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. (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, 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. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/martyrdom-in-medieval-scandinavia/ >
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 http://agora.qc.ca/thematiques/mort/dossiers/autodestruction (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 http://www.septentrionalia.net/etexts/danakonunga.pdf
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.
 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.
 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.