Research notes: suicide and empathy in medieval Iceland

The annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH) was held this year in Umeå, Sweden (26–29 June, 2017). The general theme of the year was “Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn – Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History”. In the conference, I presented a paper on suicide and empathy in medieval, ca. 13th and 14th-century Iceland. Some of the points of my paper are summarized below.

By the thirteenth century, Icelanders had been at least nominally Christian for about two hundred years (the official Conversion took place around year 1000). It is probable that by then, they also had some idea of the Christian view of suicide. It would have been known at least by the clerical people that Christian theologians regarded suicide as a morally reprehensible deed (see e.g. Murray 1998; Murray 2000). From the early twelfth century onwards, the Icelandic Church law stated that those who committed suicide should not be buried in the churchyard, unless they expressed in some way that they repented their deed. In 1262 Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and after that, the Norwegian king introduced the Icelanders a new law code in 1280, known as Jónsbók. In this new law, suicide was explicitly criminalized for the first time in Iceland. Confiscation of property was declared as punishment.

Therefore, medieval Icelanders were aware that in Christian, and later also in legal context, suicide was considered a morally culpable deed. Laws may have affected their views of, norms concerning and attitudes towards suicide. These norms, views and attitudes may also have influenced their tendency to feel empathy for the suicide. However, as I argued in my paper, people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide may also have depended on their views of what emotions, such as empathy, are and how they operate, in other words on their theory of emotion. (For theories of emotion, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

“Empathy” is a fairly new term even in the English language (see e.g. Verducci 2000 and “empathy” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and as far as medieval Iceland was concerned, there was no word for the concept. However, the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s experience and feelings was expressed, for instance, with words for sympathy and compassion (e.g. íhugi, várkunn, samharman, meðaumkan, sampíning, brjóstbragð), which implied that the person shared, minded and was conscious of the other one’s feelings and experiences and could find their actions excusable, and was emotionally moved by the other one’s pain and sorrow, or could feel pity for them.

What is interesting is that words that explicitly indicate shared or same sorrow and pain, or being moved by the other one’s suffering, were used – according to the recordings of the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose/ Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, which records the vocabulary of Old Norse-Icelandic prose writings, and the Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson – only in sources that are of religious nature and of clerical origin.

In medieval Christianity, compassio had positive connotations. It had spiritual meanings and was linked to imitatio Christi, imitation of Christ, and accordingly, was a way to Christian salvation. (See e.g. Moyn 2006, 399.) The empathy-related words in Old Icelandic sources that can be linked with clerical origin presumably had similar positive connotations. The representation of compassio in these Old Icelandic texts may also have been linked to didactic purposes: they taught and encouraged behavior that was thought to be proper for a good Christian.

However, that’s not the whole story. Medieval Icelanders did not consider all emotions positive, and some of their views were not immediately influenced by Christian and European influences. Grief and sorrow, for instance, were considered detrimental to one’s health. Excessive grief could lead to death. Grief and sorrow could also make an individual vulnerable to the influences of the supernatural forces and agents, which could then harm the individual in many ways (more on this porous body schema, see Kanerva 2013; Kanerva 2014; Kanerva 2015; on sorrow and vulnerability to the influence of the demons and evils spirits in the European context, see also Caciola 2000, 77–78 and 80).

This medieval Icelandic understanding of emotions was part of the context where empathy-related emotions such as compassion and sympathy would have been felt. Although compassion was apparently considered a positive emotion in clerical contexts, in lay view compassion could be regarded as potentially harmful since it could involve experiencing the same sorrow that was felt by the one who was pitied, as the words for compassion and sympathy imply (e.g. samharman, which literally meant “same/shared sorrow”). Feeling the same sorrow and sharing the grief with the individual for whom compassion was felt, could make the empathetic person more vulnerable to the influence of the supernatural forces. Accordingly, feeling empathy was not construed as good for one’s own well-being in all contexts. Such a view may also have influenced people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide and Empathy in Medieval Iceland.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 30 June, 2016. <  >


Works cited

Caciola, Nancy. 2000. Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession and Communal Memory in the Middle Ages. In The Place of the Dead. Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 66–86.

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1957. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2013. “Eigi er sá heill, er í augun verkir.“ Eye Pain in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur. ARV – Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 69 (2013), 7–35.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2014. Disturbances of the Mind and Body: Effects of the Living Dead in Medieval Iceland. In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe, ed. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400). Turku: University of Turku.

Moyn, Samuel. 2006. Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity. History and Theory 45 (2006) 3, 397–415.

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.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Verducci, Susan. 2000. A Conceptual History of Empathy and a Question it Raises for Moral Education. Educational Theory 50 (2000), 63–80.

Martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia

Lately I have been thinking about the possible connection between martyrdom and suicide. Since martyrs are “bearing witness”, as the original meaning of the Greek word μάρτυς implies, we may question whether there is any link between the two phenomena, martyrdom and suicide. However, to the question whether the manner of death may – in some contexts at least – be voluntary, both martyrdom and suicide could answer: ‘yes’.

In early Christianity, martyrdom was often characterized with some passivity: ascetic martyrs died of self-starvation, and those who refused to renounce their religion in the early days of Christianity could suffer a horrible punishment, damnatio ad bestias, as they were killed by wild animals. Many of these martyrs became saints, and the tradition of martyrdom and holy people spread along with the Christian religion. (On saints and sainthood in medieval Europe and Scandinavia, see DuBois 2008.)

In Scandinavia, native martyrs who became saints were “born” after Conversion as well. However, these martyred saints were not persecuted because of their religion and thrown to wild beasts, and did not lose their lives because of self-starvation.

Haki Antonsson, who in his study has defined martyrdom “as the perceived attainment of sanctity through the suffering of violent death” (2004, 71), has pointed out that in medieval Scandinavia, martyrs who were of royal origin were born in a fairly prompt manner soon after the Conversion. In Western Scandinavia, the official Conversion took place around year 1000, although the process of Christianization has been estimated to have taken place between the eighth and twelfth centuries, as a consequence of various missionary enterprises. In practice, the new faith usually spread from secular rulers and the members of the elite to the lower classes of the society. (On Christianization of Scandinavia, see e.g. Sanmark 2004).

According to Haki Antonsson, royal saints and princely martyrs were very common in medieval Scandinavia; in fact, martyrdom – as defined by Haki Antonsson, i.e. as a violent death – appears to have been the only way of becoming a saint until the end of the twelfth century.[1] (Haki Antonsson 2004, 71–75; for a list of saints of Scandinavian origin, see also DuBois 2008, 15–19.) Violent death in troops that carried the Cross and fought infidels or preached the new faith appears to have been central to sainthood in Christianity in general at this phase (see also below). Many of the men of the Church who became saints had died while on a missionary expedition. Such a violent death was for many something to go for, a fulfillment of missionary’s wishes. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 75–76, 78.)

Scandinavian kings and princes were secular figures, and the consequences of their martyrdom were not merely divine. For secular rulers and their families martyrdom and sainthood were an important opportunity to stabilize their power and to show that their power originated from God. From the perspective of the Church, this practice was acceptable and approved since the secular rulers eventually assisted the Church in the strengthening of its position and authority. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 74–75, 77)

According Haki Antonsson, the popularity of the princely martyrs in Scandinavia may be linked to Anglo-Saxon influence, but as far as the medieval Scandinavian thoughts of martyrdom are concerned, the role of European chivalric ideas should not be underestimated either. In Europe, knights became the warriors of Christ. In addition, the Church encouraged the Scandinavian rulers to defend the Church and fight its enemies – be it against the infidels, the excommunicated, or peace-breakers, for instance. They promised that the victims of this war that was considered justified could expect to receive a heavenly reward. In 853 Leo IV (790–855) had clearly associated death in battle against the infidels with heavenly reward, which in practice started to indicate afterlife in paradise – although the papal authorities – Leo IX (pope 1048–1054), Gregory VII (1073–1085) and Urban II (1088–1099) rather spoke of spiritual benefits, such as the absolution of sins (which was linked to the developing system of indulgence), and saw participation in the crusades as an act of penance. Those who died would be offered a martyr status. After the First Crusade (1096–1099) called by Pope Urban II, the distinction between warriors who fought the pagans and fell and martyred saints became more blurred and remained so throughout the Middle Ages. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 79–82, 85; Middleton 2014, 120)

Similar ideas were enhanced also by Scandinavian clerics. As the power of the monarchs in Europe increased from the thirteenth century onwards, also those who fought for secular rulers could become martyrs. In Norway, the archbishop of Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson (d. 1188), enhanced the view that dying for the king also merited a heavenly reward and that all the sins of all those who fell in battle were washed away sooner than their blood on the ground would turn cold, and accordingly, no sins needed to be confessed. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 83 – 84; according to Haki Antonsson 2004, 87, Norway was presumably the first realm where an ecclesiastical authority gave such a promise.)

We have no reason to believe that Icelanders would not have been familiar with the Christian ideas of martyrdom, or with Eysteinn Erlendsson’s application of them as the Icelandic bishops of Hólar and Skálholt were suffragans of the archdiocese of Nidaros. The idea that those who ”took up the cross” and fell would immediately enter Heaven is also clearly expressed, for instance, in the thirteenth-century Knýtlinga saga, which recites the history of the Danish kings from Canute the Saint (1042–1086, was killed by rebels) to Knut Valdimarson who reigned 1182–1202, and was presumably written by an Icelander, Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson (ca. 1210–1259), the brother of another famous thirteenth-century saga writer Sturla Þórðarson (1214–1284) and the nephew of Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), a famous Icelandic politician, poet and historian. The saga refers to the speech of Pope Eugene III, the proclaimer of the Second Crusade (1147–1149), and links it to the fall of Jerusalem. The papal bull in question, Quantum praedecessores, was issued in 1145 and 1146, but did not actually concern Jerusalem but Edessa. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 87–88; on Knýtlinga saga and Óláfr Þórðarson, see Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 229–230, 289.) Despite the misunderstanding, the reference to crusades and heavenly reward in the saga does imply that the medieval crusade mentality, ideas of Christian martyrdom and salvation through death in battles against the heathen had been, as Haki Antonsson’s study also shows, well adopted in thirteenth-century Scandinavia.


Regarding my study of the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia, among the most interesting points in medieval Scandinavian (Christian) martyrdom at this point is that a highly respected posthumous status, perhaps even sainthood, and long-lasting fame was achieved by death in battles where the Christian faith, and later also Christian kings, were defended. Violent death as well made many men a martyr (although it is good to remember that the system was not that democratic: you had to be a man of high rank, servants and poor people were less likely to achieve a venerated posthumous status). Sacrificing oneself for the Cross was a means to gain an everlasting fame.

Secondly, the points made above raise new questions. If the violent death of a martyr did offer a chance to enhance one’s own reputation and prominence – to show others what one was made of – and increased the power of the family, would the ideas of martyrdom and their internalization have increased the occurrences of voluntary death? From psychoanalytically oriented perspective, the connection between the mentality associated with martyrdom and destructive death drive, or the desire for nonexistence (on the concepts, see Lowental 1986) raises some questions as well.  The classic in the field of suicidology, Émile Durkheim’s Le Suicide (published originally 1897), has suggested that deliberateness and intentionality are not prerequisites of suicide. Following Durkheim’s definition of suicide, it is not required that a person  (consciously) wants to die.

So, was the kind of military martyrdom described above a type of medieval autodestruction: a death that would be avoidable, such as dying in a car crash because of speeding, but considered in the medieval Scandinavian context a socially acceptable way of causing one’s own death, even if suicide as such was regarded as an unapprovable act? In other words, was it a socially acceptable suicide[2], which gained renown from the Church (and presumably also the Crown) and helped to escape the possible posthumous punishments that could be applied to suicides (e.g. burial outside the churchyard)? (On autodestruction, see Encyclopédie sur la mort; on thoughts of autodestruction by Emmanuel Todd, see also Hacking 2008.) These are some of the question I am working with at the moment.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 15 June, 2017. <   >


Works cited

DuBois, Thomas A. 2008. Introduction. Sanctity in the North. Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia, ed. Thomas A. DuBois. Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Series 3. Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press, 3–28.

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 (last accessed June 15, 2017)

Hacking, Ian. 2008. “The Suicide Weapon.” Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Haki Antonsson. 2004. Some Observations on Martyrdom in Post-Conversion Scandinavia. Saga-Book, 28 (2004), 70–94.

Knýtlinga saga = C. af Petersen & E. Olsen. 1919–1925. Sögur Danakonunga. Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk Litteratur 46. Køpenhavn: Háskóli Íslands. Available at

Lowental, U. 1986. Autodestruction and nonexistence: two distinct aspects of the death drive. Psychoanalytic Review 73 (1986)3: 349–360.

Middleton, Paul. 2014. What is martyrdom? Mortality 19 (2014) 2: 117–133.

Sanmark, Alexandra 2004. Power and Conversion. A Comparative Study of Christianization in Scandinavia. Occasional Papers in Archaeology  34. Uppsala.


[1] However, Haki Antonsson has also brought forth that in the earliest sources of the cult of St Óláfr (995–1030), his martyrdom is not emphasized. One of the earliest descriptions of his martyrdom can be found in the writings of Adam of Bremen (11th-cent.), from ca. 1080. His thoughts had likely been inspired by Christian ideas of martyrdom. Haki Antonsson 2004, 72–73.

[2] I will speak more about the autodestruction issue and present some case studies of the subject in my forthcoming book on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.