to understanding violence. This is so today, when “honour” is often replaced by terms such as respect - with “dissing” as its opposite. It was even more true in the past, when many men and even some women fought over matters of honour.

We know this from numerous historical studies published in the last 20 years. These have considerably enriched our knowledge of the nature of violence. Earlier scholars often based their judgment on their own unfamiliarity with and repugnance of violence.

They viewed attackers and killers as senseless “others” and their activities as devoid of meaning. Of course the new insight does not imply that modern scholars excuse acts of violence. We don’t have to condone an activity in order to understand it.

The link between honour and violence characterises many societies. Obvious examples include the Japan of samurai days; Latin America, in particular the Colombia that Gabriel García Márquez wrote about; so-called honour killings, perpetrated globally, are a mainstay of current news.

But the link has been studied most extensively in Europe. So let me concentrate on that continent.

First we must be more specific: what concerns us most of all is traditional male honour. Originally, to be honourable meant very different things for men and for women. Whereas men took pride in sexual exploits, say, female honour was based on its opposite, chastity. Women were also expected to be passive and silent. The passivity demanded from them meant that they had only limited possibilities for maintaining their honour themselves.

Old Europe was a patriarchal society. An important part of men’s honour was precisely to keep up the honour of women (women who did fight actually went beyond what was expected). Men performed this task by attacking and taking revenge on other men whose actions had compromised their wife’s, daughter’s or mother’s honour.

But a man also reacted with violence when another man tried to diminish his honour directly, by insulting him, say. Thus, for men, honour and its defence were practically the same.

Male honour depended on physical courage, bravery and a propensity for violence. Being attacked or being insulted equally counted as stains upon a man’s honour, which could only be washed away by counter-attack. This idea probably originated among castes of warriors, but already in the middle ages artisans, merchants and peasants shared it. Moreover, any conflict between two or more men had repercussions for their honour.

Most historians believe that it is wrong to single out honour as one motive for fighting among others. The other motive would be a conflict over whose right it was to use a particular piece of land, for example. But if both men were convinced they had a right to the land, they considered it a matter of honour to physically defend their right. Murders related to conflicts over land not only occurred in Europe – they were numerous as well in 18th-century China.

We know of no society in which all violence is honourable. In medieval Europe theft counted as a dishonourable activity. Hence all violence used in order to lay your hands on someone else’s property was also dishonourable. There were exceptions even to this rule.

If two landlords had a vendetta and one arranged for stealing the other’s cattle, the community would consider this as part of the vendetta and therefore no stain upon the stealer’s honour. The typically infamous violent person was the highway robber. Significantly, such bandits often had few social ties linking them to any community.

Family ties, on the other hand, always had to do with honour in medieval Europe. Violence used in order to avenge the killing of a man’s brother, father or even distant cousin always counted as honourable, without exception. The victim’s family could take revenge on the actual killer but also on his relative. Even treachery, such as ambushing a man, was no stain upon the avenger’s honour. More generally, any notion of a fair fight was absent from the ethic of the vendetta.

We know of examples in which a party of five avengers, unable to find their relative’s killer, went to the home of his aged father instead and slaughtered the old man there.

In the 16th century this began to change. From then, only a fair fight of one against one counted as completely honourable. The duel was invented, in which an aristocrat or army officer issued a written challenge to one of his peers to fight with rapiers or pistols over a matter of honour. Their assistants, the “seconds,” were not expected to join in the combat.

German students of a Burschenschaft fighting a sabre duel, around 1900, painting by Georg Mühlberg (1863–1925). Wikimedia Commons

The notion of a fair fight was not confined to upper-class men. Men of the lowest social ranks knew their own duels in the form of knife fights. Instead of issuing a written challenge a man would, when insulted in a bar for example, invite the other to go outside with him. If one of the combatants was in the company of a friend, he would refrain from active support. Intervention by a third was only honourable if his purpose was to separate the two combatants.

In a few of such cases in Amsterdam the separator accidentally got stabbed to death.

The appearance of the notion of the fair fight was the first major change in the link between violence and honour. A more substantial change occurred in Europe from about the mid-18th century. The basis of male honour drifted away from its close association with physical bravery. Honour gradually became associated with inner virtue. Consequently, the necessity of employing violence in order to save one’s face when insulted or challenged greatly diminished.

Finally, a man could be non-aggressive and honourable at the same time. We call this change the spiritualisation of honour.

And yet, history never proceeds in a straight line. The spiritualisation of honour mainly affected the upper and middle classes. Among lower-class men the link between honour and violence remained alive to some extent and appears to have become stronger again in the last four decades or so.


The Conversation is currently running a series looking at the history and nature of violence.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.