Martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia

Lately I have been thinking about the possible connection between martyrdom and suicide. Since martyrs are “bearing witness”, as the original meaning of the Greek word μάρτυς implies, we may question whether there is any link between the two phenomena, martyrdom and suicide. However, to the question whether the manner of death may – in some contexts at least – be voluntary, both martyrdom and suicide could answer: ‘yes’.

In early Christianity, martyrdom was often characterized with some passivity: ascetic martyrs died of self-starvation, and those who refused to renounce their religion in the early days of Christianity could suffer a horrible punishment, damnatio ad bestias, as they were killed by wild animals. Many of these martyrs became saints, and the tradition of martyrdom and holy people spread along with the Christian religion. (On saints and sainthood in medieval Europe and Scandinavia, see DuBois 2008.)

In Scandinavia, native martyrs who became saints were “born” after Conversion as well. However, these martyred saints were not persecuted because of their religion and thrown to wild beasts, and did not lose their lives because of self-starvation.

Haki Antonsson, who in his study has defined martyrdom “as the perceived attainment of sanctity through the suffering of violent death” (2004, 71), has pointed out that in medieval Scandinavia, martyrs who were of royal origin were born in a fairly prompt manner soon after the Conversion. In Western Scandinavia, the official Conversion took place around year 1000, although the process of Christianization has been estimated to have taken place between the eighth and twelfth centuries, as a consequence of various missionary enterprises. In practice, the new faith usually spread from secular rulers and the members of the elite to the lower classes of the society. (On Christianization of Scandinavia, see e.g. Sanmark 2004).

According to Haki Antonsson, royal saints and princely martyrs were very common in medieval Scandinavia; in fact, martyrdom – as defined by Haki Antonsson, i.e. as a violent death – appears to have been the only way of becoming a saint until the end of the twelfth century.[1] (Haki Antonsson 2004, 71–75; for a list of saints of Scandinavian origin, see also DuBois 2008, 15–19.) Violent death in troops that carried the Cross and fought infidels or preached the new faith appears to have been central to sainthood in Christianity in general at this phase (see also below). Many of the men of the Church who became saints had died while on a missionary expedition. Such a violent death was for many something to go for, a fulfillment of missionary’s wishes. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 75–76, 78.)

Scandinavian kings and princes were secular figures, and the consequences of their martyrdom were not merely divine. For secular rulers and their families martyrdom and sainthood were an important opportunity to stabilize their power and to show that their power originated from God. From the perspective of the Church, this practice was acceptable and approved since the secular rulers eventually assisted the Church in the strengthening of its position and authority. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 74–75, 77)

According Haki Antonsson, the popularity of the princely martyrs in Scandinavia may be linked to Anglo-Saxon influence, but as far as the medieval Scandinavian thoughts of martyrdom are concerned, the role of European chivalric ideas should not be underestimated either. In Europe, knights became the warriors of Christ. In addition, the Church encouraged the Scandinavian rulers to defend the Church and fight its enemies – be it against the infidels, the excommunicated, or peace-breakers, for instance. They promised that the victims of this war that was considered justified could expect to receive a heavenly reward. In 853 Leo IV (790–855) had clearly associated death in battle against the infidels with heavenly reward, which in practice started to indicate afterlife in paradise – although the papal authorities – Leo IX (pope 1048–1054), Gregory VII (1073–1085) and Urban II (1088–1099) rather spoke of spiritual benefits, such as the absolution of sins (which was linked to the developing system of indulgence), and saw participation in the crusades as an act of penance. Those who died would be offered a martyr status. After the First Crusade (1096–1099) called by Pope Urban II, the distinction between warriors who fought the pagans and fell and martyred saints became more blurred and remained so throughout the Middle Ages. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 79–82, 85; Middleton 2014, 120)

Similar ideas were enhanced also by Scandinavian clerics. As the power of the monarchs in Europe increased from the thirteenth century onwards, also those who fought for secular rulers could become martyrs. In Norway, the archbishop of Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson (d. 1188), enhanced the view that dying for the king also merited a heavenly reward and that all the sins of all those who fell in battle were washed away sooner than their blood on the ground would turn cold, and accordingly, no sins needed to be confessed. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 83 – 84; according to Haki Antonsson 2004, 87, Norway was presumably the first realm where an ecclesiastical authority gave such a promise.)

We have no reason to believe that Icelanders would not have been familiar with the Christian ideas of martyrdom, or with Eysteinn Erlendsson’s application of them as the Icelandic bishops of Hólar and Skálholt were suffragans of the archdiocese of Nidaros. The idea that those who ”took up the cross” and fell would immediately enter Heaven is also clearly expressed, for instance, in the thirteenth-century Knýtlinga saga, which recites the history of the Danish kings from Canute the Saint (1042–1086, was killed by rebels) to Knut Valdimarson who reigned 1182–1202, and was presumably written by an Icelander, Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson (ca. 1210–1259), the brother of another famous thirteenth-century saga writer Sturla Þórðarson (1214–1284) and the nephew of Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), a famous Icelandic politician, poet and historian. The saga refers to the speech of Pope Eugene III, the proclaimer of the Second Crusade (1147–1149), and links it to the fall of Jerusalem. The papal bull in question, Quantum praedecessores, was issued in 1145 and 1146, but did not actually concern Jerusalem but Edessa. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 87–88; on Knýtlinga saga and Óláfr Þórðarson, see Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 229–230, 289.) Despite the misunderstanding, the reference to crusades and heavenly reward in the saga does imply that the medieval crusade mentality, ideas of Christian martyrdom and salvation through death in battles against the heathen had been, as Haki Antonsson’s study also shows, well adopted in thirteenth-century Scandinavia.


Regarding my study of the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia, among the most interesting points in medieval Scandinavian (Christian) martyrdom at this point is that a highly respected posthumous status, perhaps even sainthood, and long-lasting fame was achieved by death in battles where the Christian faith, and later also Christian kings, were defended. Violent death as well made many men a martyr (although it is good to remember that the system was not that democratic: you had to be a man of high rank, servants and poor people were less likely to achieve a venerated posthumous status). Sacrificing oneself for the Cross was a means to gain an everlasting fame.

Secondly, the points made above raise new questions. If the violent death of a martyr did offer a chance to enhance one’s own reputation and prominence – to show others what one was made of – and increased the power of the family, would the ideas of martyrdom and their internalization have increased the occurrences of voluntary death? From psychoanalytically oriented perspective, the connection between the mentality associated with martyrdom and destructive death drive, or the desire for nonexistence (on the concepts, see Lowental 1986) raises some questions as well.  The classic in the field of suicidology, Émile Durkheim’s Le Suicide (published originally 1897), has suggested that deliberateness and intentionality are not prerequisites of suicide. Following Durkheim’s definition of suicide, it is not required that a person  (consciously) wants to die.

So, was the kind of military martyrdom described above a type of medieval autodestruction: a death that would be avoidable, such as dying in a car crash because of speeding, but considered in the medieval Scandinavian context a socially acceptable way of causing one’s own death, even if suicide as such was regarded as an unapprovable act? In other words, was it a socially acceptable suicide[2], which gained renown from the Church (and presumably also the Crown) and helped to escape the possible posthumous punishments that could be applied to suicides (e.g. burial outside the churchyard)? (On autodestruction, see Encyclopédie sur la mort; on thoughts of autodestruction by Emmanuel Todd, see also Hacking 2008.) These are some of the question I am working with at the moment.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 15 June, 2017. <   >


Works cited

DuBois, Thomas A. 2008. Introduction. Sanctity in the North. Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia, ed. Thomas A. DuBois. Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Series 3. Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press, 3–28.

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

Encyclopédie sur la mort. [Suicide: Définitions et typologies :] “Autodestruction.” Electronic document, available at (last accessed June 15, 2017)

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

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

Knýtlinga saga = C. af Petersen & E. Olsen. 1919–1925. Sögur Danakonunga. Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk Litteratur 46. Køpenhavn: Háskóli Íslands. Available at

Lowental, U. 1986. Autodestruction and nonexistence: two distinct aspects of the death drive. Psychoanalytic Review 73 (1986)3: 349–360.

Middleton, Paul. 2014. What is martyrdom? Mortality 19 (2014) 2: 117–133.

Sanmark, Alexandra 2004. Power and Conversion. A Comparative Study of Christianization in Scandinavia. Occasional Papers in Archaeology  34. Uppsala.


[1] However, Haki Antonsson has also brought forth that in the earliest sources of the cult of St Óláfr (995–1030), his martyrdom is not emphasized. One of the earliest descriptions of his martyrdom can be found in the writings of Adam of Bremen (11th-cent.), from ca. 1080. His thoughts had likely been inspired by Christian ideas of martyrdom. Haki Antonsson 2004, 72–73.

[2] I will speak more about the autodestruction issue and present some case studies of the subject in my forthcoming book on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.


What is martyrdom? (Part 1)

What is martyrdom, and is the concept relevant concerning the subject of my study, suicide in medieval Scandinavia? The question may not sound meaningful at first, but when trying to define each of the concepts, martyrdom and suicide, it becomes clear that the two concepts sometimes coincide. In both cases, an individual may actively – or passively, to follow Émile Durkheim‘s (1858–1917) admittedly sometimes contested theory of suicide – do something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death, and simultaneously, s/he may be aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die. In Durkheim’s theory, for instance, the aspects mentioned above are essential elements in his definition of suicide. Although we would not agree with Durkheim’s theory, we cannot dismiss the similarity between martyrdom and suicide suggested by the definition.

At this point, I will not try to produce an all-encompassing definition of martyrdom, but will consider what the phenomenon is all about and whether the concept has any relevance concerning the study of suicide in general and of the history of medieval suicide in particular. In this post, I will present some preliminary thoughts about martyrdom, bearing in mind that in the future I also need to examine how medieval Scandinavians defined “martyr” and “martyrdom” and whether their definitions followed the ideas known in Christianity (which were not always consistent and dis change over time, see e.g. Middleton 2014 on this), or whether they also show traces of native elements, typical for northern cultures and/or peripheral cultures where the Christian religion was adopted fairly late. And, what is my major concern in this project, is the question of martyrdom and voluntary death – sometimes termed as suicide – and whether medieval Scandinavians would have seen similarities between the two phenomena (and eventually: based on this knowledge, what can we say about medieval Scandinavian attitudes towards suicide).

To begin with, Ian Hacking (2008, 23–24) has emphasized the religious connotations of the word ‘martyr’ and how the martyrs are often (also ritually) commemorated and admired. The actual meaning of the word is “to bear witness”. The idea of witnessing is also expressed in the Old Icelandic word for a ‘martyr’, píningarváttr, which literally meant “witness of torture” (in some texts, also the term Guðsváttr, “God’s witness”, is used. See the words e.g. in The Icelandic-English DictionaryOrdbog over det norrøne prosasprog).

In his study of the concept of martyrdom, Paul Middleton (2014) has emphasized the connection of martyrdom to questions of identity and worldview, be it religious, theological, political, national, for instance. Martyrdom can strengthen both the identity and the worldview of a certain group, and it facilitates making distinction and creating boundaries between different groups. Accordingly, martyrdom is not an objective or neutral concept. (Middleton 2014, 118–119)

Concerning this project, especially the medieval Christian ideas of martyrdom may turn out to be helpful, since influences on the medieval Scandinavian views of Christian martyrdom would likely have been drawn from the European models. In addition, some scholars have suggested that the Christian ideas of martyrdom had Jewish correlates (e.g. in the Books of the Maccabees), but Ancient Greek and Roman views of and tradition concerning martyrs have likely influenced the development of the Christian phenomenon as well. (See Middleton 2014, 120–121; Hacking 2008, 23-24)

I will draw my first example from the early days of Christianity, when martyrdom was linked to some kind of passiveness. Asceticism, which could include self-starvation, was apparently the (permitted) cause of death of some Christian martyrs, and some of the early Christians (along with criminals and slaves) suffered the Roman capital punishment, known as damnatio ad bestias. This form of punishment practically meant that the person who had been condemned was killed by wild animals. In addition to this fairly cruel manner of death, early Christians (who for the Romans were enemies of the state) endured various forms of torture, which they often endured without a blink of an eye, at least according to later testimonies, and calm saintly martyrs who were unaffected by the torments of the flesh became the ideal image of a Christian saint. (See e.g. Cohen 2000; Hacking 2008, 24–25)

Stories of these early Christian martyrs are a good example of how martyrologies can strengthen the identity of a religious group. In these early Christian martyrologies, the confession “I am a Christian” and refusing to renounce their faith, even if under torture, is a typical characteristic associated with the early Christian martyrs. In fact, those who did not confess their faith up until the bitter end but gave it up in the pains of persecution, were in some contexts regarded as heretic. The concept of martyrdom was, however, not unproblematic in early Christianity (as it is not unproblematic today), and the definition of the term turned out to be similarly complex also later in the Middle Ages. (Middleton 2014, 122-123; I will return to this issue in my later posts as I will acquaint myself further with the medieval conceptions of martyrdom.

At this point it is good to note, however, that the possibility that there is a connection between martyrdom and suicide is not approved by everyone. Suzanne Stern-Gillet (1987), for instance, has criticized Durkheim’s definitions of suicide (on his definitions, see also here) for not giving enough attention to motivation and intention. According to her, Durkheim’s concept of suicide does not require that a suicide wants to die or actively tries to find ways to die in all situations. Instead, Durkheim included in suicides also cases where the impending death was accepted, although it was considered an ‘unfortunate consequence’, or inescapable. As a consequence of Durkheim’s definition, she states, anyone who agreed to do things and go to places where death was unavoidable, in whatever circumstances, would have been categorized as suicide. Accordingly, following Durkheim’s definition, martyrdom as well could be defined as suicide. (Stern-Gillet 1987, 160–161, 168)

Stern-Gillet appears to be reluctant to define some self-inflicted deaths as suicide, but her argument highlights the difficulty as well as the importance of inquiring in greater depth what martyrdom is and has been all about, and of investigating the cultural models of martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia, including to what extent medieval Scandinavians would have made a connection between martyrdom and suicide. Obviously martyrdom is not and was not associated with suicide in all contexts, but if it was linked with suicide in some contexts, the possible link merits a thought and may give us valuable information concerning the attitudes towards self-killing.


 How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “What is martyrdom? (Part 1).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2017. <  >


Works cited

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1874. An Icelandic-English dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cohen, Esther. 2000. The Animated Pain of the Body. American Historical Review 105 (2000)1: 36–68.

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

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

Middleton, Paul. 2014. What is martyrdom? Mortality 19 (2014) 2: 117–133.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog. < >

Stern-Gillet, Suzanne. 1987. The Rhetoric of Suicide. Philosophy & Rhetoric 20 (1987) 3: 160–170.

The definition of ‘suicide’

What is suicide? The question may sound silly at first, but proves to be essential for the study of the history of suicide. The simplest definition could be that suicide is a deliberate, self-inflicted act, killing oneself by one manner or another. But things may get difficult sometimes when you are studying pre-modern sources. Take the Icelandic word sjálfsmorð, that is ‘suicide’ in English. The word is related to the German word Selbstmörder that first appeared in the sixteenth century, in the writings of Martin Luther (sein selbs mörder). The Icelandic word sjálfsmorð appears in textual sources relatively late; the earliest occurrence discovered by now is in a book called Tyro Juris edur Barn i Logum by Sveinn Sölvason from 1754. Before this, there was no particular term for suicide. So, is it anachronistic to speak of suicide in medieval Iceland in the first place?

At least according to research of modern suicide, suicides are committed and attempts made to end one’s life everywhere in the world, in all societies, although suicide rates may vary from society to society and are influenced by a variety of social and cultural factors, including the economic and religious environments where people live (see e.g. the WHO world suicide report). After going through sources used in this project I have learned by now that medieval Iceland was no exception. Before the term sjálfsmorð was introduced in Iceland, various expressions were used in saga literature to speak of deliberate death and self-killing. For instance, medieval Icelandic sources speak variably of ‘destroying oneself’, ‘killing oneself’, ‘determining one’s own death’, or explicate the method of self-killing, e.g. by hanging or stabbing oneself with a knife. Many of the expressions used imply that the death was inflicted by the victim him or herself, and that suicides were often considered active agents in their ‘violence against themselves’. Their act was intentional; they aimed at ending their own lives. Although the language lacked a term for suicide, verbs were used to describe the act, or the manner of death was referred to, a convention that still appears to have been in use in seventeenth-century eastern Scandinavia, Sweden (Miettinen 2015), and can also be discovered in medieval European law texts (Murray 2000).

So far the medieval Icelandic self-killings appear to fit in well within the frames of the general definition of suicide. But are there other kinds of deaths as well that could be considered deliberate (or voluntary) and self-inflicted? Émile Durkheim whose famous study of suicide is a classic included in suicides also deliberate acts that were more passive (i.e. ‘negative’) in nature, such as refusal to eat that led to starvation and death. The impact of one’s own action could also be indirect: e.g. committing a crime would be motivated by the possibility of death penalty. Durkheim’s definition of suicide does not require that the death is deliberate and intentional. He even suggests that suicide does not automatically imply that an individual wants to die, as in the case of a soldier who sacrifices himself to save the lives of the others in his regiment or martyrs who die for their faith. What both of these cases have in common is that in both of them a human being gives up his or her life, although he or she has not necessarily lost the will to live.  That the individual who actively or passively does something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death is aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die, appears in Durkheim’s thought as an essential element in suicides. [1]  Accordingly, Durkheim’s definition of suicide excludes recklessness and lack of self-concern in apathy that leads to death as one is not willing to take care of one’s own wellbeing, because in these two cases the individual cannot be certain that he or she will die as a consequence of his or her foolhardiness or lethargy.

Even so, these definitions may not be the whole picture. In psychoanalytically-oriented studies it is also spoken of death drive, or  ‘autodestruction’, which is included in suicide. The term autodestruction refers to deaths that would be, in some sense, avoidable, such as dying in a car crash because of speeding or dying of liver cirrhosis because of excessive alcohol consumption. This kind of auto-destructive behavior would be, however, socially acceptable although suicide as such would be held a negative, ever reprehensible act. Indeed, autodestruction would be considered a socially acceptable suicide. (See also Hacking 2008)

The definitions presented above are all part of the modern classification of suicide. The danger of anachronism lurks behind them. I cannot claim that medieval Icelanders thought accordingly or differently about self-killing and its active or passive nature. In fact, at least at this stage of my research, I don’t know whether people who caused their own death accidentally because they were hallucinating (as in seeing things that are not actually there) would have been exempted from the category of suicides, as Durkheim has done. Although it is probable that in many cultures suicide is a deliberate, self-inflicted death, suicide is also a culture-specific category E.g. in early modern context, some deliberate deaths could be exempted from the category of suicide as self-murder (e.g. martyrs, soldiers, children and the insane). The exemption could have great significance in societies where self-murder was considered a legal felony and was punished by law, but insanity, for instance, was regarded as a mitigating circumstance. (See e.g. Snyder 2007; Miettinen 2015) Cultural factors that may facilitate such exemptions are something I have to consider also in my analysis, and I will discuss the issue further in my forthcoming posts. At this point, however, the definitions of suicide in earlier research offer me tools for analyzing the sources to spot death cases I should perhaps scrutinize more carefully. With careful close reading of the sources I will then try to investigate whether medieval Icelanders considered these deaths self-killing. However, I also need to be careful with other death cases that do not share characteristics with suicide as it is defined today, but were considered self-killing in the medieval context.


Works cited

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

Encyclopédie sur la mort. [Suicide: Définitions et typologies :] “Autodestruction.” Electronic document, available at (last accessed October 5, 2016)

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

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

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

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.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The definition of ‘suicide’.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 6 October 2016. < >


[1] Durkheim excludes animal suicides, but it has to be noted here that self-destructive behavior has been detected in animals as well.