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.


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