What is suicide? The question may sound silly at first, but proves to be essential for the study of the history of suicide. The simplest definition could be that suicide is a deliberate, self-inflicted act, killing oneself by one manner or another. But things may get difficult sometimes when you are studying pre-modern sources. Take the Icelandic word sjálfsmorð, that is ‘suicide’ in English. The word is related to the German word Selbstmörder that first appeared in the sixteenth century, in the writings of Martin Luther (sein selbs mörder). The Icelandic word sjálfsmorð appears in textual sources relatively late; the earliest occurrence discovered by now is in a book called Tyro Juris edur Barn i Logum by Sveinn Sölvason from 1754. Before this, there was no particular term for suicide. So, is it anachronistic to speak of suicide in medieval Iceland in the first place?
At least according to research of modern suicide, suicides are committed and attempts made to end one’s life everywhere in the world, in all societies, although suicide rates may vary from society to society and are influenced by a variety of social and cultural factors, including the economic and religious environments where people live (see e.g. the WHO world suicide report). After going through sources used in this project I have learned by now that medieval Iceland was no exception. Before the term sjálfsmorð was introduced in Iceland, various expressions were used in saga literature to speak of deliberate death and self-killing. For instance, medieval Icelandic sources speak variably of ‘destroying oneself’, ‘killing oneself’, ‘determining one’s own death’, or explicate the method of self-killing, e.g. by hanging or stabbing oneself with a knife. Many of the expressions used imply that the death was inflicted by the victim him or herself, and that suicides were often considered active agents in their ‘violence against themselves’. Their act was intentional; they aimed at ending their own lives. Although the language lacked a term for suicide, verbs were used to describe the act, or the manner of death was referred to, a convention that still appears to have been in use in seventeenth-century eastern Scandinavia, Sweden (Miettinen 2015), and can also be discovered in medieval European law texts (Murray 2000).
So far the medieval Icelandic self-killings appear to fit in well within the frames of the general definition of suicide. But are there other kinds of deaths as well that could be considered deliberate (or voluntary) and self-inflicted? Émile Durkheim whose famous study of suicide is a classic included in suicides also deliberate acts that were more passive (i.e. ‘negative’) in nature, such as refusal to eat that led to starvation and death. The impact of one’s own action could also be indirect: e.g. committing a crime would be motivated by the possibility of death penalty. Durkheim’s definition of suicide does not require that the death is deliberate and intentional. He even suggests that suicide does not automatically imply that an individual wants to die, as in the case of a soldier who sacrifices himself to save the lives of the others in his regiment or martyrs who die for their faith. What both of these cases have in common is that in both of them a human being gives up his or her life, although he or she has not necessarily lost the will to live. That the individual who actively or passively does something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death is aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die, appears in Durkheim’s thought as an essential element in suicides.  Accordingly, Durkheim’s definition of suicide excludes recklessness and lack of self-concern in apathy that leads to death as one is not willing to take care of one’s own wellbeing, because in these two cases the individual cannot be certain that he or she will die as a consequence of his or her foolhardiness or lethargy.
Even so, these definitions may not be the whole picture. In psychoanalytically-oriented studies it is also spoken of death drive, or ‘autodestruction’, which is included in suicide. The term autodestruction refers to deaths that would be, in some sense, avoidable, such as dying in a car crash because of speeding or dying of liver cirrhosis because of excessive alcohol consumption. This kind of auto-destructive behavior would be, however, socially acceptable although suicide as such would be held a negative, ever reprehensible act. Indeed, autodestruction would be considered a socially acceptable suicide. (See also Hacking 2008)
The definitions presented above are all part of the modern classification of suicide. The danger of anachronism lurks behind them. I cannot claim that medieval Icelanders thought accordingly or differently about self-killing and its active or passive nature. In fact, at least at this stage of my research, I don’t know whether people who caused their own death accidentally because they were hallucinating (as in seeing things that are not actually there) would have been exempted from the category of suicides, as Durkheim has done. Although it is probable that in many cultures suicide is a deliberate, self-inflicted death, suicide is also a culture-specific category E.g. in early modern context, some deliberate deaths could be exempted from the category of suicide as self-murder (e.g. martyrs, soldiers, children and the insane). The exemption could have great significance in societies where self-murder was considered a legal felony and was punished by law, but insanity, for instance, was regarded as a mitigating circumstance. (See e.g. Snyder 2007; Miettinen 2015) Cultural factors that may facilitate such exemptions are something I have to consider also in my analysis, and I will discuss the issue further in my forthcoming posts. At this point, however, the definitions of suicide in earlier research offer me tools for analyzing the sources to spot death cases I should perhaps scrutinize more carefully. With careful close reading of the sources I will then try to investigate whether medieval Icelanders considered these deaths self-killing. However, I also need to be careful with other death cases that do not share characteristics with suicide as it is defined today, but were considered self-killing in the medieval context.
Durkheim, Émile. 1952. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.
Encyclopédie sur la mort. [Suicide: Définitions et typologies :] “Autodestruction.” Electronic document, available at http://agora.qc.ca/thematiques/mort/dossiers/autodestruction (last accessed October 5, 2016)
Hacking, Ian. 2008. “The Suicide Weapon.” Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.
Murray, Alexander. 1998. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
Murray, Alexander. 2000. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 2: The Curse on Self-Murder. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. University of Tampere, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.
Snyder, Terri L. 2007. “What Historians Talk About When They Talk About Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America.” History Compass 5/2 (2007): 658–674.
How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The definition of ‘suicide’.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 6 October 2016. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2016/10/06/the-definition-of-suicide/ >
 Durkheim excludes animal suicides, but it has to be noted here that self-destructive behavior has been detected in animals as well.