Medieval causes of suicide

One of the questions I will be dealing with in my project is the ways in which suicide has been explained in medieval Scandinavia, in other words, what were regarded as plausible causes of suicide.

Causes of suicide have been explained in various ways in different cultural and historical contexts. It has been pointed out that, compared to premodern eras, in our modern world the assumed causes of suicide have become medicalized, pathologized and secularized as a consequence of social, cultural and scientific change. Suicide has been tied e.g. to anger and depression, and recent studies have also pointed out the use of suicide as a ’weapon’ or instrument of revenge among subjugated peoples (Rosenberger 2003; Hacking 2008, 2–3; Snyder 2007; Dahlgren 2014; Myllykangas 2014; see also e.g. NHS choices; suicide.org).

In the medieval context, causes of suicide were often interpreted from religious perspective, but in many cases social, psychological and health-related aspects were recognized to have played an important part in the motivation of the suicide as well. Based on studies of English and continental sources, for instance, despair, hopelessness, misfortune and various kinds of misery, godlessness and sinful life, old age and infirmity have all been considered causes of suicide. In medieval court records (e.g. in England and Florence), many of the recorded suicides were, e.g. criminals who could suffer from guilt or be afraid of their imminent verdict and punishment, debtors in shame, sick who felt discomfort and impatience because of their illness and suffered from fever, excessive and constant pain, or other extreme mental and bodily symptoms, or the insane (naturally, what was considered ‘insane’ in the medieval context is another issue). Motives for suicide could also include economic collapse (the cause has been attested both among the rich and the poorer), feelings of insecurity and inability to care for one’s family, damage done on the person’s social status and poverty and destitution, including depredations of war as a consequence of pillaging. (Murray 1998, 32–38, 89, 155–164; Pfau 2008, 188–190, 195–199, 212; McNamara 2014) In medieval fourteenth-century Florence, also “raging madness” and fury, even “boredom with life” appear to have been included among the plausible causes of suicide. (Murray 1998, 89)

The role of diabolic influence in suicide was also acknowledged in the Middle Ages (e.g. Schmitt 1976, 4–5; Pfau 2008, 233), although e.g. Rebecca McNamara (2014, 11) has pointed out that, with reference to English sources at least, the devil (or sin) as the cause of suicide is rarely mentioned in secular contexts such as legal records prior to late fourteenth century. (McNamara 2014) In addition, Murray (1998, 115–119) has noted based on his study of medieval chronicles of religious orders that suicide was also considered a divine punishment, a “fate reserved for ‘bad’ people”.

In addition to the causes listed above, Rebecca McNamara has pointed out that in medieval England emotions as well were considered common causes of suicide. In a study of medieval 13th and 14th-century English bureaucratic records and life narratives written in first person it is suggested that such suicide-prompting emotions could include sentiments “associated with crises of faith, physical illness or pain, and social shame”. Although emotions were not explicitly named emotional motivation could still be indicated, e.g. by referring to infirmity. (McNamara 2014, 11–12; McNamara & Ruys 2014, 66–74, 59–66). In her study of medieval French remission letters, Aleksandra Pfau has found that also jealousy was considered to be among the causes of suicide. (Pfau 2008, 203–205; Pfau 2010, 113–115)

The sources that I’m using in my study of suicide in medieval Scandinavia differ from the sources used in the studies referred to above in that the majority of the sources consists of vernacular literature. Therefore, what I will be studying is not actual suicides or suicide verdicts, but suicides described in literature. Consequently, I will not be able to trace ‘actual’ causes of suicide as they would have been categorized and recorded in official documents (or comprehended by surviving relatives and the society as the causes of the suicide) – bearing in mind that some suicides could escape such records or where exempted from suspicions of suicide in the first place for various reasons (see. e.g. Murray 1998, 61-69, 102–103; Butler 2006, 263-264) – but causes of suicide considered likely by the medieval writers of the sagas. I depart from the notion that literature may reflect the reality of the society where it was produced, and simultaneously the literature influenced this reality and was influenced by it, and affected the suicide discourses available for medieval Scandinavian people.

At the moment I’m conducting a case study of a young woman called Hrefna in a thirteenth-century Family saga, Laxdæla saga. Hrefna is married to a man called Kjartan, but before his marriage Kjartan has been loved by a certain Guðrún who does not seem to approve of their marriage. Later Kjartan is killed by Guðrún’s instigation, and Hrefna suffers from great sorrow as a consequence of her loss. The saga tells that after the incident, she was “very swollen with grief, but still she behaved in a courteous manner (var mjök harmþrungin; en þó bar hon sik kurteisliga. Laxdæla saga,158). She lives only a while after returning back to her parents, and the saga states that “people say that she had died of grief” (er þat sǫgn manna, at hon hafi sprungit af stríði. Laxdæla saga, 158).

According to earlier research, there is evidence in saga literature of a vernacular belief in the power of emotions to cause death that would have been held in medieval Scandinavia. According to this belief, people could indeed die of grief. (Thomas 2013; Larrington 2015, 78) This understanding of the possible causes of death suggests a vernacular theory of emotions different from our own (Kanerva 2015), but the notion is also interesting since it raises some intriguing questions concerning the degree of passivity or activity in the process of dying: whether dying of grief was considered a deliberate death or a process that the dying person could not have any influence upon, and/or whether the expression “die of grief” is to be read literally or whether it was actually a euphemism that was used to refer to suicide, to enhance the “politeness” of the text or speak of a taboo (on euphemisms, see e.g. Crespo Fernández 2005). I will be dealing with this subject in the following months and will tell you more about the results in my posts later on.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Medieval causes of suicide.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 March, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/medieval-causes-of-suicide/  >

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Works cited

Butler, Sara M. 2006. Degrees of Culpability: Suicide Verdicts, Mercy, and the Jury in Medieval England. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36 (2006) 2, 261–288.

Crespo Fernández, Eliecer. 2005. Euphemistic Strategies in Politeneness and Face Concerns. Pragmalingüística 13 (2005), 77–86.

Dahlgren, Susanna. 2014. ’She Kissed Death with a Smile’: The Politics and Moralities of the Female Suicide Bomber. In Culture, Suicide and the Human Condition, ed. Marja-Liisa Honkasalo & Miira Tuominen. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 149–170.

Groot, Roger D. 2000. When Suicide Became Felony. The Journal of Legal History 21 (2000) 1: 1–20.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35, 1:1–32.

Hill, Thomas D. 2013. Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta: Guðrún’s Healing Tears. In Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend, ed. Paul Acker & Carolyne Larrington. New York: Routledge, 107–116.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400), School of History, culture and Arts studies, University of Turku. https://oa.doria.fi/handle/10024/103361

Larrington, Carolyne. 2015. Learning to Feel in the Old Norse Camelot? Scandinavian Studies 87 (2015) 1: 74–94.

Laxdæla saga = Einar Ól. Sveinsson (ed.). 1934. Laxdœla saga […]. Íslenzk Fornrit 5. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag.

McNamara, Rebecca F. 2014. The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England. Parergon 31 (2014) 2: 11–34.

McNamara, Rebecca F. and Juanita Feros Ruys. 2014. Unlocking the Silences of the Self-Murdered: Textual Approaches to Suicidal Emotions in the Middle Ages. Exemplaria 26 (2014), 58–80.

Murray, Alexander. 1998. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Myllykangas, Mikko. 2014. Rappeutuminen, tiedostamaton vai yhteiskunta? Lääketieteellinen itsemurhatutkimus Suomessa vuoteen 1985. Doctoral thesis. University of Oulu Graduate School; University of Oulu, Faculty of Humanities; History. http://jultika.oulu.fi/files/isbn9789526204468.pdf

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2008. Madness in the Realm: Narratives of Mental Illness in Late Medieval France. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Michigan. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/61631

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2010. Crimes of Passion: Emotion and Madness in French Remission Letters. In Madness in Medieval Law and Custom, ed. Wendy J. Turner. Leiden: Brill, 97–122.

Rosenberger, John. 2003. Discerning the Behavior of the Suicide Bomber: The Role of Vengeance. Journal of Religion and Health 42 (2003) 1: 13-20.

Schmitt Jean-Claude. 1976. Le suicide au Moyen Âge. In Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 31 (1976) 1: 3–28.

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.