Gendered suicide: causes and motives

In my earlier post I considered what earlier research has to say about gender and suicide in medieval and early modern Europe in particular, or in western culture in general. It appeared that, according to statistics, in the western culture men have usually committed more suicides than women. If suicide attempts and threats as well as suicidal imagery are included, however, women may outnumber men – but they appear to engage in less fatal suicidal behavior compared to men. However, it is not only suicide statistics that suggest that suicide is a gendered phenomenon.  Earlier studies suggest that the motives of the self-killers have often been considered gendered as well. Naturally, as suicide notes are mostly a later phenomenon (before 1700 they were extremely rare or nonexistent, see e.g. McDonald & Murphy 1990, 222; 228–229, 335–337) the motives for medieval and early modern suicide discussed in research, for instance, are assumptions – i.e. they quite often answer the question what other people thought had urged an individual to commit suicide.

My own research interest lies in the history of medieval Scandinavian suicide in particular. Therefore, to find some contemporary material and earlier results to compare with, I have acquainted myself with Alexander Murray’s (1998) observations on the motives of medieval suicide in English, German and French sources. As Murray points out, his study of the subject in his book Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves is not yet a comprehensive one since he intends to discuss the issue in greater depth in the third volume of his extensive history of medieval suicide (forthcoming – a book that the historians of suicide are all eagerly awaiting!). Therefore, Murray’s study does not yet make a distinction between male motives and female motives, but offers an overview of the causes and motives of suicide described in various sources, such as hagiographical sources, town chronicles and legal records. His preliminary results offer some interesting observations, however, and give some idea of the possible causes and motives of suicide, which might have been identified in medieval Scandinavian sources as well.

Interestingly, Murray notes that the motives indicated in various sources – chronicles, religious sources and legal sources – differ from each other. In chronicles, for instance, most cases appear under the category entitled by Murray as “prison and accusation”, which indicates that the individual had committed suicide to escape a legal verdict. “Defeat, violence, or wound” and “love or bereavement” (including e.g. spouse bereavement, jealousy and loss of virginity) are second on the list, although the intention to avoid imprisonment and legal punishments outnumber both of these motives clearly. Other motives categorized by Murray appear in the chronicles as well, although less frequently, such as “disgrace”, “shame”, “madness or demon”,  “loss” and “disease”. These categories used by Murray (which are only used as umbrella terms and include various kinds of motives that can be found as somehow related) are the same in religious sources (e.g. saints’ lives, miracles and exempla). What is significant, however, is –firstly – that three-quarters of the suicides discovered by Murray in the sources he has examined are in religious sources. Secondly, in addition to the categories listed above, in religious sources another category defined by Murray occurs: “despair, tristitia, or ‘fate’”. Interestingly, this category is the most common one when motives for suicide in religious sources are examined. The categories “’madness’, or demon”, “shame” and “love or bereavement” are slightly fewer in number, but “loss”, “disgrace”, “prison or accusation”, “defeat, violence or wound” and disease have less cases than the three mentioned above (i.e. madness/demon, shame and love/bereavement). (Murray 1998, 400–401.)

In addition, Murray has pointed out that the chronicles concentrate more on the worldly matters and on the prospering and defeats of the great men (Murray terms them “extroverts”), whereas the religious sources focus on the inner lives of people, and, instead of stating any clear motives, they imply that despair, sadness and sloth, for instance, are among the motivating forces that may propel suicidal behavior. (Murray 1998, 400–402; on emotional causes of medieval suicide see also McNamara and Ruys 2014.)

Murray also considers the question, which of the two groups of source material – chronicles or religious sources – may offer a more reliable picture of medieval suicide. He points out that the issue still requires further research. However, he suggests that “laity normally committed suicide for a tangible, external reason, while priests, monks, and nuns were the ones who envisaged, attempted, and committed suicide for invisible motives, motives definable, that is only in psychological or spiritual terms.” (Murray 1998, 402.) Accordingly, the clerical people who produced religious sources were interested about the state of the soul, whereas in secular contexts, people who composed chronicles expected suicides to be motivated by external factors. Both views may reflect the medieval reality, in their own way.

As far as the medieval English, German and French legal sources scrutinized by Murray are concerned, Murray notes that these legal texts are far less eager to explain the motives of the suicides. Only three motives are categorized by Murray, namely “prison or accusation”, “disease” and “madness” in English sources, and in addition to them, “wound” in French sources.  Naturally, criminals who would want to escape a legal punishment, or perhaps were waiting for execution, were already listed in legal records, so their suicide was likely to be reported as well. In addition to these motives, economic causes, such as debt, were seen as likely motive for suicide. Based on his observations Murray suspects that – due to the nature of his sources which also included French Letters of Remission – madness may be overrepresented in the legal records he has studied. Therefore, the sources do perhaps not reflect the medieval reality, as far as the frequency of madness in suicide cases is concerned. However, based on his observations on the frequency of disease Murray also suggests that illness may in fact have been “a commoner motive for suicide than chronicles, miracles, or exempla would give us reason to believe.”[1] (Murray 1998, 403.) At any rate, great pains and severe illness would perhaps have been considered an understandable motive for suicide in many contexts. (See also Miettinen 2015, 389 on disease and pain as background factors of suicide in seventeenth-century Sweden.)

Since Murray’s study does not concentrate on gendered motives in particular, I have also acquainted myself with some research on early modern and modern suicide that discuss the issue, to find some points of comparison for my own study of medieval Scandinavian suicide. Riikka Miettinen (2015; see also Miettinen 2012) has studied suicide in early modern Sweden in light of the legal praxis in seventeenth-century Swedish Lower courts.  Although her sources differ from my own, i.e. medieval Icelandic saga literature, and the era and area she concentrates on is different from my own, her research offers some valuable information. Among other things, it also contains quite an extensive analysis on the gendered aspects of suicide (Miettinen speaks of background factors instead of causes or motives).

Miettinen points out that in early modern Sweden, compared to male suicides female suicides were more often connected with certain life circumstances. To begin with, in early modern Sweden insanity was considered a mitigating factor when suicide cases were put on trial. Insane suicides received a milder punishment. According to the sources scrutinized by Miettinen, mental illness and insanity were the most common background factor of suicides mentioned by the witnesses in court. However, over half of the suicides that were motivated by mental illness and insanity (according to the testimonies of the witnesses) were women. In addition, women were also more likely to receive a sentence as insane suicide compared to men. (Miettinen 2015, 385–387.)

Therefore, Miettinen suggests that female suicides were less likely to be treated as rational and sane compared to men, who were more likely to be expected to have logical reasons to do their deed. The view of the witnesses may have been influenced by contemporary ideas of women as the physically, mentally and spiritually weaker sex. (Miettinen 2015, 387–388; on a similar views in medieval English legal records, see Murray 1998, 384.) In addition, according to the sources scrutinized by Miettinen, male and female insanity appear to have been gendered as well. Whereas men would be melancholic (an illness often associated with the learned intellectual elite) or their madness was described as more active in nature, women were described as passive and suffering from mental weakness. (Miettinen 2015, 388.)

According to the early medieval Swedish Lower court testimonies, mental illness and insanity was the most common cause of female suicides. Other motives mentioned as background factors of female suicides were (when listed from the more common to the least common one): “economic difficulties/poverty”, “interpersonal/marital discord”, “physical illness/disability”, “loss of a family member”, and “crime/threat of punishment”. A few cases of “guilty conscience/feelings of sinfulness” and “alcohol abuse” were also recorded. Men committed suicide for similar reasons, but “physical illness/disability” appears as the most common background factor in Miettinen’s sources. “Mental illness/insanity” comes second, then “interpersonal/marital discord”, “economic difficulties/poverty”, “crime/threat of punishment”, “loss of a family member”. Slightly more men were described as suffering from “guilty conscience/feelings of sinfulness” or “alcohol abuse” compared to women. (Miettinen 2015, 387, 389.)

If the background factors are examined further by gender, it turns out that economic difficulties and poverty as well as emotional matters appear in Miettinen’s sources as gendered, too. Poverty is mentioned in female suicide cases more often compared to men. Although men were expected to take care of economic issues, in early modern Sweden the majority of the poor were women. Whereas male suicides were troubled by debts and sustenance, female suicides had lived in utter poverty and had resorted to thieving and begging. Concerning emotional matters, such as interpersonal or marital discord or bereavement, love problems were more often mentioned in female suicide cases compared to men, whereas men would, for instance, quarrel with neighbors. In general, women were expected to be motivated by emotional and interpersonal issues more often than men. (Miettinen 2015, 389–392; see, however, the study by Watt 1996, who argues that in eighteenth-century Geneva marriage offered immunity to suicide, to both men and women.)

Legal sources are not unproblematic either, however. Miettinen points out that all the information presented by witnesses was not necessarily written down. Things that were written down were apparently held as relevant. Naturally the views of the witnesses and the views of the authorities – e.g. whether the act was comprehended as a morally, religiously and legally punishable deed – had an impact on the witnesses’ testimonies and their ideas of what could be the cause of suicide. Their testimonies could be intended to elicit empathy, to express reprehension or to explain the unexplainable and to make the act understandable. Therefore, although the category “mental illness or insanity” appears to outnumber the others, mental disorder may not in fact have been the major cause of female suicide in early modern Sweden. In addition, witnesses may not actually have considered the self-killer insane, but merely wished to ensure that the punishment would be less severe. Moreover, as Miettinen has noted, gender alone did not influence the empathy felt towards the suicide, or lack of it, or the probability of an insane suicide verdict. (Miettinen 2015, 386, 388–389, 394.)

The emotions that lurk behind the motives may sometimes be hard to define. What Miettinen has categorized as “crime/threat of punishment” appears to indicate not only fear of punishment but also the individual’s wish to escape the shame that was associated with public trials and punishments. In addition, the category of “guilty conscience/feelings of sinfulness” may be linked to shame as well – and thus the category may resemble that of Murray in his study of medieval suicide – although Miettinen suggests that the category may reflect the moral and religious attitudes of the authorities who regarded suicide an act caused by despair and moral-religious failure. (Miettinen 2015, 392–394.)

As far as guilty conscience and feelings of sinfulness are concerned, the greater number of men could indeed be related to the assumption that men would ponder such questions more, as Miettinen (2015, 393) suggests, bearing in mind the early modern view of women as the spiritually and mentally weaker sex. In medieval Iceland, for instance, emotions of moral responsibility – such as guilt – were thought to require wisdom and intelligence, that is, the capability to recognise the consequences of one’s actions and their own responsibility for them. (Kanerva 2015, 88–90.)

Research of other historical periods suggests that some of the gendered aspects of early medieval Swedish suicide are specific for the culture in question, whereas some of them can be found in other cultures as well. For instance, Howard I. Kushner has brought forth that according to nineteenth-century (Anglo-American) discourses of suicide, women were expected to commit suicide because of moral and emotional issues, whereas men were anticipated to be more worried about material things and questions of (male) honor (although it could naturally be asked whether honor as well is an emotional issue). Consequently, women would become suicidal because they had been betrayed, deserted or otherwise disappointed with love, or if they had been tortured by jealousy or experienced problems at home. Conversely, male suicides were interwoven with their role as public figures and active agents in the society. They were more often motivated by economic issues, such as financial losses, bankruptcy, and other misfortunes. Or, they committed suicide because they wanted to escape a legal punishment, or as a consequence of their alcohol abuse, for instance. (On gender and suicide in the nineteenth century, see Kushner 1985, 541.)

The studies discussed above show that the motives of suicides have varied, but that they have also been gendered in that in history, men and women appear to have ended their lives for different reasons. Again, the historical context matters, as does the view of gender held in the society under scrutiny. The cases discussed here do not concentrate on gender and suicide in the Middle Ages, but they will be helpful in the study of medieval Scandinavian suicide in that they offer material I can compare my own results with.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: causes and motives.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 22 August, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/gendered-suicide-causes-and-motives/   >

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Works cited

Kushner, Howard I. 1985. Women and Suicide in Historical Perspective. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 10 (1985) 3: 537–552.

McDonald, Michael and Terence R. Murphy. 1990. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Miettinen, Riikka. 2012. Gendered Suicide in Early Modern Sweden and Finland. In Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Marianna Muravyeva & Raisa Maria Toivo. Routledge Research in Gender and History, 14. New York: Routledge, 173–190.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. University of Tampere, the 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.

Salmela, Anu. 2017. Kuolemantekoja. Naisten itsemurhat 1800-luvun jälkipuolen tuomioistuinprosesseissa. [The title in English: “Making deaths. Female suicides in late nineteenth-century [Finnish] court processes.].  PhD Thesis (Cultural History), University of Turku.

Watt, Jeffrey R. 1996. The Family, Love, and Suicide in Early Modern Geneva. Journal of Family History 21 (1996): 63–86.

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[1] In fact, I find it possible that the category that Murray names as “wounds”, which is found in French Letters of Remission could also be related to “illness” since infected wounds, in an era when antibiotic medicine had not yet been discovered, could result in a condition that could be construed as an illness.

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Gendered suicide: the person

Several sociological and historical studies suggest that suicide is and has been a gendered phenomenon. In history, as far as completed suicides are concerned, men have committed suicide more often[1], or: their deaths have been classified as suicide more frequently. Research on suicide in early modern Sweden, Scotland, England, and Germany support this view: in these cultural contexts also, men appear have committed more suicides that women. (Kushner 1985, 543–546; Lind 1999, 190–193; Maris et al. 2000, 148; Miettinen 2015, 373–375, 385.) In my own research I am especially interested in the medieval context: according to sources scrutinized by Alexander Murray (1998, 379–386), the ratio of medieval suicide was around two to three males to one female.

Why would men have committed more suicides than women? Various explanations have been offered. For instance, it has been suggested that men in general engage in violent behavior more than women (women appear to have been underrepresented in the other convicted violence crimes as well). On the other hand, the methods men have employed in committing suicide may have been more violent (or even: more effective) than those of the women. It has also been suggested that in some contexts the difference between male and female suicide rates depended on different motives. In addition, familial discipline, which in medieval and early modern context could also involve violence, was often considered a man’s task in the household and part of the natural order – in other words, male violence was considered more acceptable than female aggression (bearing in mind that suicide was considered an act of violence against the self). Accordingly, the role of women was likely to be socially more restricted, or “harmonized” than men’s who were allowed less social conformity. (Kushner 1985, 540–542, 546–551; Lind 1999, 193–194; Maris et al. 2000, 145–146, 152, 156; Hacking 2008, 7–8; Butler 2006, 143–144; Miettinen 2015, 375.)

(At this phase it should be borne in mind that suicide was not only considered a grave sin, but also a legal felony in many parts of medieval and early modern Europe. The felony could be punished by confiscation of chattels and burial outside churchyard. In England, for instance, according to Groot (2000), the property of the suicide was not forfeit in Eyre rolls that date from 1175–1221; after that suicide started to be categorized as felony, but the idea and practice of seeing suicide as felony became established in the 1230s. In Scandinavia, confiscation of property as a punishment for suicide was established e.g. in Iceland in the thirteenth century, but in Sweden, for instance, the posthumous punishment of the suicide involved only the place and manner of burial. Accordingly suicides would not receive a Christian burial in the churchyard.)

It has also been suggested that, for instance in the medieval context, since suicide was a taboo female suicides were considered something truly abhorrent and too horrific to think about, and for this reason the sentences of female suicides were likely to be modified, which could then result in fewer female suicides in legal records. Some researchers suggest that women could be protected and consequently, cases of female suicides were handled privately – however, some historians disagree with this view. Or, women were not expected to be capable of committing any violent crimes, such as homicide or suicide. In addition, in medieval English legal records and in the formulae used in them (studied by Alexander Murray), for instance, the judges appear to have been harder on men than on women in their verdicts. Men were often represented as being clearly aware of what they were doing and found guilty of felony. In the case of women it could be indicated that the act was committed e.g. under some external pressure. Such cases could then result in exculpation, i.e. the death was categorized e.g. as misadventure. Therefore, no posthumous punishment, confiscation of property, or shame resulted from the act – the women whose deaths were handled in this way would still receive a Christian burial and their chattels were not confiscated. (Murray 1998, 383–385; see also Lind 1999, 193–194, 197–201; Butler 2006, 144–145; Miettinen 2015, 375–377.)

However, Alexander Murray whose study (1998, 2000) is based on a variety of sources, ranging from medieval English, German and French legal records to chronicles, abbey registers and religious literature has also pointed out that attention should not be payed merely to completed, i.e. “full” suicides. If suicide threats and attempts are included in the study of suicide in hagiographical sources, such as miracula and vitae (excluding exempla), the ratio of male suicide to female suicide becomes inverted (according to the sources used by Murray: 1,6 female: 1 male). (Murray 1998, 380–383.) This ratio is more or less consonant with modern findings, which suggest that women engage more often in suicidal behavior than men, and that suicide attempts and unsuccessful suicides are more common among women than among men. Still, men are more likely to die as a result of their suicidal act than women.  Accordingly, men appear to engage in more fatal suicidal behavior.  (Murray 1998, 380–383; see also Kushner 1985, 543–546; Canetto 1997; Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998, and the studies mentioned in Murray 1998, 383n; Lind 1999, 197–198; Maris et al. 2000, 150–151.)

Murray has also pointed out that legal sources may be problematic especially in the study of medieval suicide in that suicide as an illegal act, which was punishable by confiscation of property, could make officials selective; it must have been found tempting to record suicides committed by important and wealthy males in particular. Cases that were found unimportant and those suicides who possessed no wealth could perhaps be more easily ignored. Women would often be included in the latter category. (Murray 1998, 380, 390; see also Lind 1999, 194 (on early modern Germany); Groot 2000, 9.)

Roger D. Groot has also pointed out in his study of medieval Eyre rolls (from 1194–1232) and Pipe Rolls (for the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John) that women’s cause of death in general was not always investigated in detail. For instance, in early thirteenth-century Bedford, England, murder fine did not necessarily apply to women. Therefore, if a woman had been killed, her death would have been adjudged neither murder nor misadventure. In addition, an accidental death of a female could be adjudged misfortune, a category which was, however, clearly distinguished from suicide. Or, a woman’s accidental death was left without judgment altogether. It could be merely stated that no one was suspect. Although the sources studied by Groot at first glance seem to imply that women were treated differently from men in suicide cases, Groot concludes that such was probably not the case. (Groot 2000, 8–9, 11–12.)

However, early modern Scandinavian sources offer another view of the possible selectiveness of the jurors. As Riikka Miettinen has shown, in early modern Sweden where suicide was not punished by confiscation of property but by exclusion from the churchyard, suspected suicides were not always treated equally. Those of the suicide who had been well liked and respected in life or towards whom people felt sympathy, could in certain occasions avoid ending up in secular court or escape a sentence – and therefore, they could still receive a Christian burial. Or, they could be deemed insane (which resulted in a milder punishment, i.e. silent burial aside the churchyard, which indicated burial without ceremonies), whereas unpopular individuals and people who lacked social ties were likely to be judged more rigorously. Accordingly, gender alone did not influence the verdict. The social status of the person was apparently a more important factor. However, it appears that women were diagnosed insane more often than men who were more frequently expected to have committed suicide for rational causes. (Miettinen 2015, 85–86, 367–452.)

To conclude, although historical sources have to be used cautiously and statistics based on their information are not commensurable with modern statistics, they offer some guidelines for the study of suicide and its gendered aspects in medieval Scandinavia. Earlier research also suggests that suicide methods and motives can likewise be gendered. I will continue to discuss the gender issue regarding these points – methods and motives – in my following posts.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: the person.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 4 August, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/gendered-suicide-the-person/   >

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Works cited

Butler, Sara M. 2006. Women, Suicide, and the Jury in Later Medieval England. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 32 (2006) 1: 141–166.

Canetto, Silvia Sara. 1997. Meaning s of Gender and Suicidal Behavior during Adolescence. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 27 (1997) 4: 339–351.

Canetto, Silvia Sara & Isaac Sakinofsky. 1998. The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 28 (1998) 1: 1–23.

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 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Kushner, Howard I. 1985. Women and Suicide in Historical Perspective. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 10 (1985) 3: 537–552.

Lind, Vera. 1999. Selbstmord in der Frühen Neuzeit: Diskurs, Lebenswelt und kulturellerWandel am Beispiel der Herzogtümer Schleswig und Holstein. Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 146. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Maris, Ronald W., Alan L. Berman & Morton M. Silverman. 2000. Suicide, Gender, and Sexuality. In Ronald W. Maris, Alan L. Berman & Morton M. Silverman (eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology. New York: The Guilford Press, 145–169.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. University of Tampere, the 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.

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[1] Naturally, some cultural differences do occur.