Suicide or no suicide: Examining the cause of death

In my previous post I considered the need of medieval Icelanders to investigate deaths that were not natural. Since a killing that had taken place in secrecy was regarded as a murder, that is a great villainy, it would have been considered imperative to discover whether the death was indeed a murder, an accident, or a suicide.

The focus in my study is on the attitudes towards and norms concerning suicide in medieval Iceland, but as a kind of sidetrack in my work, I wanted to consider in this post who in practice would have taken care of the examination of the cause-of-death in a rural and peripheral culture like medieval Iceland. If there were no coroners or no jury, who could tell ”the truth” about the cause of death? Who would have defined whether a death was a natural one, or perhaps a murder or a suicide, in case manslaughter was excluded because nobody had claimed responsibility for the killing, or whether the death (e.g. drowning) had been deliberate or accidental?

Research on medieval and early modern Europe may offer some clues of the situation in medieval Iceland, or at least suggest what I may need to look for. In England, for instance, inspection of corpses first belonged to sheriffs and local justiciars, but the office of a coroner was established in the twelfth century. The coroner investigated, confirmed and certified the cause of death and they were responsible for recording the deaths in their districts. Coroners were Crown officials who protected the financial interests of the Crown and the same interest motivated they work: the Crown needed funds and suicide, felonia de se ipsa, offered possible income as the property of the self-killer could be confiscated (unless the suicide had been insane, infortunium).[1] (Murray 1998, 132–133; McNamara 2014, 4–5; Groot 2000, 8)

To return to the Icelandic context, after the Icelanders had submitted under the rule of the Norwegian king in 1262–1264, the king’s officials started to take care of the execution of law in Iceland. Suicide was criminalized in the Jónsbók law in 1281 and half of the self-killer’s property was to be confiscated (Jónsbók, 41–42; Lárusson 1960, 83; Fenger 1985, 63). The new decree suggests that then, at the latest, officials of the Norwegian Crown would have become interested in the investigation of suicide, along with the Icelandic clerics who had already earlier started to consider the final resting place of the deceased in the churchyard and who was entitled to it. The clerics would obviously have gained some earlier practice in inquiring the causes of death, as suicides had been excluded from the churchyard already in the old Church law, which was presumably originally compiled by the third bishop of Iceland after Conversion, Þorlákr Rúnólfsson (1086–1133, bishop of Skálholt since 1118).(Fix 1993; Finsen 1852, 12; Kanerva 2015b)

But who else could have bothered to examine the cause of death? To return to the European examples above, what may appear as surprising to modern people at first is the absence of medically trained professionals in death examinations. Reporting the cause of death first became a routine practice of the physicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, and autopsies before this date were rare. (Alter & Carmichael 1999; Miettinen 2015, 259–260) Medical examinations and autopsies could be motivated by different reasons, not always by strictly financial ones as was suggested by the example of coroners and king’s stewards above. In late medieval Milan studied by Ann G. Carmichael 2017, for instance, the recording of civic mortality registers as early as around 1450 was prompted by the urge to control potential epidemic outbreaks, such as plague. In a medieval town or city such as Milan, surveillance of the death causes in general and during epidemic outbreaks were practiced to eliminate or mitigate the threat posed to the community. Presumably the certification was usually made and death cases were reported by public physicians, surgeons and barbers, not by elite doctors who did not want to inspect the dead during plague, or, as in Milan’s case, also by parish elders. Autopsies, however, would not have been common, although detailed observations of the appearance of the body were made. In general, medical theories were less important that political and social equilibrium; as a consequence of effective surveillance of the causes-of-death for instance during epidemics, the rich could flee to the countryside in time and potential riots could at least partially be avoided.

Recording of the causes-of-death made by physicians first started to be practiced in towns and cities and only later in rural areas (where the majority of medieval population still lived) where there were only few medically trained physicians. Physicians would have been extremely rare in medieval Iceland,[2] they were rare still in seventeenth-century Scandinavia, but clerical people would often had acquired some medical skills during their studies abroad and their sojourns in European monasteries.[3] The clerics were, as we learned above, interested in whether the deceased was entitled to a burial place in the churchyard or not, so for them it was essential to know if the departed was unbaptized, outlawed, excommunicated or had committed suicide. There is a possibility that in order to be sure whether the deceased who was brought to the church had committed suicide the priest may have needed to examine the corpse unless witnesses were available, but otherwise the Old Church law only suggests that the priest needed to pay attention on the appearance and condition of the body so that a bare and bloody corpse would not be carried in the church and that the corpse had to be cold and the deceased should not be breathing anymore (!) before s/he was buried. But since the Church law decreed that (most of) the dead should be carried to the church the clerics were plausibly people who had some experience in examining the causes of death in case a need for it had arisen, and could apply their knowledge of medieval medicine (should they have had some). (Finsen 1852, 7–12)

Back in the medieval and early modern European (and urban) context, no Crown official or trained physicians were necessarily required to investigate the cause of death. In some Belgian towns in the fifteenth-century, for instance, the town aldermen usually inspected a corpse “to pronounce it dead”. (Vandekerckhove 2000, 43–44) In the seventeenth-century Sweden, investigation and classification of the cause of death greatly depended on the testimonies of local people: eyewitness or people who had discovered the corpse that raised suspicions since the cause of death was unknown and was not considered natural. As witnesses some farmers and their testimonies were perhaps trusted more than others, and some causes of death revealed more about the killer – it is likely that hanging and strangling would have been considered self-killings in many of the cases, but drowning, although likely to have been a common way to take one’s own life, caused problems as it was occasionally difficult to attest the deliberateness of the act or its accidental nature. What the local people knew about the personality of the accused self-killer and his or her earlier deeds and intentions was all relevant information for the representatives of the law. (Miettinen 2015, 256–276)

Although medieval Icelandic customs were not identical to the customs in early modern Sweden explicated above, it is possible that similarities existed, despite the different time and place. Medieval Icelandic farmers were likely to have been central figures in the death examination, as their testimonies were also important for cases of manslaughter. Especially prior to 1262-1264 their role was likely to have been essential. The local people were likely to be the first to find the bodies of suicides committed in secrecy, and responsibility to attend to the corpse and take care of its disposal rested on their shoulders.

Although the considerations presented here do not tell so much about the attitudes towards and norms concerning suicide in medieval Iceland per se, they shed light on the context where these attitudes were held and norms were followed, and draws a broader picture of the culture that is being examined.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide or no suicide: Examining the cause of death.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 January 2017. <  >


Works cited

Alter, George C. & Ann G. Carmichael. 1999. Classifying the Dead: Toward a History of the Registration of Causes of Death. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54 (1999) 2: 144–132.

Carmichael, Ann G. 2017. Registering Deaths and Causes of Death in Late Medieval Milan. In Death in Medieval Europe: Death Scripted and Death Choreographed, ed. Joëlle Rollo Koster. New York: Routledge, 209–236.

Dubois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fenger, Ole. 1985. Selvmord i kultur- og retshistorisk belysning. In Skrifter utgivna av Institutet för rätthistorisk forskning grundat av Gustav och Carin Olin, serien II: Rättshistoriska Studier: Elfte bandet, edited by Stig Jägerskiöld, 55–83. Stockholm: Institutet för rättshistorisk forskning.

Finsen, Vilhjálmur. 1852. Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, I. Kjøpenhavn: Det nordiske Literatur-Sámfund.

Fix, Hans. 1993. Laws. 2, Iceland. In Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia, edited by Phillip Pulsiano, 384–385. New York & London: Garland, 1993.

Groot, Roger D. 2000. When Suicide Became Felony. The Journal of Legal History 21 (2000)1: 1–20

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015a. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400), School of History, culture and Arts studies, University of Turku.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015b. Having no Power to Return? Suicide and Posthumous Restlessness in Medieval Iceland. Thanatos  4 (2015) 1, 57–79.

Lárusson, Ólafur.  1960. Lov og ting: Islands forfatning og lover i fristatstiden. Translated by Knut Helle. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.

McNamara, Rebecca. 2014. The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England. Parergon 31(2014) 2:  11–34.

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.

Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir. 2008. Skriðuklaustur Monastery. Medical Centre of Medieval East Iceland. Acta Archaeologica 79 (2008), 208–215.

Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir. 2010a. The Tip of the Iceberg. The Material of Skriðuklaustur Monestery and Hospital. NAR 43:1 (2010), 44–62.

Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir. 2010b. Icelandic Evidence for a Late-Medieval Hospital Monastery. Excavations at Skriðuklaustur. Medieval Archaeology 54 (2010), 371–381.

Vandekerckhove, Lieven. 2000. On Punishment. The Confrontation of Suicide in Old Europe. Leuven: Leuven University Press.


[1] According to Groot’s study (2000), however, suicide became felony first by the 1230s in England, and application of this new rule included that all suicides, whether they were insane or sane, male or female forfeited their chattels and “suffered escheat of realty”. Before this time there are indications of forfeiture of suicides in the 1170s, but, according to Groot 2000, in between there “is no record of that practice until again occurring until 1221.” Groot 2000, 13.

[2] There was no established profession of a “doctor” or “physician” in medieval Scandinavia. Nevertheless, it is probable that there were men and women who specialised in curing people – healers – long before the advent of Christianity in the North. Dubois 1999, 98–100; Kanerva 2015a, 108.

[3] Also in medieval Iceland, monasteries had a position as important healing centres and hospitals. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir 2008, 2010a and 2010b.


The importance of knowing the cause of death

As I discussed the naming of suicide in medieval Iceland in my previous post I began to wonder whether ‘suicide’ was considered such an irrelevant concept that no special term was needed for it. A special term also has to do with the categorization of things; a death either is a suicide or is not. This categorization has to do with the cause of death and the question whether knowing the cause of death would have been considered (ir)relevant information in medieval Iceland.

From the modern perspective, knowing the cause of death of someone we know, of even those whom we don’t know is found important, if not for the sake of the statistics, then at least for the sake of the family, the relatives, the official. We want to know whether the death has been a natural one, an accident, or perhaps caused by some medical ailment, or is inflicted by someone or something, perhaps as a result of some intentional and malevolent acts, for instance. We long for explanations.

As we go back in history, to the pre-modern period, for instance, we discover that the cause of death would influence the burial place (whether the deceased was to be buried in the churchyard or outside of it, or disposed of somewhere else), and even the status of the deceased in the Afterlife. In the medieval context, for instance, suicide could be a sin that ruled out any hope of the salvation of the soul, and the restless souls of the suicides were sometimes expected to return and haunt the living, at least in popular thought, if not in ecclesiastical texts. (See e.g. Butler 2007, 434; Signori 1994, 34–40; Murray 2000, 23–28, 471–474, 476–479). Consequently, it may have been found essential to know the cause of death in order to be prepared for such posthumous activity and to be able to perform proper rituals to prevent it since – as may be expected, at least if we trust medieval stories – the dead would not always be so polite to the living if they transgressed the border between this world and the otherworld.

I will write more about medieval Icelandic conceptions of the dead who return posthumously later in another post (I have also discussed whether suicides were expected to return posthumously earlier in my article in the Thanatos journal, available here). At this point, however, I will concentrate on inquiries concerning the cause of death, and whether such information – i.e. whether the death was e.g. an accident, a consequence of illness, or inflicted by others or by the deceased him or herself – was regarded as important, even necessary in the medieval Icelandic context.

Based on earlier studies, we do know that in medieval and early modern Europe in general the cause of death was considered important information not only by the Church and the society who were interested in the state of the soul and the final resting place of the deceased, but also by secular rulers. The interest of the latter was also reflected in the legal praxis. Considering e.g. early modern Sweden, from the legal perspective, a death could be natural, but also unnatural. If the death was unnatural, it was also found important to discover whether the death was criminal, e.g. a homicide – or later also: a suicide. (See e.g. Miettinen 2015, 256–257.) In Europe in general, suicide became a legal felony during the medieval period. The attitudes that contributed to this change were naturally connected to the views of the Church of suicide as a sin, and as the interests of the Church and secular authority became intertwined in late medieval Europe, the last mentioned became responsible of the execution of both the verdicts of the ecclesiastical and secular authority (inquisition being one good example of this: clerical inquisitors were responsible for the actual inquisition, but as the object of the interrogation had confessed he or she was often handed over to the secular authority for punishment). (e.g. Miettinen 2015)

Medieval Iceland remained a Commonwealth[1] until 1262–1264 when the Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and king’s officials started to take care of the execution of the law in Iceland. During the Commonwealth period, the Icelanders had already a legal system that consisted of regional courts (þing) that met at regular intervals to solve disputes, and the General Assembly (Alþingi) where the most powerful Icelandic leaders known as goðar legislated and judged, presided by the lawspeaker, lögsögumaðr, who recited the law. In the collection of laws from the Commonwealth period (930–1262), Grágás, suicide was not yet considered a crime, although as far as the interests of the Church were concerned, the section of Christian Law in Grágás mentions that certain dead people, e.g. outlaws, those who had not been baptized, people banned by the bishop, and, unless they repented their deed: suicides, (see Grágás, 12) should not be buried in the churchyard. In medieval Iceland, suicide was criminalized first after the Commonwealth period, in the Jónsbók law decreed by the Norwegian King in 1281. (Jónsbók, 41–42; Ólafur Lárusson 1960, 83; Fenger 1985.)

As a consequence of the new decree, it was undoubtedly found important to clarify whether a death was an accident, a suicide, a homicide or a natural one. However, even before 1262–1264 knowledge of the cause of death must have been found essential by medieval Icelanders. According to medieval Icelandic law, manslaughter always needed to be reported, for instance to the closest neighbors, since killing somebody secretly was regarded as a murder and was therefore a more severe offense, on of the vilest acts. In practice, if a man was killed the killer had to pay compensation, whereas if somebody was murdered and the killer remained unknown, the chances of compensation were few. Consequently, from the perspective of the people, the Church and the law (which in the Commonwealth period perhaps reflected the views of the Icelandic society, and only later, after submitting to the Norwegian king, also the views of the Norwegian reagent), medieval Icelanders had the motivation to investigate the cause of death, should the death not be natural.[2]

As a murder was a more severe crime than manslaughter, it is possible that the possibility of suicide in particular was carefully considered in medieval Iceland. After all, as Alexander Murray (1998, 22–27) has noted, suicide in general has been considered a private act, conducted in secrecy, without the others seeing or noticing. Common for medieval suicide in the European context, in the light of the sources used by Murray, was also the attempt to conceal the act afterwards (again, I will return to that issue in my later posts), for instance by members of the family or community, especially if the suicide had been a popular and well-liked person. Therefore, suicide had some things in common with killings committed in secrecy, i.e. murders. Witnesses were important, but eye-witnesses were rare. In fact, it is even possible that finding a suicide could be risky, as one could become a suspect him or herself – had the deceased committed suicide or was s/he killed by the person who found him/her was a question that may have been asked in some cases. Riikka Miettinen (2015, 150–152), for instance, has pointed out that in the early modern Swedish context, where suicide was a legal felony the moving of the corpse without permission by the official was strictly forbidden as it could be considered tampering of the evidence and protecting the criminal or charged of murder.

So, it is probable that knowing whether a death was suicide or not would have been considered important in medieval Iceland already during the Commonwealth period, as the information affected the burial place and gave answer to the question whether somebody was entitled to compensation and who would pay it. After Jónsbók had been taken into use, it is possible that at least some potential suicides were investigated more vigorously by king’s officials in Iceland, as the punishment for the felony included confiscation of property and thus meant income for the Crown.


Works cited

Butler, Sara. 2007. Cultures of Suicide? Regionalism and Suicide Verdicts in Medieval England. The Historian 69 (3/2007): 427–449.

Fenger, Ole. 1985. Selvmord i kultur- og retshistorisk belysning. In Skrifter utgivna av Institutet för rätthistorisk forskning grundat av Gustav och Carin Olin, serien II: Rättshistoriska Studier: Elfte bandet, edited by Stig Jägerskiöld, 55–83. Stockholm: Institutet för rättshistorisk forskning.

Grágás = Finsen, Vilhjálmur (ed.). 1852. Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, I. Kjøpenhavn: Det nordiske Literatur-Sámfund.

Jónsbók = Ólafur Halldórsson  (ed.). 1904. Jónsbók. Kong Magnus Hakonssons lovbog for Island vedtaget paa altinget 1281. Køpenhavn: S. L. Møller.

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

Murray, Alexander. 2000. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 2: The Curse on Self-Murder. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Ólafur Lárusson.  1960. Lov og ting: Islands forfatning og lover i fristatstiden. Translated by Knut Helle. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.

Signori, Gabriela. 1994. Rechtskonstruktionen und religiöse Fiktionen. Bemerkungen zur Selbstmordfrage im Mittelalter. In Trauer, Verzweiflung und Anfechtung. Selbstmord und Selbstmordversuche im mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Gesellschaften, edited by Gabriela Signori, 9–54. Tübingen: Edition diskord.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The importance of knowing the cause of death.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 12 December 2016. <  >


[1] Iceland was inhabited from ca. 870 onwards, and the Commonwealth period is said to have started ca. 930.

[2] Concerning the outlaws, their cause of death must have been to some extent irrelevant, as the outlaws could be killed by anyone, without any expectation of legal consequences or requirements of compensation.