About ‘death drive’ in Njáls saga

The medieval Icelandic Brennu-Njáls saga was written sometime around 1275–1290 by an anonymous author who was well versed in both oral tradition and  Latin literature. He was interested in moral and legal issues, and it is possible that he was a clerk. (Einar Ól. Sveinsson 1954; Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 280–282; Vésteinn Ólason 1993, 432–434.) Torfi H. Tulinius has examined the case of Flosi, a man who participates in one of the blood feuds in the saga, in his article “Seeking Death in Njál’s saga” (2015).  In the last chapter of the saga, Flosi’s impending death is implied:

People say that the end of Flosi’s life came when he had grown old and went abroad to find wood for building a house and spent the winter in Norway. The next summer he was late in getting ready to sail. Men talked about the bad condition of the ship, but Flosi said that it was good enough for an old man doomed to die. He boarded the ship and put out to sea, and nothing was ever heard of the ship again.[1] (Njal’s saga, 219. Trans. Robert Cook.)

The saga implies that Flosi sees himself as an old man who is feigr that is “doomed to die”. Flosi’s words suggest that he knows that he will die, but the saga is not quite clear about the cause of his death: that is, whether he expects to die because he is already old and infirm, or because he intends to bring about his own death, deliberately, by putting out to sea too late in the autumn, in a ship that is in bad repair.  As Torfi H. Tulinius has brought forth:

It is therefore noteworthy that the saga emphasizes that he pays no heed to warnings against putting out to sea on a damaged ship to go to Iceland. The ship disappears somewhere between Norway and Iceland and we must assume death by drowning. There is a strange peacefulness to Flosi’s attitude, even though it might be qualified as reckless. Indeed, his decision not only puts his own life in danger, but also imperils that of his shipmates. However, the author takes care not to introduce his audience to these characters and therefore neutralizes any potential concern for them. Instead, Flosi’s behavior can be seen as noble and detached. From a literary point of view, it is a fitting end for this tragic saga. (Tulinius 2015, 100.)

As Tulinius has noted, many of the characters in Brennu-Njáls saga appear to be seeking death and are willing to die or accept their impending demise. It is not only Flosi who puts out to sea although he can be certain that he will never arrive in Iceland that acts self-destructively. Gunnarr, a participant in a long and hard blood feud refuses to leave his home although he will be outlawed. As a consequence, he is then overwhelmed and killed by his enemies. Njáll and his wife Bergþóra, then, appear as willing to die when Flosi and his men intend to burn in his their sons: Njáll and Bergþóra refuse to leave the house although they would be allowed to go in peace. Instead they wish to be burned in together with their sons to escape the obligation of revenge. (Tulinius 2015, 100, 106–107.)

Tulinius has analyzed the saga from a Freudian perspective, and pays attention to Freud’s idea of “[t]he desire of all living beings to ‘return to the quiescence of the inorganic world’”, and his concept “death wish”. (Tulinius 2015, 100.) The theory of death drive was originally proposed by the Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein in her article “Die Destruction als Ursache des Werdens”  in 1912 (published in English in 1994 as “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being”). Freud was influenced by her ideas as he wrote his essay Jenseits des Lustprinzips in 1921 (English translation Beyond the Pleasure Principle ), where he wrote about “death drives” (Todestriebe). To summarize in brief, in psychoanalytical theory death drive (later also implied as Thanatos ) has been seen as the opposition of Eros, which is construed as a kind of life force. Death drive is seen as an unconscious drive that aims for death and yearns for nonexistence. Theoretically, it has been linked to aggression. (See also Lowenthal 1996.)

Freud’s theory is not widely accepted (see e.g. Lowenthal 1996), and, as a historian, I have not been so keen to include psychoanalytical theories in my methodological toolbox. However, the Torfi H. Tulinius’s discussion on death drive in sagas is thought-provoking since by using the concept he highlights the self-destructive nature of the characters in Brennu-Njáls saga – in other words, their suicidality. Rather that getting psychoanalytical, however, I will consider here what the characters that appear to be driven by a death instinct have in common.

Skarpheðinn, for instance, is an uncanny figure, who appears to provoke unrest, although he respects his father Njáll who always aims at reconciliation. He participates in the saga’s long-lasting blood feud in spite of the consequences.  He also kills a young man called Höskuldr who has been the dearest to his father Njáll; Njáll, an old man by then, is devastated by the loss. As the attempt to reconcile a law case between the sons of Njáll and Flosi fails, a man called Síðu-Hallr regards both Skarpheðinn and Flosi as “men of misfortune”, ogæfumenn (See also Torfi H. Tulinius 2015, 111–113; Brennu-Njáls saga, 314.) As I have suggested elsewhere, ógæfa-misfortune was sometimes used in sagas to represent the inner struggles and feelings of guilt. In medieval Iceland, there was not yet any word for such an affective state that we define as guilt – sekr, “guilty”, referred to a state of affairs: that somebody had been found guilty and convicted. Ógæfa was not synonymous to guilt, however, but involved also feelings of distress and hopelessness and signified absence of approval and forgiveness or the lack of the blessing of one’s kin. (Kanerva 2012; Kanerva 2015, 84–86.) Although Skarpheðinn’s tendency to participate in blood feud and mock and insult people who could be of help to him, and his death in the fire caused by Flosi and his men can be seen as part of his fate, it is intriguing, that the self-destructive element, the death drive, is associated with an ógæfumaðr, a man of misfortune.

As far as Flosi is concerned, however, we may question whether he remained an ógæfumaðr up until the end;  Flosi had performed a pilgrimage to Rome where he had received absolution for his sins from the pope himself – i.e. he had settled the matters with God. He could then have been considered a gæfumaðr, ‘lucky man’, the opposite of ógæfumaðr, which appears to have indicated a person who had made a pilgrimage (usually to Rome). (Kanerva 2012; Kanerva 2015, 84–86. See also Torfi H. Tulinius 2015, 99–100.) In addition to all that, he had also paid compensation for the killings he had performed and therefore, he had settled things with the society as well.

Is Flosi then perhaps just so old and infirm that his deliberate death was to be expected? In her study of medieval English legal records (ca. 1200–1435) Rebecca McNamara has suggested that mental and physical infirmity were seen as probable explanation when the cause of suicide – i.e. violence and crime against the self – was inspected in medieval England. The motive did not necessarily make the act excusable, but it made it more comprehensible and could sometimes be considered a mitigating factor that induced sympathy. (McNamara 2014.)

The death of Njáll and his wife Bergþóra in Brennu-Njáls saga suggests that infirmity was a factor that made people incapable of carrying out their aims and fulfilling the expectations of the society, and that this incapability could be the reason for one’s willingness to die. As mentioned above, when Flosi and his men are about to burn in the sons of Njáll, both Njáll and Bergþóra would be allowed to leave the house. Both insist in remaining inside the building and therefore, both are burnt in together with their sons. Njáll explains his decision: he finds himself too old to avenge the death of his sons. Because of his inability to take revenge, he rather chooses to die together with his sons whom he would otherwise be obligated to avenge, to avoid shame. (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 129.) By dying willingly, Njáll escapes all possible accusations of unmanliness and disgrace. Njáll’s death is represented in the saga in a somewhat positive light in that the posthumous appearance of his corpse suggests there is something saintly in him: when people go to search for his body in the burned house they find out that his corpseis both unburned and bright (bjartr). (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 132.)

Flosi is perhaps old and infirm, but unlike Njáll he should not have any avenging to do anymore. However, both Flosi and Njáll bring about their own death in a somewhat passive manner. Flosi knows he is doomed to die, but does not use any violence against himself per se; he lets the waves drown him. Njáll then, lets the smoke suffocate him. Gunnarr af Hlíðarendi, the outstanding hero of the saga who says killing troubles him more than it troubles the other men, refuses to leave his home, although he can then be certain that his enemies will find him and eventually kill him. Like Flosi and Njáll, he does not use violence against himself, but his enemies are many and in the end they overpower him, even though he manages to kill several men before that. (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 77; See also Tulinius 2015, 106–110 on his analysis of the interplay of Thanatos and Eros in Gunnarr’s case).

The passivity implied in the death cases discussed above bear resemblance to the choice of the kings and warriors in fornaldarsögur who choose to fight against the overwhelming armies of their enemies, even if they can be certain that in the end they will be defeated and their demise is certain. The death cases in Brennu-Njáls saga are linked to the same heroic ideal that is expressed in the fornaldarsögur, which were situated in the mytho-heroic past, prior to the settlement of Iceland. But, the men discussed here all behave auto-destructively: their deaths could be, in some sense, avoided. But are their deaths socially accepted suicides? It is noteworthy, that none of the deliberate deaths are represented in a negative light (e.g. Gunnarr is clearly a hero), and the saga implies that the posthumous condition of Njáll’s and Skarpheðinn’s corpse is somewhat miraculous, in a positive sense. For instance, Skarpheðinn the Troublemaker’s  corpse does not cause any fear in the living, who apparently had expected that Skarpheðinn would return as a restless dead. (On Skarpheðinn’s case, see Tulinius 2015, 113, who suggests  that it is the cross he had burned across his chest and his acceptance of death that eventually prevented Skarpheðinn from returning posthumously as a malevolent ghost.) (Again, someone may insist that the deaths discussed here are not suicides because there is no sense of shame or dishonor in the decisions of the men who die willingly – such a view would be normative and ethnocentric, however.)

Brennu-Njáls saga is a story of feud, reconciliation and atonement, and the text betrays traces of Christian ideology. The saga was presumably written shortly before or after 1281, the year when suicide became criminalized in Iceland. The question still remains, then, why does Brennu-Njáls saga tell of so many men who faced their deaths willingly, but also somewhat passively.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “About ‘death drive’ in Njáls saga.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2018. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/05/31/about-death-drive-in-njals-saga/  >


Works cited

Brennu-Njáls saga, ed. Einar Ólafur Sveinsson, Íslenzk fornrit 12. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1954.

Einar Ól. Sveinsson (1954). “Formáli.” In Einar Ól. Sveinsson (ed.), Brennu-Njáls saga. Íslenzk Fornrit 12. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, v–clxiii.

Freud, Sigmund. 1921. Jenseits des Lustprinzips. Leipzig, Wien & Zürich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, G. M. B. H.

Freud, Sigmund. 2010 [1922]. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. C. J. M. Hubback. London & Vienna: Intl. Psycho-analytical; New York: Bartleby.com.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2012. “Ógæfa (misfortune) as an Emotion in Thirteenth Century Iceland,” Scandinavian Studies 84 (2012) 1: 1–26.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200-1400). Turku: University of Turku.

Lowenthal, U. 1986. Autodestruction and Nonexistence: Two Distinct Aspects of the Death Drive. Psychoanalytic Review 73 (1986) 3: 349–360.

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

Njal’s saga. Trans. Robert Cook. In The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al. Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997.

Simek, Rudolf & Hermann Pálsson. 2007. Lexikon der altnordischen Literatur. Kröners Taschenausgabe 490. Stuttgart: Kröner.

Spielrein, Sabina. 1912. “Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens.“ Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen 4 (1912), 464–503.

Spielrein, Sabina. 1994. “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 39 (1994) 2: 155–186.

Torfi H. Tulinius. 2015. “Seeking Death in Njáls saga.” In New Norse Studies: Essays on the Literature and Culture of Medieval Scandinavia, edited by Jeffrey Turco, 99–115.  Islandica 58. Ithaca: Cornell University Library, 99–115.

Vésteinn Ólason. 1993. “Njáls saga.” In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.): Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 432–434.


[1] Þat segja menn, at þau yrði ævilok Flosa, at hann foeri utan, þá er hann var orðinn gamall, at soekja sér húsavið, ok var hann í Nóregi þann vetr. En um sumarit varð hann síðbúinn. Roeddu menn um, at vánt væri skipit. Flosi sagði, at væri oerit gott gomlum ok feigum, ok sté á skip ok lét í haf, ok hefir til þess skips aldri spurzk síðan. (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch 159 ; Brennu-Njáls saga, 463.)



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.


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/   >


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.


[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.

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.


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/  >


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.


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/  >


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.


[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.


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/  >


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?


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/  >


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.


[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.


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/  >


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.