In this project, the source material used consists of vernacular sources produced in the twelfth to fifteenth-century Western Scandinavia, comprising sagas related to medieval Icelandic pre-history and contemporary twelfth and thirteenth-century history (Íslendingasögur, Sturlunga saga compilation i.e. samtiðarsögur, fornaldarsögur), mythographic sources i.e. Eddic poetry, religious and hagiographical sources, such as the stories of eleventh- to fourteenth-century Icelandic bishops and their miracula (byskupasögur), translations of medieval European romances (riddarasögur) and translations of Latin literature (Antikensagas), as well as medieval Icelandic and Norwegian laws.
At this point of my research it is already possible to note that the sources are not silent about suicides per se. However, the data used does not easily provide us with material for quantitative studies, such as examination of actual suicide rates, whose results would be comparable to modern suicide statistics – the reliability of which has every now and then been questioned, as suicides can be underreported and misclassified for socio-cultural reasons, and errors and inaccuracies that are attributable to other factors, such as the experience of the examiner, their work circumstances and so on, may also affect the certification of death (see e.g. Burrows & Laflamme 2007; O’Carroll 1989; Sainsbury 1983).
The surviving data does provide material for qualitative studies, however, such as finding about what people thought about suicide, whether they viewed suicide negatively, neutrally, or even positively in some contexts, and so on. As various different saga genres and legal texts are used as sources it may be possible to find several voices that speak of suicide, and several discourses that were available for the writers of these texts. These discourses offered a language to the writers and their audience; how people could speak and tell of suicide, how they portrayed the suicide in literature, how they enabled certain perspectives from which they could be viewed, but also restricted the ways in which suicides could be depicted according to norms of the day.
Although the surviving material used here was mainly produced by the lay and ecclesiastical elite, certain special characteristics of medieval Icelandic society give reason to expect that these sources too can be scrutinized for evidence of norms regarding, attitudes towards and conceptions of suicide held by medieval Icelanders in general. Medieval Iceland was a rural and peripheral culture, where there were no towns or villages, only farms. In medieval Icelandic society, there was relatively little social differentiation and specialization. Everyone did subsistence farming work, and farm workers and landowners or chieftains lived in the same households. Therefore, although signs of the elite’s need to follow European courtly ideals and distinguish themselves from the ordinary folk can be found already in fourteenth-century sources, different social groups did interact closely on the farms. Social elevation did not depend entirely on the status of the family of birth, but also on personal capabilities and characteristics. Since both churchmen and laymen wrote sagas, the literature was not monopolized by the ecclesiastical elite. As a result, the boundary between the ’high’ and ’low’ was not always rigid, and the sources may reveal conceptions that were held among most of the medieval Icelandic population, which presumably never exceeded 70 000 during the period under scrutiny.
Bagerius, Henric. 2013. “Romance and Violence. Aristocratic Sexuality in Late Medieval Iceland.” Mirator 14 (2013) 2: 79–96.
Bagge, Sverre. 2013. “From Fist to Scepter. Authority in Norway in the Middle Ages.” Authorities in the Middle Ages. Influence, Legitimacy, and Power in Medieval Society, ed. Sini Kangas, Mia Korpiola & Tuija Ainonen. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture, 12. Berlin & Boston: de Gruyter, 161–181.
Burrows, S. & L. Laflamme. 2007. “Determination of Suicide in South Africa: Medical Practitioner Perspectives.” Archives of Suicide Research 11 (2007) 3: 281–290.
Clover, Carol J. 1985. “Icelandic Family Sagas.” Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide, ed. Carol J. Clover & John Lindow. Islandica, 45. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 239–315.
O’Carroll, P. W. 1989. “A Consideration of the Validity and Reliability of Suicide Mortality Data.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 19 (1989) 1: 1–16.
Sainsbury, P. 1983. “Validity and Reliability of Trends in Suicide Statistics.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 36 (1983) 3–4: 339–348.
Þorláksson, Helgi. 2005. “Historical Background: Iceland 870–1400.” A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk. Oxford: Blackwell, 136–154.