In a European perspective, norms concerning, attitudes towards and conceptions of suicide have varied culturally and historically. In Ancient Rome, suicides of aristocratic men were sometimes considered acceptable, whereas early Christian theologians regarded suicide as morally wrong. However, people could sacrifice their lives for a good purpose, for instance to save another from certain death. Later in medieval Europe suicide became punishable: it was a legal felony, a ’self-murder’, and remained such until fairly late. Causes of suicide have likewise been explained in various ways in different cultural and historical contexts. The devil, despair, godlessness, old age and infirmity have all been considered causes of suicide. In the modern era, the assumed causes have become medicalized and secularized.
The view of the history of suicide presented in earlier studies is, however, slightly simplified. The view of the history of medieval suicide in particular is based on sources produced in continental Europe and the British Isles although a wide variety of sources survives from the peripheries of Europe, especially from western Scandinavia. The history of suicide in Scandinavia has mainly concentrated on suicide in early modern Sweden, and suicide in medieval Scandinavia has only been briefly discussed.
The research project “Heroes, Madmen or People in Distress? Suicide in Medieval Iceland (ca 1100–1400)”examines norms concerning, attitudes towards and conceptions of suicide in Medieval Iceland as reflected in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. The project seeks to answer what medieval Icelanders thought of suicide – was it considered a bad thing, a sin, a socially and legally punishable deed? Or did people sympathize with the suicide? Was the act of voluntary death acceptable in certain circumstances? Could suicide be considered a heroic deed or manifestation of martyrdom? What kind of status was the suicide expected to achieve in the Afterlife? What kind of status did suicides and their families have among the living after the suicide? What significance, if any, did the gender of the suicide have? How did norms, attitudes and conceptions possibly change over the course of the era in question, ca. 1100–1400?
If you have any questions concerning the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia and medieval Iceland in particular, or wish to give me comments, present alternative viewpoints and so on (whenever needed, I’ll be happy to write new posts to update the old ones), please contact me by email or by using the contact form.
Kirsi Kanerva (PhD, Cultural history)
University of Turku, Finland