Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steven Pinker says "Yes" (to my castles question)

I'm quite pleased to see that Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has answered a question I left on the Freakonomics Blog's Q&A for him. Pinker argues that modern times are much more peaceful than at perhaps any time in human history. My question and his response are below:
Q: The countryside here in Ireland is dotted with the ruins of castles and Iron Age “forts”. I wondered sometimes if this is evidence that ancient or early medieval Ireland was very insecure and violent, considering that today we live in houses that can be easily invaded through the glass windows.

I’m not sure if I am missing other evidence, however. Are the highly defensive dwellings of the past good indicators of the insecurity and violence of that age?
-Shane


A: Yes; the castles really do reflect the fact that Iron-Age and medieval Europe was more violent than early modern Europe—as Barbara Tuchman wrote, medieval knights fought their private wars “with furious gusto and a single strategy, which consisted in trying to ruin the enemy by killing and maiming as many of his peasants and destroying as many crops, vineyards, tools, barns, and other possessions as possible.”
And here is an example of those lost castles and forts I said still dot Ireland, the ruins of Norman-era Delvin Castle, incongruous now surrounded by humble houses and the local post office. Back then the local lord needed a castle to protect himself from murderous raids. Today the local people live in ordinary houses, protected by a police station with a handful of unarmed police. Things do get better.

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