Court records reveal moment society became more civilized

Trial transcripts from London’s oldest court, the Old Bailey, chronicle 239 years of criminal history ranging from scandalous murders to sheep theft. A research team wondered if these documents reflect Western society’s “civilizing process,” a centuries-long period when violence levels plummeted and the modern justice system took shape. To find out, the team analyzed more than 20 million words of testimony recorded during trials held at the Old Bailey, illustrated above, between 1760 and 1913. The researchers crunched the frequency of different words used to describe violent and nonviolent crimes, such as synonyms of “blood,” “stab,” and “strike.” The language used during violent and nonviolent trials was nearly indistinguishable prior to the end of the 18th century, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. During this period, references to knives and blood were almost as common in trials for stolen silk handkerchiefs as for vicious murders. During the early 1800s, the researchers observed an emerging distinction between the two crime types, reflecting society’s changing tone toward even mild violence. The team says the results showcase how public perception can spark major changes in government and society.

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