I Approaches to violence against parents

Defining violence against parents

Writing a history of parricide and violence against parents requires a careful analysis of the main debates across several disciplines, definitions, and concepts that demarcate the scope of our research. While parricide is a historical term that has existed in European language usage since Roman law introduced it in the sixth century AD,1 the notion of ‘violence against parents’ has emerged relatively recently as a product of academic research.2 Both notions are complex and could have shifting meanings depending on the academic discipline, the profession, and the employed theory or individual author, as we show in this chapter.

Historically, parricide and violence against parents have been shaped and defined by legal documents; their meanings have come from listing acts punishable in secular or moral law over the centuries. From early on, human societies prosecuted any acts of physical and verbal abuse committed by children against their parents. Thus, the Code of Hammurabi (circa 2250 BC), issued by the King of Babylon, punished sons for striking their fathers by cutting off their hands (§195)? The term ‘parricide’, which today is narrowly used to describe the killing of parents,4 was coined in Roman law between the seventh century BC and the early Empire to mean the killing of any relative. The Digest, the main source for Roman law, which dates back to the sixth century AD, stated that:

By the lex Pompeia on parricides it is laid down that anyone who kills his father, mother, grandfather, sister, first cousin on the father’s side, first cousin on the mother’s side, paternal or maternal uncle, paternal [or maternal] aunt, first cousin (male or female) by mother’s sister, wife, husband, father-in-law, son-in-law, mother-in-law, [daughter-in-law], stepfather, stepson, stepdaughter, patron or patroness, or with malicious intent brings this about, shall be liable to the same penalty as that of the lex Cornelia on murderers.5

This definition influenced almost all medieval and early modern European criminal laws in defining parricide as a capital offence.6 With time, this definition became more restricted. In 1810, the French Penal Code described parricide as ‘the murder of fathers or mothers, legitimate, natural, or adoptive, or of any other legitimate ascendant’ (Book 3 art. 299).7

With the Christianisation of Europe, the Bible and in particular the Ten Commandments supplemented secular laws by offering additional moral censure for sinful behaviour. The definitions that moral teachings offered worked as prescriptions or prohibitions. The fifth commandment - ‘Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother’ (Exodus 20:5) - prescribed respect for parents. In the story of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27), who disrespected his father by seeing him naked and not covering him, children should be warned against disrespectful behaviour.8 During the Middle Ages and early modern times, harsh punishments were invoked for disrespect, assault, and theft from parents. Killing parents resulted in the death penalty, the famous poena cullei or ‘death by the sack’. It consisted of being sewn up in a leather sack, with an assortment of live animals including a dog, a snake, a monkey, and a chicken or rooster, and then being thrown into water.9

In other parts of the world, very similar approaches to violence against parents have existed. Respecting parents is one of the most significant teachings in Islam. The Quran prescribes:

Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour.


In countries that accepted either of these ideologies, secular laws prosecute the abuse of parents with the death penalty. As a dominant form of moral, political, and social ideology across China, Korea, and Japan, Confucianism entails deference and piety toward superordinate elders, such as grandparents, parents, uncles, and aunts,10 sensibilities that are encoded in custom, language, law, and criminal justice practices. For example, killing parents, intentionally or not, was punished by death." Even today, offenders who commit violence against parents and superordinate elders are charged with offences that indicate aggravating factors that mark the severity in charging decisions.12

The law, as well as moral teachings, did not allow for any discussion of what did not constitute violence against parents; any act of disrespect on behalf of children did. Such a position was connected with upholding and protecting the authority of the father as the head of the household, the family being a primary organisational unit of society.13 Harsh punishments for any disrespect, especially verbal assault that escalated together with any violence used, reflected the fear of rebellion against a higher authority.14 These punishments acted as moral warnings and provided early educational frameworks for rebellious children. Between explanations of demonic possession and the corrupt nature of children, medieval and early modern Christian writers

Defining violence against parents 23 employed narratives of either ‘bad’ or ‘mad’, thus laying the future ground for pathologising children who assaulted or killed their parents.15

By the nineteenth century, authorities in European countries provided a more or less clear legal definition of violence against parents that included any type of disrespect committed by actions, absence of actions, or verbal assault, physical assault, economic exploitation, or abandonment and neglect.16 In the nineteenth century, violence against parents became a showcase for degeneracy theories, although empirical evidence suggested that socioeconomic conditions were more likely to be responsible for violence in the home.17 Classifying offenders who committed violence against their parents as ‘mad’ or ‘degenerate’ resulted in shifting the focus of prosecution towards assessing mental health as the primary cause of the offence. This move allowed psychiatry to lead in prosecutions in the first half of the twentieth century, practically burying the problem in mental institutions. When abuse of parents was rediscovered in the 1970s, it took another thirty years to bring this issue back to the focus of social and legal research.18

This rediscovery of parent abuse has produced significant research into its causes, forms, dynamics, and prevention. In 1979, Harbin and Madden introduced ‘battered parents’ as the ‘new syndrome of family violence’.19 It took place in the context of research heavily focused on intimate partner violence and child abuse. The 1980s ushered in various types of violence in the home under the umbrella term of family violence, which proved to consist of many separate areas of research arranged around the studies of child maltreatment, domestic violence, and elder abuse.20 These developments led to fragmentation in academic literature throughout different disciplines, which affected definitions that every discipline produced for its own research or practical purposes.

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