From the tragic tale of Mary Clifford, whose death at the hands of her employer scandalised Georgian London, to an account of the violent activities of Victorian Manchester's scuttling gangs, via a character portrait of the duel-obsessed Cavalier Sir John Reresby, A Fiery & Furious People explores the brutal underside of our national life in all its variety. And as it considers the litany of assaults, murders and riots that pepper our history, it also traces the subtle shifts that have taken place both in the nature of violence and in people's attitudes to it. Why was it, for example, that wife-beating could at once be simultaneously legal and so frowned upon that persistent offenders might well end up being ducked in the village pond? When did the serial killer first make an appearance in the annals of English crime? How could football be regarded at one moment as a raucous pastime that should be banned, and the next as a respectable sport that should be encouraged? What gave rise to particular types of violent criminal - medieval outlaws, Georgian highwaymen, Victorian garroters - and what made them dwindle and then vanish?
Throughout, Professor James Sharpe draws on an astonishingly wide range of material - court records and murder pamphlets, popular ballads and novels, sermons and films - to paint vivid pictures of the nation's criminals and criminal system from medieval times to the present day. He gives a strong sense of what it was like to be caught up in, say, a street brawl in medieval Oxford or a battle during the English Civil War. And he also seeks to answer perhaps the most fascinating and fundamental question of all: is a country that has experienced not only constant aggression on an individual scale but also the Peasants' Revolt, the Gordon Riots, the Poll Tax protests and the urban unrest of summer 2011 naturally prone to violence or are we, in fact, gradually becoming a gentler nation?