The importance of knowing the cause of death

As I discussed the naming of suicide in medieval Iceland in my previous post I began to wonder whether ‘suicide’ was considered such an irrelevant concept that no special term was needed for it. A special term also has to do with the categorization of things; a death either is a suicide or is not. This categorization has to do with the cause of death and the question whether knowing the cause of death would have been considered (ir)relevant information in medieval Iceland.

From the modern perspective, knowing the cause of death of someone we know, of even those whom we don’t know is found important, if not for the sake of the statistics, then at least for the sake of the family, the relatives, the official. We want to know whether the death has been a natural one, an accident, or perhaps caused by some medical ailment, or is inflicted by someone or something, perhaps as a result of some intentional and malevolent acts, for instance. We long for explanations.

As we go back in history, to the pre-modern period, for instance, we discover that the cause of death would influence the burial place (whether the deceased was to be buried in the churchyard or outside of it, or disposed of somewhere else), and even the status of the deceased in the Afterlife. In the medieval context, for instance, suicide could be a sin that ruled out any hope of the salvation of the soul, and the restless souls of the suicides were sometimes expected to return and haunt the living, at least in popular thought, if not in ecclesiastical texts. (See e.g. Butler 2007, 434; Signori 1994, 34–40; Murray 2000, 23–28, 471–474, 476–479). Consequently, it may have been found essential to know the cause of death in order to be prepared for such posthumous activity and to be able to perform proper rituals to prevent it since – as may be expected, at least if we trust medieval stories – the dead would not always be so polite to the living if they transgressed the border between this world and the otherworld.

I will write more about medieval Icelandic conceptions of the dead who return posthumously later in another post (I have also discussed whether suicides were expected to return posthumously earlier in my article in the Thanatos journal, available here). At this point, however, I will concentrate on inquiries concerning the cause of death, and whether such information – i.e. whether the death was e.g. an accident, a consequence of illness, or inflicted by others or by the deceased him or herself – was regarded as important, even necessary in the medieval Icelandic context.

Based on earlier studies, we do know that in medieval and early modern Europe in general the cause of death was considered important information not only by the Church and the society who were interested in the state of the soul and the final resting place of the deceased, but also by secular rulers. The interest of the latter was also reflected in the legal praxis. Considering e.g. early modern Sweden, from the legal perspective, a death could be natural, but also unnatural. If the death was unnatural, it was also found important to discover whether the death was criminal, e.g. a homicide – or later also: a suicide. (See e.g. Miettinen 2015, 256–257.) In Europe in general, suicide became a legal felony during the medieval period. The attitudes that contributed to this change were naturally connected to the views of the Church of suicide as a sin, and as the interests of the Church and secular authority became intertwined in late medieval Europe, the last mentioned became responsible of the execution of both the verdicts of the ecclesiastical and secular authority (inquisition being one good example of this: clerical inquisitors were responsible for the actual inquisition, but as the object of the interrogation had confessed he or she was often handed over to the secular authority for punishment). (e.g. Miettinen 2015)

Medieval Iceland remained a Commonwealth[1] until 1262–1264 when the Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and king’s officials started to take care of the execution of the law in Iceland. During the Commonwealth period, the Icelanders had already a legal system that consisted of regional courts (þing) that met at regular intervals to solve disputes, and the General Assembly (Alþingi) where the most powerful Icelandic leaders known as goðar legislated and judged, presided by the lawspeaker, lögsögumaðr, who recited the law. In the collection of laws from the Commonwealth period (930–1262), Grágás, suicide was not yet considered a crime, although as far as the interests of the Church were concerned, the section of Christian Law in Grágás mentions that certain dead people, e.g. outlaws, those who had not been baptized, people banned by the bishop, and, unless they repented their deed: suicides, (see Grágás, 12) should not be buried in the churchyard. In medieval Iceland, suicide was criminalized first after the Commonwealth period, in the Jónsbók law decreed by the Norwegian King in 1281. (Jónsbók, 41–42; Ólafur Lárusson 1960, 83; Fenger 1985.)

As a consequence of the new decree, it was undoubtedly found important to clarify whether a death was an accident, a suicide, a homicide or a natural one. However, even before 1262–1264 knowledge of the cause of death must have been found essential by medieval Icelanders. According to medieval Icelandic law, manslaughter always needed to be reported, for instance to the closest neighbors, since killing somebody secretly was regarded as a murder and was therefore a more severe offense, on of the vilest acts. In practice, if a man was killed the killer had to pay compensation, whereas if somebody was murdered and the killer remained unknown, the chances of compensation were few. Consequently, from the perspective of the people, the Church and the law (which in the Commonwealth period perhaps reflected the views of the Icelandic society, and only later, after submitting to the Norwegian king, also the views of the Norwegian reagent), medieval Icelanders had the motivation to investigate the cause of death, should the death not be natural.[2]

As a murder was a more severe crime than manslaughter, it is possible that the possibility of suicide in particular was carefully considered in medieval Iceland. After all, as Alexander Murray (1998, 22–27) has noted, suicide in general has been considered a private act, conducted in secrecy, without the others seeing or noticing. Common for medieval suicide in the European context, in the light of the sources used by Murray, was also the attempt to conceal the act afterwards (again, I will return to that issue in my later posts), for instance by members of the family or community, especially if the suicide had been a popular and well-liked person. Therefore, suicide had some things in common with killings committed in secrecy, i.e. murders. Witnesses were important, but eye-witnesses were rare. In fact, it is even possible that finding a suicide could be risky, as one could become a suspect him or herself – had the deceased committed suicide or was s/he killed by the person who found him/her was a question that may have been asked in some cases. Riikka Miettinen (2015, 150–152), for instance, has pointed out that in the early modern Swedish context, where suicide was a legal felony the moving of the corpse without permission by the official was strictly forbidden as it could be considered tampering of the evidence and protecting the criminal or charged of murder.

So, it is probable that knowing whether a death was suicide or not would have been considered important in medieval Iceland already during the Commonwealth period, as the information affected the burial place and gave answer to the question whether somebody was entitled to compensation and who would pay it. After Jónsbók had been taken into use, it is possible that at least some potential suicides were investigated more vigorously by king’s officials in Iceland, as the punishment for the felony included confiscation of property and thus meant income for the Crown.


Works cited

Butler, Sara. 2007. Cultures of Suicide? Regionalism and Suicide Verdicts in Medieval England. The Historian 69 (3/2007): 427–449.

Fenger, Ole. 1985. Selvmord i kultur- og retshistorisk belysning. In Skrifter utgivna av Institutet för rätthistorisk forskning grundat av Gustav och Carin Olin, serien II: Rättshistoriska Studier: Elfte bandet, edited by Stig Jägerskiöld, 55–83. Stockholm: Institutet för rättshistorisk forskning.

Grágás = Finsen, Vilhjálmur (ed.). 1852. Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, I. Kjøpenhavn: Det nordiske Literatur-Sámfund.

Jónsbók = Ólafur Halldórsson  (ed.). 1904. Jónsbók. Kong Magnus Hakonssons lovbog for Island vedtaget paa altinget 1281. Køpenhavn: S. L. Møller.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Court. University of Tampere, School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

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.

Ólafur Lárusson.  1960. Lov og ting: Islands forfatning og lover i fristatstiden. Translated by Knut Helle. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.

Signori, Gabriela. 1994. Rechtskonstruktionen und religiöse Fiktionen. Bemerkungen zur Selbstmordfrage im Mittelalter. In Trauer, Verzweiflung und Anfechtung. Selbstmord und Selbstmordversuche im mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Gesellschaften, edited by Gabriela Signori, 9–54. Tübingen: Edition diskord.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The importance of knowing the cause of death.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 12 December 2016. <  >


[1] Iceland was inhabited from ca. 870 onwards, and the Commonwealth period is said to have started ca. 930.

[2] Concerning the outlaws, their cause of death must have been to some extent irrelevant, as the outlaws could be killed by anyone, without any expectation of legal consequences or requirements of compensation.