Theories of suicide: Durkheim

Theories of suicide attempt to explain why some people become suicidal and engage in suicidal behavior. The theories may also be of help in clinical work in that they may help to identify those individuals who may be at risk. My study concentrates on medieval, twelfth to fourteenth-century Scandinavia (Iceland in particular), where people were likely to have their own ideas of what made people suicidal and caused them to commit suicide, although no written theories existed, and no one had presumably ever even made an attempt to create one. These theories were “lived” in that people could, for instance, think and present their views of the causes of a certain suicide among friends, neighbors and relatives, or in legal and religious contexts when the cause of death was inquired, to decide whether the corpse could be buried in the churchyard or not, and whether the property of the deceased should be confiscated or not (in Iceland, the Jónsbók law from the year 1281 stated that suicide was a crime). There may have been both similarities and differences between the northern (i.e. Scandinavian) and southern (i.e. European) views of suicide and its causes, although by then Scandinavians too had already become Christians (Conversion started to take place gradually in Scandinavia from the late 10th century onwards, e.g. in Iceland in 1000). Examining the medieval Icelandic  “vernacular theory of suicide” is part of my project.

Modern theories of suicide cannot be used to explain the causes of suicide in medieval context, but knowing about these theories not only gives food for thought, but may turn out to be fruitful, as the information may assist in widening the scope and in defining what to look for in the sources. Some of the theories have also been widely criticized, but this criticism may likewise offer some interesting ideas concerning the study at hand. Today, there are many theories of suicide, e.g. the interpersonal theory, the network theory, fluid vulnerability model, and so on. As far as the modern scientific theories of suicide are concerned, the story often begins with Émile Durkheim and his division of suicides in four different types, egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic suicide, presented in his book Le Suicide, published originally in 1897.

I will begin with É. Durkheim, who defined his four types of suicide as follows: According to Durkheim, egoistic suicide was linked with feelings of uselessness, helplessness, and feelings of being unattached and of not belonging, and desperation, as a consequence of individual’s social disintegration. According to Durkheim, egoistic suicide was typical for groups with low social integration, and he suggested there was a difference between suicide rates of the Protestants and the Catholics, of whom the Protestants were in his view more socially disintegrated and individualistic, whereas the degree of social cohesion among the Catholic people was higher. As a consequence, their social capital protected them from committing suicide, whereas the Protestants had to rely on themselves and on their own conscience. (See Durkheim 1897, book II, chs 2–3)

Several later studies have found support for Durkheim’s claim, i.e. they likewise argue that Protestants have a higher tendency to commit suicide than the Catholics, although strong religious commitment may protect the Protestants as well. (See e.g. Torgler & Schaltegger 2014; in other studies, it has also been shown that religiosity in general contributes to life satisfaction. See e.g. Lim & Putnam 2010.) However, Durkheim’s sources were likely to have been biased, and some later scholars have not been able to escape the problems of statistical bias completely, either. (See e.g. Kushner & Sterk 2005; for criticism, see Poppel & Day 1996).

Frans van Poppel and Lincoln H. Day, for instance, have pointed out, based on their sources that consist of data from the Netherlands ca. 1905–1910, i.e. sources that were nearly contemporary to the sources used by Durkheim, that the suicide rates of the Protestants and the Catholics were based on different kind of definitions (concerning the cause of death) and recording practices. Although suicides were reported to occur more often among the Protestants, the rates of “sudden death” and deaths from “unknown and unspecified causes” were half as high and almost twice as high respectively among the Catholics as the Protestants, for both males and females. Accordingly, what would have been categorized as a suicide among the Protestants, was often defined as a sudden death or death from some unknown or unspecified cause among the Catholics. Naturally, comparison between the rates of the two groups based on such source material would be biased. (Poppel & Day 1996)

Moreover, as a sociologist, Durkheim was concerned about the modern urban life and how it, in his view, weakened familial bonds and caused alienation, and affected the human health, including the individual’s tendency to commit suicide. His concern made him emphasize the collective and the social and exclude many other significant factors. (Kushner & Sterk 2005)

At the other end of the continuum of social integration was, according to Durkheim, altruistic suicide, which could result from excessive social integration. It was characterized by diminished or under-developed sense of individuality, which enhanced the tendency to commit to larger goals and self-sacrifice for the interests of one’s own group. Durkheim included in the category of altruistic suicide e.g. the old and the ill whose obligation it was in some cultures to commit suicide, since otherwise they would lose the respect of others, or widows who killed themselves after the death of their spouse. (See Durkheim 1897, Book II, ch 4.) (However, it should be noted that Durkheim appears to be completely ignorant of the cultural and historical context of the phenomena he lists among the altruistic suicide, as many of them have been observed in non-western societies.)

Durkheim also counted military suicide in altruistic suicide, although his sources did not include information about military suicides that could be defined as self-sacrifice – sacrificing one’s life in battle was never reported as suicide in official records. Later it has been pointed out that the military suicide Durkheim was examining could, in fact, be termed, in Durkheim’s own terms, as fatalistic suicide, since the life of the nineteenth-century soldiers was likely to have been characterized with high moral regulation, very strong social integration and oppressive control. However, categorizing military suicide as fatalistic would have challenged Durkheim’s own view of modernity, i.e. that low social integration and urban life were among the most important factors that jeopardized the human health. (Kushner & Sterk 2005.)

However, Durkheim considered fatalistic suicide less relevant for his own research. According to him, the term had only historical significance in that fatalistic suicides would have been committed e.g. by slaves, that is by people under excessive physical and moral tyranny. Durkheim only mentions the term in a footnote, and defines it as the opposite of anomic suicide. (Durkheim 1897, Book II, p. 124, footnote 4.)

In Durkheim’s thought, anomic suicide was – as the opposite of fatalistic suicide – connected with low moral regulation as well as sudden and drastic social and economic changes and upheavals, which could lead to social and moral disorder. Durkheim distinguished between what he identified as economic anomy – such as economic crises and booms or unemployment – and domestic anomy, exemplified e.g. by widowhood and divorce. (Durkheim 1897, Book II, ch 5.)

In his theory of suicide, Durkheim was interested in collective social forces rather than in psychological factors. He considered suicide a social fact that could be explained by other social facts, not by individual stories. Social and economic factors as well as the degree of moral regulation and social integration in a particular society are an important part of the cultural and historical context. However, it is probable that people in the past were also occasionally interested in (what we call) psychological factors: what had motivated the suicide of a certain individual. In the followings posts, I will list and elaborate further some psychological theories of suicide as well.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Theories of suicide: Durkheim.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 12 July, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/  >

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Works cited

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. Available electronically at: http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Durkheim_emile/suicide/suicide.html

Kushner,  Howard I. & Claire E. Sterk. 2005. The Limits of Social Capital: Durkheim, Suicide, and Social CohesionAmerican Journal of Public Health 95 (2005) 7: 1139–1143. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.053314

Lim, Chaeyoon & Robert D. Putnam. 2010. Religion, Social Networks and Life Satisfaction. American Sociological Review 75 (2010) 6: 914–933.

Poppel, Frans van & Lincoln H. Day. 1996. A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide: Without Committing the “Ecological Fallacy”. American Sociological Review 61 (1996) 3: 500–507.

Torgler, Benno & Christoph Schaltegger. 2014. Suicide and Religion: New Evidence on the Differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53 (2014) 2: 316–340.

Research notes: suicidality of heroic females

The late thirteenth-century Völsunga saga, which has been categorized as one of the Legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur), tells of a Burgundian princess called Guðrún who attempts suicide, but in the end survives. The story of Guðrún’s miseries starts when her beloved husband Sigurðr is killed by her own brothers. Guðrún is then married against her will to another man called Atli, whom she despises and eventually kills, after Atli has persuaded her brothers to visit him, but arranges an ambush where all the brothers are killed. After these events Guðrún does not want to live anymore, but goes to the shore, takes stones with him and walks into the deep water, intending to take her own life. She does not succeed in her attempt, however, as the waves lift her up and carry her to the castle of king Jónakur, whom she then marries.

In fact, Guðrún’s attempt to take her own life is not the only suicidal episode in Völsunga saga. In addition, it appears to be women in particular who commit suicide in the saga or at least try to do so, as Guðrún does. Another character who dies voluntarily is Signý. She too marries her husband King Siggeir reluctantly, and the husband, who envies Signý’s father Völsungr and her brothers, invites them to his realm and kills them instead of offering them hospitality. Only one of the brothers, Sigmundr, survives. With him Signý is eventually able to avenge the death of his father and brothers. Sigmundr kills King Siggeir together with Sinfjötli, who is the son of the sister and brother, i.e. Signý and Sigmundr. After getting her revenge, Signý does not want to live anymore but says:

I have wrought at all times for the slaying of King Siggeir; and so mightily have I worked to bring about this revenge that on no terms will I live on hereafter; gladly shall I die now with King Siggeir, though against my will I married him.[1]

After her comment, Signý walks into the flames, which are already devouring the corpses of her husband and his men.

Another case in Völsunga saga is Brynhildr who is a (former) valkyrie. She and Sigurðr have been destined to each other, and they have made wows to marry each other and no one else. However, Sigurðr’s eyes are blinded by a magic potion given to him by Guðrún’s mother who wants him to be part of her own family and support her sons and defend their realm. Brynhildr on the other hand is married to Guðrún’s brother Gunnarr. As Brynhildr discovers the betrayal, she urges Gunnarr and his brothers to kill Sigurðr, and they end up doing so. Brynhildr’s sorrow over Sigurðr’s death is even greater than Guðrún’s, and she stabs herself to death to join Sigurðr in the Afterlife.

Similar to Völsunga saga, the heroic lays of Eddic poetry relate stories of the Völsungs and the Burgundians and refer to the suicidal tendencies of their female protagonists. Both the saga and the poetry are part of the so-called Völsung cycle (which also includes the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied). They were both written down in the end of the thirteenth century although the material on which they are based is apparently much older. At first glance, the female tendency to attempt or commit suicide expressed in this Old Norse-Icelandic material is astounding. The men in the stories do not appear to be that eager to end their lives, although surely they are not afraid of facing their destinies. The difference may imply a cultural or authorial attitude: that the women were thought to commit more suicides than the men, or even: that a woman was held as a kind of “prototype” of a self-killer in medieval Icelandic culture.

We should not take it for granted, however, that literature solely reflects the reality. In many cases it may indeed do so, and it is admitted that reality does influence the literature and how things are described in it.[2] But literature also influences the reality; it may affect the ideas, norms and attitudes held by people. Although women would not have been over-represented in the actual cases of suicide, people may have tended to think that young women who were newly wedded but lost their spouse, or who experienced heartache, were more likely to commit suicide than rest of the population. Perhaps their suicide would have been easier to explain as their motivation for the act perhaps appeared others as more explicit. At this point of my research it is still too early to draw conclusions, however, and the possibility of a “statistical error” when studying medieval literature needs to be paid attention to.

Medieval Icelandic material does not offer material for reliable statistics, however, so even in the end of the project it may turn out to be difficult to say which groups of people were more likely to commit suicide.  What is interesting from the general perspective of the theme is that, according to earlier research on gendered suicide in the modern west, for instance, men tend to engage more in fatal suicidal behavior than women, and men may actually commit suicide more often than women, although cultural differences may occur (see e.g. Canetto 1997; Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998; Hacking, 7–8; it should be noted that the articles referred to here are mostly based on studies in English speaking countries, however). Whether medieval Scandinavian culture share characteristics with the modern western culture or not remains still to be examined.

Accordingly, no hasty conclusions should be drawn based only on sources that are part of the Volsung tradition, which contains lots of heroic and even tragic elements. Additionally, it is interesting that the three women – Signý, Brynhildr and Guðrún –apparently have a lot of authority since they can all whet their male relatives to take up revenge: Signý motivates her brother and son to do the avenging, Brynhildr her husband and his brothers, and Guðrún her three sons with King Jónakur whom she urges to avenge their half-sister who has died in the hands of her husband king Jörmunrekr (not to mention that Guðrún boldly fights beside her brothers when they are attacked by the men of King Atli). Accordingly, by medieval Icelanders, they would have been considered hvatar, i.e. “powerful, vigorous and bold”, in a society where people were not categorized strictly by the binary opposition male-female, but between hvatr, which meant ‘powerful, vigorous and bold’ and blauðr, ‘soft, weak and powerless’. The category of blauðr thus included “most women, children, slaves, and old, disabled, or otherwise disenfranchised men”, who were thus considered soft, weak and powerless compared to men (especially aristocratic men and some exceptional women) who were regarded as hvatr. (On this one gender model, see Clover 1993, 380 and passim. See also Kanerva 2015, 67–68, 70)

The three women may have cried their eyes off as they heard of the death of their beloved man, father, brothers, or daughter, but they also take action. As I will bring forth in my forthcoming article, they do not only grieve; they are apparently also motivated by emotions different from grief or despair, which were among the common explanations of suicide in medieval Europe. Having said this, it becomes apparent – again – that the causes of suicide in medieval Iceland may well have differed from those that are commonly held as “usual” causes of suicide in our modern western world, an issue that will be discussed in greater depth in my forthcoming article.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: suicidality of heroic females.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, May 16, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/suicidality-of-heroic-females/  >

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Works cited

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

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

Clover, Carol J. 1993. Regardless of Sex. Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe. Speculum 68 (1993), 363–387.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1, 1–32.

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

The Saga of the Volsungs. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, together with the Lay of Kraka. Transl. Margaret Schlauch. Scandinavian Classics 35. New York & London: The American-Scandinavian Foundation; George Allen & Unwin.

Völsunga saga ok Ragnars saga Loðbrókar. Udgivet for Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur ved Magnus Olsen. S. L. Møllers Bogtrykkeri: København 1906–1908.

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[1] Hefi ek þar til unnit alla luti, at Siggeir konungr skylldi bana fá. Hefi ek ok sva mikit til unit, at fram kęmizt hefndinn, at mer er med aungum kosti lift. Skal ek nu deugia med Siggeiri konungi lostig, er ek atta hann naudig. Völsunga saga, 19. Trans. Margaret Schlauch, p. 66 .

[2] At this point I will not discuss further the case of different genres of literature, however, although their source value needs to be considered in greater depth.

Heroic death? The case of seppuku

In my previous post I discussed an issue I am dealing with in my study of the history of medieval Scandinavian suicide at the moment, namely the causes of suicide in different cultural and historical contexts, and how melancholy, depression and mental disorders are often seen as presumable causes of suicide. However, in the history of humankind suicides have been committed for various reasons. Lately I have been acquainting myself with earlier research on suicide that would not have been motivated by emotional disturbances and mental illness, to find comparative material that may offer some thoughts and inspiration concerning my analysis of the medieval Icelandic material.

One example that often comes to mind is the Japanese seppuku, also sometimes erroneously called hara-kiri in western contexts from the nineteenth century onwards (although the word merely vulgarly refers to the method, i.e. “belly-slitting”). In his discussion of seppuku, Toyomasa Fusé has criticized the western way of understanding and explaining suicide for its psycho-pathological perspective, which prefers to regard suicide as a kind of emotional disorder and mental illness although, as other earlier studies suggest, they are not the only reason for self-inflicted death (See e.g. Durkheim 1952 [1897]; Fusé 1980, 63; Hacking 2008, 3; and the sources mentioned in my previous post). Toyomasa Fusé shows that in the Japanese culture, seppuku has been a rational choice. It has been linked to one’s conceptions of honor and one’s role in hierarchical organizations such as the traditional military aristocracy in Japan, better known as the Samurai. Seppuku has been a “socially and culturally prescribed” form of role-behavior, a legitimate way to end one’s life in certain circumstances, such as out of loyalty towards one’s superior, for the benefit of one’s social group or further generations, as a protest towards superiors to rectify injustice, or to prove one’s innocence when being unjustly accused. It has been considered a virtuous and acceptable act, a socially admissible way to preserve and protect one’s honor, for instance, if one was faced with the possibility of being caught by enemies and being killed by them, which would have been considered a great shame. Seppuku could be committed either voluntarily or under forced conditions, in which case the seppuku was called tsumebara, ”forced seppuku”. In addition, for the Samurai, to commit seppuku was an honor and a sign of great courage (not surprisingly, since the method has apparently been painful), and the act has been admired. (For more information on the various forms of seppuku, see Fusé 1980, 57–61, 63)

According to the sources, the history of seppuku may reach as far back as the 8th-century feudal Japan. Seppuku has not remained immutable over time,  however. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868, also called the Edo period) it became an institutionalized, ritualized and standardized form of suicide. It also became a form of punishment: the Samurai were usually not punished by death, but they had the “privilege” of committing seppuku instead of being killed by someone else, a sentence referred to as a “conferred death”. (Fusé 1980, 58–59)

Fusé (1980, 61) has inspected seppuku in light of the Durkheimian theory of suicide and considered seppuku an altruistic suicide, or in his words, ”a supreme act of responsibility and of belonging”. The one who committed seppuku was devoted to his social role and sacrificed his own life for the sake of it. Carelessness or errors made could cause shame and affected both the role and status of the individual, thus creating a situation where the life of the Samurai was not worth living anymore. Toyomasa Fusé connects the ideology behind seppuku to Buddhism. The death was seen as the meaning of the Samurai’s life, and a deliberate seppuku was the consequence of a rational decision-making. Moreover, compared to the old and the infirm who we thought to be helpless and die a passive death, the one who committed seppuku was an active agent who by himself made a decision over his own life. (Fúsé 1980, 61–63)

The seppuku example appears to support an assumption brought forth elsewhere: that in some cultural and historical contexts, under some circumstances, suicide has been considered a noble and heroic manner of death. (See also Hacking 2008, 4, where he discusses David Hume’s essay “Of Suicide” and his view of the suicides of e.g. Cato the Younger and Brutus who, according to Hume, deserved to be praised for their deeds).

Toyomasa Fusé’s study contributes to the cross-cultural theories of suicide (Fusé 1980, 63). I will return to his thoughts and their influence on the western theories of suicide later on as I make progress in my own research and start to sketch a medieval Icelandic “theory of suicide”, that is views of why individuals became suicidal – as far as a coherent, unambiguous theory would have existed in the minds of medieval people, which is unlikely, since the period under scrutiny here, ca. 1100–1400, was characterized by various cultural, religious, legal and political changes, which also affected people’s norms concerning, attitudes towards and views of suicide.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Heroic death? The case of seppuku.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 27 April, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/heroic-death-the-case-of-seppuku/  >

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Works cited

Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Fusé, Toyomasa. 1980. Suicide and Culture in Japan: A Study of Seppuku as an Institutionalized Form of Suicide. Social Psychiatry 15 (1980), 57–63.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry. 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.

When suicide became insane

An interesting study of the nineteenth-century New York State Lunatic Asylum by Kathleen M. Brian (2016) discusses suicide and its link with insanity and mental disorder. Brian points out that suicide became linked with suicide more frequently as a result of its criminalization, which had taken place in many parts of the Europe in the Middle Ages. Confiscation of property was not part of the legal punishment of suicide everywhere in Europe, but for instance in England where the chattels of the suicide were forfeited the practice of confiscation appears to have caused verdicts non compos mentis, that is, it was indicated that the suicide had not been in sound mind, instead of felonia de se. Obtaining such a verdict could mean that the property of the suicide was not confiscated. (Brian 2016, 589)

It was well understood that confiscation of property did not really punish the suicide but his or her family, and in England the punishment appears to have become less “popular” in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, although suicide did remain a legal felony.[1] In the American colonies, then, the practice of confiscation that was part of the traditional law in England ended, e.g. in Massachusetts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although suicide still remained a secular and religious crime. Earlier research on the situation in early modern Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, the Carolinas, Georgia and New Hampshire also suggests that forfeiture may have been avoided or the property of the suicide could be undervalued, to avoid impoverishing the relatives of the suicide.(Brian 2016, 589–590; Snyder 2007,  663)

Insanity as the cause of suicide nevertheless suggested that the suicide had e.g. temporarily lacked reason and will and was therefore innocent. As a result, the family and the relatives of the suicide could not be reprehended for not having been able to prevent the act. The statistics of nineteenth-century medical professionals (including the staff working in the above mentioned asylum studied by Brian 2016), supported the popular view of suicide as an act linked to insanity – and emphasized the role of asylums in preventing suicides. All in all, the tendency to consider self-killers insane has been interpreted by historians as a sign of growing tolerance and compassion towards suicides in the early modern societies. (Brian 2016, 587–588, 589–596; Snyder 2007, 663, 667)

The empathy and tolerance towards self-killers and their families was also expressed in language. The coining of the term “suicide” in seventeenth-century England and its use, which increased gradually, as well the spreading of the term in Europe, which took place in the eighteenth century, have been seen as expressions of the growing sensibility and less derogatory attitude towards suicide. (Snyder 2007, 659, 667)

Kathleen M. Brian’s study concentrates on nineteenth-century North American context, but apparently reflects a cultural change that gradually took place in the western world in general. The popular press may have had an important role in this change. The press criticized the practice of what was considered the traditional law, which still found suicide a crime. They also criticized local cases – for instance, if a suicide had been refused a burial in the churchyard, or if s/he was buried in a manner that was considered pagan, e.g. in crossroads. The press would also report the causes of death, including causes of suicide. Ascribing suicide to insanity was apparently seen to protect the self-killers family. (Brian 2016, 589–591) Simultaneously the views of suicide and its cause presented in media also shaped the views of suicide held by people in general.

As the attitudes changed, suicide can be said to have became medicalized. What had previously been considered bad, deviant and demonic became a sickness or mental distress. Accordingly, suicide became an act that was associated with the depressed, the mad and the melancholic. (Snyder 2007, 659; on medicalization, see e.g. Conrad & Schneider 1992; on the origin of the tolerating attitudes, see e.g. MacDonald & Murphy; briefly also in Snyder 2007, 660)

However, the views of people, the punishments imposed in courts and actual burial practices were not consistent in England and its colonies, or in rest of the Europe, but could differ from place to place, as well as from social class to another. As Terri Snyder has pointed out in her study of the history of suicide in early modern west, wealthy and respected heads of the household or members of the aristocracy and clergy could go unpunished or given the verdict non compos mentis more often than people of the lower classes. In addition, such marginalized people as slaves, servants and criminals were more likely to be punished post-mortem than other people, e.g. by mutilation of the corpse or deviant burial, in case such punishments were still practiced. (Snyder 2007, 662–665)

Although the medicalization of suicide has also been criticized since the 1970s (e.g. Zola 1972) and continues to be criticized, it has been suggested that even today, both laymen and professionals often consider depression as the most likely reason for suicide (Kral 1994).  None of the professionals would presumably think that depression were the only cause of suicide, but the argument deserves some further consideration. Although the study made by Emile Durkheim in the 19th century (which is a classic) has been widely criticized since he relied on official statistics and did not consider the possibility that people who were responsible for those statistics may have defined “suicide” differently (on the criticism, see e.g. Douglas 1967; Van Poppel & Day 1996; Varty 2000), the results of his study merit some attention here and serve as an eye-opener.

Based on his sources, Durkheim argued that mental illnesses (as they were defined in Durkheim’s time) and suicides were not unequivocally linked. Mental illness could result in suicide, but also people defined as sane committed suicide – a notion that could already be read between the lines of the studies of Brian (2016) and Snyder (2007) discussed above. In addition, Durkheim was apparently critical towards the urbanization of his own time, and he also brought forth that suicide was more widespread in towns and cities than in the countryside. He also concluded that suicide was more common among the wealthy and the educated than among the poor, and among the military people than among the civilians. (Durkheim 1952 [1897].)

Durkheim’s research needs to be handled with criticism, but his observations are interesting since they emphasize the multiplicity of the causes. (Although the observations can also be regarded as a critical attitude as far as the medicalization of suicide is concerned, I will not discuss here in greater depth Durkheim’s role in the criticism in question.) Following from Durkheim’s observations, I have grown more aware of the bias that may lurk behind the sources as well as earlier research. For instance: that people’s views of suicide and their causes may not always tell of actual causes but of “imagined causes” in that people may interpret the act in light of the knowledge and understanding they have concerning the causes of suicide considered common in the culture they inhabit. Or, that the mental aspects of suicide may be emphasized and more vigorously looked for in research if there is a tendency in the researcher’s own culture to see suicide as the result of depression and melancholy. When studying the history of suicide we have to keep our eyes open to see even those causes of suicide that are not considered likely or obvious in our own culture, but which contemporary people may have held as common causes of suicide.

Accordingly, questions that rise when studying suicide in medieval Scandinavia include whether suicides could be committed for reasons that differed from the ones usually listed among the common causes of suicide e.g. in medieval and early modern European context, such as  depression, despair, melancholy, mental disorder, crises of faith, economic collapse, extreme physical pain, and so on? Could suicides be committed, for instance, as a consequence of anger or fury, or spite and scorn, out of disrespect towards others or to harm them, to exercise power and authority over others, or to benefit other members of the  society? Or, for other reasons, which have not yet been discovered?

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “When suicide became insane.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 4 April, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/when-suicide-became-insane/  >

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Works cited

Brian, Kathleen M. 2016. “The Weight of Perhaps Ten or a Dozen Human Lives”: Suicide, Accountability, and the Life-Saving Technologies of the Asylum. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 90 (2016) 4, 583–610.

Conrad, Peter & Schneider, Joseph. 1992 [1980]. Deviance and Medicalization. From Badness to Sickness. (With a new afterword by the authors). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Douglas, Jack D. 2015 [1967]. The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UniversityPress.

Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Kral, Michael J. 1994. Suicide as Social Logic. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior 24 (1994) 3, 245–255.

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

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.

Snyder, Terri L. 2007. What Historians Talk About When They Talk About Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America. History Compass 5/2 (2007): 658–674.

van Poppel, Frans & Lincoln H. Day. 1996. A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide: Without Committing the ‘Ecological Fallacy.’ American Sociological Review 61 (1996) 3, 500–507.

Varty, John. 2000. Suicide, Statistics and Sociology. Assessing Douglas’ Critique of Durkheim. In Durkheim’s Suicide: A Century of Research and Debate, ed. W.S.F. Pickering & Geoffrey Walford. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought 28. London, New York: Routledge, 53–65.

Zola, Irving. 1972. Medicine as an Institution of Social Control. The Sociological Review 20 (1972) 4, 487–504.

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[1] As has been shown in earlier research, in medieval and early modern Sweden, for instance, the property of the suicide was not confiscated, although suicide was considered a felony and burial (outside the churchyard or in the woods) was part of the posthumous punishment of the suicide. Miettinen 2015.

Medieval causes of suicide

One of the questions I will be dealing with in my project is the ways in which suicide has been explained in medieval Scandinavia, in other words, what were regarded as plausible causes of suicide.

Causes of suicide have been explained in various ways in different cultural and historical contexts. It has been pointed out that, compared to premodern eras, in our modern world the assumed causes of suicide have become medicalized, pathologized and secularized as a consequence of social, cultural and scientific change. Suicide has been tied e.g. to anger and depression, and recent studies have also pointed out the use of suicide as a ’weapon’ or instrument of revenge among subjugated peoples (Rosenberger 2003; Hacking 2008, 2–3; Snyder 2007; Dahlgren 2014; Myllykangas 2014; see also e.g. NHS choices; suicide.org).

In the medieval context, causes of suicide were often interpreted from religious perspective, but in many cases social, psychological and health-related aspects were recognized to have played an important part in the motivation of the suicide as well. Based on studies of English and continental sources, for instance, despair, hopelessness, misfortune and various kinds of misery, godlessness and sinful life, old age and infirmity have all been considered causes of suicide. In medieval court records (e.g. in England and Florence), many of the recorded suicides were, e.g. criminals who could suffer from guilt or be afraid of their imminent verdict and punishment, debtors in shame, sick who felt discomfort and impatience because of their illness and suffered from fever, excessive and constant pain, or other extreme mental and bodily symptoms, or the insane (naturally, what was considered ‘insane’ in the medieval context is another issue). Motives for suicide could also include economic collapse (the cause has been attested both among the rich and the poorer), feelings of insecurity and inability to care for one’s family, damage done on the person’s social status and poverty and destitution, including depredations of war as a consequence of pillaging. (Murray 1998, 32–38, 89, 155–164; Pfau 2008, 188–190, 195–199, 212; McNamara 2014) In medieval fourteenth-century Florence, also “raging madness” and fury, even “boredom with life” appear to have been included among the plausible causes of suicide. (Murray 1998, 89)

The role of diabolic influence in suicide was also acknowledged in the Middle Ages (e.g. Schmitt 1976, 4–5; Pfau 2008, 233), although e.g. Rebecca McNamara (2014, 11) has pointed out that, with reference to English sources at least, the devil (or sin) as the cause of suicide is rarely mentioned in secular contexts such as legal records prior to late fourteenth century. (McNamara 2014) In addition, Murray (1998, 115–119) has noted based on his study of medieval chronicles of religious orders that suicide was also considered a divine punishment, a “fate reserved for ‘bad’ people”.

In addition to the causes listed above, Rebecca McNamara has pointed out that in medieval England emotions as well were considered common causes of suicide. In a study of medieval 13th and 14th-century English bureaucratic records and life narratives written in first person it is suggested that such suicide-prompting emotions could include sentiments “associated with crises of faith, physical illness or pain, and social shame”. Although emotions were not explicitly named emotional motivation could still be indicated, e.g. by referring to infirmity. (McNamara 2014, 11–12; McNamara & Ruys 2014, 66–74, 59–66). In her study of medieval French remission letters, Aleksandra Pfau has found that also jealousy was considered to be among the causes of suicide. (Pfau 2008, 203–205; Pfau 2010, 113–115)

The sources that I’m using in my study of suicide in medieval Scandinavia differ from the sources used in the studies referred to above in that the majority of the sources consists of vernacular literature. Therefore, what I will be studying is not actual suicides or suicide verdicts, but suicides described in literature. Consequently, I will not be able to trace ‘actual’ causes of suicide as they would have been categorized and recorded in official documents (or comprehended by surviving relatives and the society as the causes of the suicide) – bearing in mind that some suicides could escape such records or where exempted from suspicions of suicide in the first place for various reasons (see. e.g. Murray 1998, 61-69, 102–103; Butler 2006, 263-264) – but causes of suicide considered likely by the medieval writers of the sagas. I depart from the notion that literature may reflect the reality of the society where it was produced, and simultaneously the literature influenced this reality and was influenced by it, and affected the suicide discourses available for medieval Scandinavian people.

At the moment I’m conducting a case study of a young woman called Hrefna in a thirteenth-century Family saga, Laxdæla saga. Hrefna is married to a man called Kjartan, but before his marriage Kjartan has been loved by a certain Guðrún who does not seem to approve of their marriage. Later Kjartan is killed by Guðrún’s instigation, and Hrefna suffers from great sorrow as a consequence of her loss. The saga tells that after the incident, she was “very swollen with grief, but still she behaved in a courteous manner (var mjök harmþrungin; en þó bar hon sik kurteisliga. Laxdæla saga,158). She lives only a while after returning back to her parents, and the saga states that “people say that she had died of grief” (er þat sǫgn manna, at hon hafi sprungit af stríði. Laxdæla saga, 158).

According to earlier research, there is evidence in saga literature of a vernacular belief in the power of emotions to cause death that would have been held in medieval Scandinavia. According to this belief, people could indeed die of grief. (Thomas 2013; Larrington 2015, 78) This understanding of the possible causes of death suggests a vernacular theory of emotions different from our own (Kanerva 2015), but the notion is also interesting since it raises some intriguing questions concerning the degree of passivity or activity in the process of dying: whether dying of grief was considered a deliberate death or a process that the dying person could not have any influence upon, and/or whether the expression “die of grief” is to be read literally or whether it was actually a euphemism that was used to refer to suicide, to enhance the “politeness” of the text or speak of a taboo (on euphemisms, see e.g. Crespo Fernández 2005). I will be dealing with this subject in the following months and will tell you more about the results in my posts later on.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Medieval causes of suicide.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 March, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/medieval-causes-of-suicide/  >

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Works cited

Butler, Sara M. 2006. Degrees of Culpability: Suicide Verdicts, Mercy, and the Jury in Medieval England. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36 (2006) 2, 261–288.

Crespo Fernández, Eliecer. 2005. Euphemistic Strategies in Politeneness and Face Concerns. Pragmalingüística 13 (2005), 77–86.

Dahlgren, Susanna. 2014. ’She Kissed Death with a Smile’: The Politics and Moralities of the Female Suicide Bomber. In Culture, Suicide and the Human Condition, ed. Marja-Liisa Honkasalo & Miira Tuominen. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 149–170.

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, 1:1–32.

Hill, Thomas D. 2013. Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta: Guðrún’s Healing Tears. In Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend, ed. Paul Acker & Carolyne Larrington. New York: Routledge, 107–116.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400), School of History, culture and Arts studies, University of Turku. https://oa.doria.fi/handle/10024/103361

Larrington, Carolyne. 2015. Learning to Feel in the Old Norse Camelot? Scandinavian Studies 87 (2015) 1: 74–94.

Laxdæla saga = Einar Ól. Sveinsson (ed.). 1934. Laxdœla saga […]. Íslenzk Fornrit 5. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag.

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

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

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

Myllykangas, Mikko. 2014. Rappeutuminen, tiedostamaton vai yhteiskunta? Lääketieteellinen itsemurhatutkimus Suomessa vuoteen 1985. Doctoral thesis. University of Oulu Graduate School; University of Oulu, Faculty of Humanities; History. http://jultika.oulu.fi/files/isbn9789526204468.pdf

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2008. Madness in the Realm: Narratives of Mental Illness in Late Medieval France. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Michigan. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/61631

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2010. Crimes of Passion: Emotion and Madness in French Remission Letters. In Madness in Medieval Law and Custom, ed. Wendy J. Turner. Leiden: Brill, 97–122.

Rosenberger, John. 2003. Discerning the Behavior of the Suicide Bomber: The Role of Vengeance. Journal of Religion and Health 42 (2003) 1: 13-20.

Schmitt Jean-Claude. 1976. Le suicide au Moyen Âge. In Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 31 (1976) 1: 3–28.

Snyder, Terri L. 2007. What Historians Talk About When They Talk About Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America. History Compass 5/2 (2007): 658–674.