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.

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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/   >

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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.

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[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.

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Research notes: suicide and empathy in medieval Iceland

The annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH) was held this year in Umeå, Sweden (26–29 June, 2017). The general theme of the year was “Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn – Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History”. In the conference, I presented a paper on suicide and empathy in medieval, ca. 13th and 14th-century Iceland. Some of the points of my paper are summarized below.

By the thirteenth century, Icelanders had been at least nominally Christian for about two hundred years (the official Conversion took place around year 1000). It is probable that by then, they also had some idea of the Christian view of suicide. It would have been known at least by the clerical people that Christian theologians regarded suicide as a morally reprehensible deed (see e.g. Murray 1998; Murray 2000). From the early twelfth century onwards, the Icelandic Church law stated that those who committed suicide should not be buried in the churchyard, unless they expressed in some way that they repented their deed. In 1262 Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and after that, the Norwegian king introduced the Icelanders a new law code in 1280, known as Jónsbók. In this new law, suicide was explicitly criminalized for the first time in Iceland. Confiscation of property was declared as punishment.

Therefore, medieval Icelanders were aware that in Christian, and later also in legal context, suicide was considered a morally culpable deed. Laws may have affected their views of, norms concerning and attitudes towards suicide. These norms, views and attitudes may also have influenced their tendency to feel empathy for the suicide. However, as I argued in my paper, people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide may also have depended on their views of what emotions, such as empathy, are and how they operate, in other words on their theory of emotion. (For theories of emotion, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

“Empathy” is a fairly new term even in the English language (see e.g. Verducci 2000 and “empathy” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and as far as medieval Iceland was concerned, there was no word for the concept. However, the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s experience and feelings was expressed, for instance, with words for sympathy and compassion (e.g. íhugi, várkunn, samharman, meðaumkan, sampíning, brjóstbragð), which implied that the person shared, minded and was conscious of the other one’s feelings and experiences and could find their actions excusable, and was emotionally moved by the other one’s pain and sorrow, or could feel pity for them.

What is interesting is that words that explicitly indicate shared or same sorrow and pain, or being moved by the other one’s suffering, were used – according to the recordings of the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose/ Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, which records the vocabulary of Old Norse-Icelandic prose writings, and the Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson – only in sources that are of religious nature and of clerical origin.

In medieval Christianity, compassio had positive connotations. It had spiritual meanings and was linked to imitatio Christi, imitation of Christ, and accordingly, was a way to Christian salvation. (See e.g. Moyn 2006, 399.) The empathy-related words in Old Icelandic sources that can be linked with clerical origin presumably had similar positive connotations. The representation of compassio in these Old Icelandic texts may also have been linked to didactic purposes: they taught and encouraged behavior that was thought to be proper for a good Christian.

However, that’s not the whole story. Medieval Icelanders did not consider all emotions positive, and some of their views were not immediately influenced by Christian and European influences. Grief and sorrow, for instance, were considered detrimental to one’s health. Excessive grief could lead to death. Grief and sorrow could also make an individual vulnerable to the influences of the supernatural forces and agents, which could then harm the individual in many ways (more on this porous body schema, see Kanerva 2013; Kanerva 2014; Kanerva 2015; on sorrow and vulnerability to the influence of the demons and evils spirits in the European context, see also Caciola 2000, 77–78 and 80).

This medieval Icelandic understanding of emotions was part of the context where empathy-related emotions such as compassion and sympathy would have been felt. Although compassion was apparently considered a positive emotion in clerical contexts, in lay view compassion could be regarded as potentially harmful since it could involve experiencing the same sorrow that was felt by the one who was pitied, as the words for compassion and sympathy imply (e.g. samharman, which literally meant “same/shared sorrow”). Feeling the same sorrow and sharing the grief with the individual for whom compassion was felt, could make the empathetic person more vulnerable to the influence of the supernatural forces. Accordingly, feeling empathy was not construed as good for one’s own well-being in all contexts. Such a view may also have influenced people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide and Empathy in Medieval Iceland.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 30 June, 2016. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/06/30/suicide-and-empathy-in-medieval-iceland/  >

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Works cited

Caciola, Nancy. 2000. Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession and Communal Memory in the Middle Ages. In The Place of the Dead. Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 66–86.

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1957. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.  http://www.iep.utm.edu/home/about/

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2013. “Eigi er sá heill, er í augun verkir.“ Eye Pain in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur. ARV – Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 69 (2013), 7–35.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2014. Disturbances of the Mind and Body: Effects of the Living Dead in Medieval Iceland. In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe, ed. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

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

Moyn, Samuel. 2006. Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity. History and Theory 45 (2006) 3, 397–415.

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.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog. http://onp.ku.dk/

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/empathy/

Verducci, Susan. 2000. A Conceptual History of Empathy and a Question it Raises for Moral Education. Educational Theory 50 (2000), 63–80.