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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jul 1;111(26):9419-24. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1405984111. Epub 2014 Jun 16.

The civilizing process in London's Old Bailey.

Author information

Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501;
Department of History, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RH, United Kingdom; and.
Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501;Department of Informatics, School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47408


The jury trial is a critical point where the state and its citizens come together to define the limits of acceptable behavior. Here we present a large-scale quantitative analysis of trial transcripts from the Old Bailey that reveal a major transition in the nature of this defining moment. By coarse-graining the spoken word testimony into synonym sets and dividing the trials based on indictment, we demonstrate the emergence of semantically distinct violent and nonviolent trial genres. We show that although in the late 18th century the semantic content of trials for violent offenses is functionally indistinguishable from that for nonviolent ones, a long-term, secular trend drives the system toward increasingly clear distinctions between violent and nonviolent acts. We separate this process into the shifting patterns that drive it, determine the relative effects of bureaucratic change and broader cultural shifts, and identify the synonym sets most responsible for the eventual genre distinguishability. This work provides a new window onto the cultural and institutional changes that accompany the monopolization of violence by the state, described in qualitative historical analysis as the civilizing process.


bureaucracy; cultural evolution; group cognition; information theory; social systems

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