Research notes: military suicide in sagas

A couple of days ago I gave a paper on military suicide in medieval Icelandic sagas in the National Finnish Conference on History Research. For a historian who concentrates on medieval sources, military suicide is not an easy subject to study. The definition of military suicide is tricky, and the sources do not always offer enough clues for interpretation. In general, warriors do not kill themselves but are killed by others. However, following Alexander Murray’s (1998) thoughts on medieval military suicide (which are reminiscent of the durkheimian definition of suicide), those who participated in medieval battles were often aware of the possibility that their death was impending.

Therefore, in the history of medieval military campaigns, defeat in a battle may have instigated desperate warriors to seek voluntary death. A soldier who challenged overwhelming enemies and was killed in the act could be judged either a courageous hero or a fool by his contemporaries. Even reckless bravery in battle could sometimes engender admiration, or was even considered part of the ethical values and virtues of chivalry. Therefore, in line with Durkheim’s theory, medieval warriors could have done – actively or passively –something that directly or indirectly had caused their death, and they were aware of the result (i.e. that they would die) and certain of it. (Murray 1998, 61–65; on Durkheim’s definition of suicide, see Durkheim 1897 and the blog article here.)

In effect, deaths in battle have even been regarded as one of the reasons for the scarcity of reported suicides among medieval noblemen: participation in warfare was a relatively easy way to get killed. Consequently, from medieval European perspective in general, military suicide was an act full of ambivalence. Depending on the perspective, the warrior could be considered brave and courageous, or desperate and suicidal, and the fallen combatant could be viewed as a saint-like figure or a military martyr. (Martyrdom indicated that the life of the warrior had not been wasted; e.g. crusades also associated religious motives in warfare.) With regard to his motives, the warrior could fight to escape accusations of shame and cowardice, or if in despair and expecting that his life was not worth living anymore, he wished to liberate himself from worldly suffering. The border between risking one’s life and giving it up deliberately was not clear-cut, and to distinguish that border in the tumults of battle was presumably near to impossible. (On medieval military suicide, see Murray 1998, 64–69.)

That is, if people felt there was a need to make a distinction between the two motives – risking one’s life and giving it up deliberately. After all, death in a battle was not as likely to cause legal concerns as a sudden death in everyday life outside the battlefields would. Consequently, unfortunate for historians, deaths in battle were not that likely to end up in legal documents as a consequence of judicial process.

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Medieval Icelandic sagas tell many stories of men who start a battle or refuse to avoid an armed conflict although they knew their fate in advance and were aware that the battle would turn out to be their last, or even though they were faced with an overwhelming army they could never beat. If we believe the laws of the Jomsvikings, a group of warriors portrayed in Jómsvíkinga saga, which was written originally around 1200, an indifferent attitude towards an overwhelming enemy – or denying and avoiding fear – was indeed expected from a respectable soldier. According to the law described in the saga:

No man must run from anyone who was as doughty and well-armed as himself. […] No one must speak a word of fear or be frightened in any situation however black things looked.[1] (Trans. N. F. Blake.)

It has been suggested that the portrayal of the Jómsvikings in the saga could have been intended as a parody. (Aalto 2014, 40. On sagas as parodies, see also Willson 2009.) If the author of the saga was indeed writing a parody, it can be questioned whether the “heroic” values described in the excerpt actually represent the medieval Scandinavian codes of male honor. It is, for instance, possible that heroic self-sacrifice would not have been overly praised by the author of the saga. However, medieval Icelandic saga sources in general suggest that certain kind of codes regarding the male honor would have affected the individual’s behavior in armed conflicts. (On the concepts of honor in medieval Icelandic society, see e.g. Meulengracht Sørensen 1993; Miller 1993.) In addition, fear was definitely not considered a manly emotion. Fear was not considered a positive emotion in the first place. (Kanerva 2014, 226-233.)

Strictly speaking, a saga warrior who ended up against an overwhelming army usually did not die by his own hand. In addition, the terminology available for the description of his manner of death was limited. In medieval Iceland, there was no term for ‘suicide’ – as discussed earlier, the word sjálfsmorð, “self-murder”, appears first in eighteenth-century Icelandic sources, and prior to this era, no particular term for the act existed. The sources only spoke of the actual act (e.g. ‘killing oneself’) or used verbs that indicate the method, or referred to a ‘sudden death’ (bráðr bani).

Therefore, even if a man who had been well aware that a battle in which he was about to participate would be his last died in this battle, the terminology concerning deliberate self-killing used in sagas in general would not have been suitable for the depiction of this man’s death. The expressions used in literature concentrated on the actual act, the method used and the degree of unpredictability, i.e. the suddenness of a person’s departure from this world, not on the thoughts and motives of the individual who died.

Luckily for the historians, some sagas do describe the behavior of the suicidal heroes, which may serve as a clue to their motives (as defined by the authors of such sagas).[2] All in all, military suicide as reflected in medieval sagas is an intriguing issue, bearing in mind that the idea of Christian martyrdom was adopted in Scandinavia fairly soon after the Conversion (which started to take place – depending on the place – from the 10th century onward), and that the prototype of a medieval Scandinavian (Christian) martyr who were born in the newly Christianized North was a man of high rank (e.g. prince or king) who died a violent death. Death in battle could indeed be considered such a violent demise, suitable for a future martyr. (On Scandinavian martyrdom, see Haki Antonsson 2004.)

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: military suicide in sagas.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 25 October, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/research-notes-military-suicide-in-sagas/   >

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Works cited

Aalto, Sirpa. 2014. Jómsvíkinga Saga as a Part of Old Norse Historiography. Scripta Islandica: Isländska Sällskapets Årsbok, Vol. 65 (2014), 33–58.

Blake, N. F. 1962. Introduction. In Blake, N. F. (ed. & trans.). 1962.  Jómsvíkinga saga. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto & New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, vii–xxv.

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. <http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Durkheim_emile/suicide/suicide.html&gt; [or: Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.]

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

Jómsvíkinga saga = Blake, N. F. (ed. & trans.). 1962.  Jómsvíkinga saga. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto & New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

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 & Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

Meulengracht Sørensen, Preben. 1993. Fortælling og ære. Studier i islændingesagaerne. [Århus]: Aarhus universitetsforlag.

Miller, William Ian. 1993. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

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

Willson, Kendra, 2009: Parody and Genre in sagas of Icelanders. In Á austrvega: Saga and East Scandinavia. Preprint papers of the 14th International Saga Conference, Uppsala, 9th—15th August 2009, ed. Agneta Ney, Henrik Williams and Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist. Gävle: Gävle University Press, 1039–1046. Available at http://www.sagaconference.org/SC14/SC14_PAPERS2.PDF

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[1] Engi maðr skyldi þar renna fyrir jafnvígligum ok jafnbúnum. […] Engi skyldi þar æðruorð mæla ne kvíða neinum hlut hvégi óvænt sem um þœtti. Jómsvíkinga saga, 17. The text is the edition used here is based on Codex Holmianus 7, 4o, better known today as the Stockholm manuscript, Sthm. perg. 4:o nr 7, which dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. In its original form, the manuscript has also contained many fornaldarsögur (Legendary sagas) and indigenous riddarasögur (Chivalric sagas). Therefore, the context of the saga in this manuscript is heroic instead of historical in the strict sense.This version of the saga is shorter compared to many other surviving versions of Jómsvíkinga saga. Blake 1962, xvi, xx.

[2] I discussed this issue in my conference paper, and the results of the discussion will be elaborated further in my book (work-in-process) on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.

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