Struggling with violence and fanatism

Cover stories

'We are living in the late Middle-Ages!' According to Norbert Elias in 1984. Overcoming conflicts by peaceful means still is an exceptional ability. From a historical point of view terror, flight, ideological fanatism and perennial warfare are the normal ways to deal with conflicting interests and powerstruggles. In global perspective, negotiating as an alternative to violence is a scarce and precarious skill. In this contribution I will describe how the skills of negotiating developed over the centuries.

Struggling with violence

How did social and political interaction look like in the Middle-Ages? The Dutch historian Huizinga (1924) provides an excellent picture. The next quotations provide a picture of social interaction:

From the thirteenth century onward inveterate party quarrels arise in nearly all countries: first in Italy, then in France, the Netherlands, Germany and England. Racial pride, thirst of vengeance, fidelity, are their primary and direct motives.

So violent and motley was life, that it bore the mixed smell of blood and of roses. The men of that time always oscillate between the fear of hell and the most naïve joy, between cruelty and tenderness, between harsh asceticism and insane attachment to the delights of this world, between hatred and goodness, always running to extremes.

The people could see their fate and that of the world only as an endless succession of evils. Bad government, extortion, the cupidity and violence of the great, wars and brigandage, scarcity, misery and pestilence - to this is contemporary history nearly reduced in the eyes of the people. The feeling of general insecurity which was caused by the chronic form wars were apt to take, by the constant menace of the dangerous clashes, by the mistrust of justice, was further aggravated by the obsession of the coming end of the world, and by the fear of hell, of sorcerers and of devils. The background of all life in the world seems black. Everywhere the flames of hatred arise and injustice reigns. Satan covers a gloomy earth with his sombre wings.

There undoubtedly were norms and agreements to regulate the mutual interaction, but "time after time the fierce roughness breaks through the embellished forms".

At the coronation banquet of Charles VI, in 1380, the Duke of Burgundy seeks, by force, to take the place to which he is entitled, as doyen of the peers, between the king and the Duke of Anjou. Already the train of the Duke begins to thrust aside their opponents; threatening cries arise, a scuffle is breaking out when the king prevents it, by doing justice to the claims of the Duke of Burgundy.

According to an observer at the peace conference at Atrecht in 1435, the participants "throw themselves on the ground, sobbing and groaning". The relatively refined life at the court is characterized as "continual noise and disorder, swearing and quarrels, jealousies and injuries, in short, the court is an abyss of sins, the gate of hell". A ferocious fight can erupt at any time over anything, whether it be a game of chess or a ceremonial funeral.

Self-discipline and the curbing of emotions and drives were less constant and even. Plans and promises were easily overruled by the emotions of the moment. Direct, impulsive and irascible reactions were stronger. The risk that heated behavior and individual aggression could rapidly escalate into large-scale violence was far from imaginary. There was no confidence that the other side would have enough self-control, just as there was no confidence that people would refrain from assassination or ambush, in spite of all the pledges.

Wilder forms of showdowns and trials of strength are in fact the predecessors of our current negotiating behavior.

Fanatism as normal

Violence and fanatism were the dominant tendencies in situations of conflict. People could barely imagine other ways to deal with conflicting interests than confrontation. Compromise was not according to their code of honor and in that sense alien to their rationality. The dominant social standards allowed, and sometimes even demanded subjugation, punishment, annihilation and revenge.

Powelson (1994) refers to this attitude as quite normal for most societies in human history. In his impressive account of the historical development of economic change in nearly all regions of the world he only mentions two exceptions, i.e. Western Europe and Japan. Only there a behavioral repertoire developed in which violence or flight were not automatically the most natural ways to respond to tensions. Powelson refers to the endless struggles between warlords, princes and tyrants, which bred, and still breed, a behavioral repertoire far removed from negotiating and compromising. He also describes the, in many periods and regions quite normal, situation in which powerful rulers subjugated all rivals and enforced a peace characterized by a very steep power pyramid, most often of a ruthless and capricious nature.

The exceptional situation in North West Europe and Japan was based on the fact that even the mightiest rulers in these two areas experienced various kinds of dependencies. To sustain the struggle with competitors these rulers had to find ways to get funds from their own subjects other than by ruthless exploitation or looting them. Lower ranking groups could utilize the power resource of allying themselves with higher-ranking groups. They were able to enforce some rights and could restrain arbitrariness and interference with regard to trade and production.

In thousands upon thousands of conflicts, no group could impose its will; each learned to settle for some positive sum short of its deal. Thus were the rules of the market, corporate enterprise, parliamentary government, financial system, and commercial laws fashioned and endowed with sustaining power. More important, the various groups came to value long-term ends more than short-term ones, and they learned that negotiation and compromise, not confrontation and violence would best achieve them. (Powelson, 1994, p. 11)

Powelson (1994) calls this the power diffusion process; Elias (1994) refers to it as functional democratization. Van Vree (1999) describes in detail the example of the Netherlands, where bourgeois codes and types of conduct, characterized more by compromise and enduring relations based on trust, could evolve.

An additional factor in Europe was that no sovereign was strong enough to withstand or subject all others without allies. Each country was constantly surrounded by potential enemies on all sides. To survive, coalitions had to be forged with other states, and these coalitions needed a more solid basis. Treachery, deceit and bribery proved too unstable a foundation. These types of dependencies contributed to a different game. But time and again violence would prevail over compromise.

Coping with deceit and manipulation

It was obviously quite normal to lash out, betray or eliminate each other. Deceit was common. In the Byzantine empire it was developed into an art. Diplomacy among the Italian city-states permitted all means to promote the objectives of the state. Conspiracy, bribery, intrigue and even murder, were its normal tools. Machiavelli (1469-1527) relied on the outward appearance of virtue of the Prince. But virtue also implied strong tendencies to dominate and to force one's way through brutal means. In those days envoys were spies, actively conspiring, lying and deceiving for the good of the state. However, let us not forget that conspiracy, bribery and intrigue are already much more controlled and inhibited compared to ferocious violence and immediate physical attack.

A long term historical perspective is needed to clarify the changing pattern. In the 16th century, assassination was no longer thought to be the safest way of disposing of opponents. Although occasionally the envoys of Venice resorted to it. Bribes were only refused by eccentrics. Nevertheless, the moral standards concerning bribery were changing. It was thought more respectable to accept a single payment than a regular subvention. (Nicolson, 1977, p. 37)

Increasing restraint and less violence

The person who was to set the tone for the development of negotiating skills in political practice was François de Callières (1645-1717). His work was used as a standard text on negotiating well into the 20th century by generations of diplomats. As a civil servant of Louis XIV he was actively involved in a wide range of negotiations. He was one of the main negotiators of the French at the "Treaty of Rijswijk" (1697) that ended the Nine-year war. With profound insight he links the necessity of negotiating to the development of tighter interdependencies in Europe.

To understand the permanent use of diplomacy and the necessity for continual negotiations, we must think of the states of which Europe is composed as being joined together by all kinds of necessary commerce, in such a way that they may be regarded as members of one Republic and that no considerable change can take place in any one of them without affecting the condition, or disturbing the peace of all the others. The blunder of the smallest of sovereigns may indeed cast an apple of discord among all the greatest Powers, because there is no state so great which does not find it useful to have relations with the lesser states and to seek friends among the different parties of which even the smallest state is composed. History teems with the results of these conflicts which often have their beginnings in small events, easy to control or suppress at their birth, but which when grown in magnitude became the causes of long and bloody wars which have ravaged the principal states of Christendom. (Callières/Whyte, 1963, p. 11)

A very modern statement indeed nowadays valid on a worldwide scale!

The feeling of mutual dependency articulated in this statement is quite unique. Even more unique is the fact that people can act on it. Powelson (1994) documents elaborately the historical evidence that groups tend to enhance their own power position at all costs; peace is by definition temporary and unstable, because it is a victor's peace. Furthermore, even if one were to endorse de Callière's statement, in his day emotion management was generally such that often enough 'small events' escalated into 'long and bloody wars'. The France of Louis XIV definitely did not avoid 'bloody wars', but there also emerged a diplomatic service that bred the kind of emotion management necessary to build solid coalitions and avoid senseless escalations. Callières was an outstanding representative of this development.

More control, less confrontation

Two generations after Callières, in the second half of the eighteenth century, another French author Félice (1778) provides more guidelines regarding the art of negotiating. Félice was born in Rome in 1723. He became a professor of physics who expanded the work of the Encyclopedists. He sees negotiating as a 'recent' skill related to the development of stronger interdependencies. This is important because like those of Callières, his observations clearly demonstrate that the development of negotiating skills is closely related to changing networks of power and dependency. His observation that continuity in the relation is changing the techniques of negotiating is very astute. More than two centuries later modern authors are still explaining and elaborating this point.

It is only in modern Europe, where the inhabitants are closely united by similar customs, a common religious basis, frequent commerce, and continual intellectual communication, that negotiation has been raised to an art and become stable. (Félice/Zartman, 1976, p. 60)

The treatises on negotiating by Callières and Félice are part of a broader societal development in the direction of curbing one's passions and adhering to more refined behavioral standards. Elias (1939) explains this development in relation to the growing interdependencies and the higher density of the networks binding people together. Callières and Félice, judging by some of the quotations in this article, apparently came to the same conclusion. In Western Europe, from the Middle Ages on, this process was accelerated by the growing monopolization in the hands of a few central rulers, of two decisive sources of power: taxation and military power. Elias vividly describes the more inhibited and restrained manners needed to raise one's chances of acquiring prestige and obtaining positions of power in the newly flourishing commercial and political centers.

The driving force is the continued existence of multiple competing centers of power, both within states and between states. These multiple configurations characterized not only political relations, but also religious and economic relations.

Alongside the age-long attempts to gain dominance by means of violence, an age-long learning process of negotiation and compromise evolved.

The ongoing competition within and between these configurations fostered a growing negotiating ability to regulate the inherent instability of these networks. The development of parliamentary and more democratic governments meant more peaceful and more stable regulation of conflicts. Negotiating became a skill for more and more citizens, at least in western societies. In many parts of our world 'command and obey' pyramids still prevail. People are often afraid, may even feel terrorized by the authorities of their own societies. In our world society they may feel disregarded, even exploited. This powerlesness turns people into social dynamite.

Conclusion: The past is the present

History sometimes has the ring of tales about the past. However, the insights discussed in this article are closely tied to our present reality. The ability to negotiate is not an established human ability. In many societies social and political conflicts are solved by fighting, constant terror or flight. The development of these societies did not foster the abilities to negotiate.

Even when people do acquire this ability, decivilizing and untaming processes can still gain the upper hand again, also in our western societies. Negotiating is a precarious skill . Often enough, ongoing deadlock and escalation into hostilities still prove tempting.

The learning process towards more skilful negotiating is still in full progress. My search for a better understanding of this process has been guided by the development of negotiating in our history. This learning process is related to the historical development of increasingly dense networks in which people become more mutually dependent.

However, in many areas of our world people do not feel these interdependencies. They feel outsiders and have-nots. These feelings foster violence and fanatism. Moreover, there often exists in these areas no strong tradition of solving social and political conflicts by peaceful means. Negotiating is a skill practiced by merchants, not a normal practice to channel social and political discontent. Social networks tend to 'command and obey' hierarchies. This, together with the experience of powerlessness, feeds in some people fierce emotions of rage and revenge.

A very explosive mixture indeed! We are living in the late Middle-Ages.

Willem Mastenbroek, author of Negotiating as Emotion Management.


  • Callières, F. de. (1716). De la manière de négocier avec les souvereins . M. Brunet, Paris. Available in english: On the manner of Negotiating with Princes. Translated by A.F. Whyte. (1963). University of Notre Dame Press. Also: The art of diplomacy. (1983) Keens-Soper, H.M.A., Schweizer, K.W. (ed.) Leicester University Press.
  • Elias, N. (1939) Über den Prozess der Zivilisation. Soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen. Basel, Haus zum Falken. Trans: (1994) The Civilizing Process. Oxford, Blackwell.
  • Elias, N. (1984) Interview by Aafke Steenhuis. In: De Groene Amsterdammer , 16.5.1984, pp 10-11. Translated by Robert van Krieken "We have not learnt to control nature and ourselves enough'. Interview with Norbert Elias".
  • Félice, F.B. de. (1778). Des Négotiations, ou de l'Art de Négocier In: Dictionnaire de justice naturelle et civile: code de l'Humanité, ou la Législation universelle, naturelle, civile et politique comprise par une société de gens de lettres et mise en ordre alphabétique par Félice. (Yverdun) . Universities of Naples and of Berne. Translated as Negotiations, or the art of Negotiating in: Zartman, W. (ed.) (1976). The 50% solution. New York, Anchor Press.
  • Huizinga, J. (1924). The waning of the middle ages. London, Edward Arnold & Co.
  • Machiavelli, N. (1961) The Prince. English translation: G. Bul, Penguin Books.
  • Mastenbroek, W. (2002) Negotiating as Emotion Management. Holland Business Publications.
  • Nicolson, H. (1977). The evolution of diplomatic method, being the Chichele lectures delivered at the University of Oxford in November 1953 . Westport, Greenwood Press. (Reprint of the 1954 ed. published by Constable, London)
  • Powelson, J.P. (1994) Centuries of Economic Endeavor. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
  • Vree, W. van ( 1999) Meetings, Manners and Civilization. Leicester University Press, London/New York.

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