Research notes: military suicide in sagas

A couple of days ago I gave a paper on military suicide in medieval Icelandic sagas in the National Finnish Conference on History Research. For a historian who concentrates on medieval sources, military suicide is not an easy subject to study. The definition of military suicide is tricky, and the sources do not always offer enough clues for interpretation. In general, warriors do not kill themselves but are killed by others. However, following Alexander Murray’s (1998) thoughts on medieval military suicide (which are reminiscent of the durkheimian definition of suicide), those who participated in medieval battles were often aware of the possibility that their death was impending.

Therefore, in the history of medieval military campaigns, defeat in a battle may have instigated desperate warriors to seek voluntary death. A soldier who challenged overwhelming enemies and was killed in the act could be judged either a courageous hero or a fool by his contemporaries. Even reckless bravery in battle could sometimes engender admiration, or was even considered part of the ethical values and virtues of chivalry. Therefore, in line with Durkheim’s theory, medieval warriors could have done – actively or passively –something that directly or indirectly had caused their death, and they were aware of the result (i.e. that they would die) and certain of it. (Murray 1998, 61–65; on Durkheim’s definition of suicide, see Durkheim 1897 and the blog article here.)

In effect, deaths in battle have even been regarded as one of the reasons for the scarcity of reported suicides among medieval noblemen: participation in warfare was a relatively easy way to get killed. Consequently, from medieval European perspective in general, military suicide was an act full of ambivalence. Depending on the perspective, the warrior could be considered brave and courageous, or desperate and suicidal, and the fallen combatant could be viewed as a saint-like figure or a military martyr. (Martyrdom indicated that the life of the warrior had not been wasted; e.g. crusades also associated religious motives in warfare.) With regard to his motives, the warrior could fight to escape accusations of shame and cowardice, or if in despair and expecting that his life was not worth living anymore, he wished to liberate himself from worldly suffering. The border between risking one’s life and giving it up deliberately was not clear-cut, and to distinguish that border in the tumults of battle was presumably near to impossible. (On medieval military suicide, see Murray 1998, 64–69.)

That is, if people felt there was a need to make a distinction between the two motives – risking one’s life and giving it up deliberately. After all, death in a battle was not as likely to cause legal concerns as a sudden death in everyday life outside the battlefields would. Consequently, unfortunate for historians, deaths in battle were not that likely to end up in legal documents as a consequence of judicial process.

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Medieval Icelandic sagas tell many stories of men who start a battle or refuse to avoid an armed conflict although they knew their fate in advance and were aware that the battle would turn out to be their last, or even though they were faced with an overwhelming army they could never beat. If we believe the laws of the Jomsvikings, a group of warriors portrayed in Jómsvíkinga saga, which was written originally around 1200, an indifferent attitude towards an overwhelming enemy – or denying and avoiding fear – was indeed expected from a respectable soldier. According to the law described in the saga:

No man must run from anyone who was as doughty and well-armed as himself. […] No one must speak a word of fear or be frightened in any situation however black things looked.[1] (Trans. N. F. Blake.)

It has been suggested that the portrayal of the Jómsvikings in the saga could have been intended as a parody. (Aalto 2014, 40. On sagas as parodies, see also Willson 2009.) If the author of the saga was indeed writing a parody, it can be questioned whether the “heroic” values described in the excerpt actually represent the medieval Scandinavian codes of male honor. It is, for instance, possible that heroic self-sacrifice would not have been overly praised by the author of the saga. However, medieval Icelandic saga sources in general suggest that certain kind of codes regarding the male honor would have affected the individual’s behavior in armed conflicts. (On the concepts of honor in medieval Icelandic society, see e.g. Meulengracht Sørensen 1993; Miller 1993.) In addition, fear was definitely not considered a manly emotion. Fear was not considered a positive emotion in the first place. (Kanerva 2014, 226-233.)

Strictly speaking, a saga warrior who ended up against an overwhelming army usually did not die by his own hand. In addition, the terminology available for the description of his manner of death was limited. In medieval Iceland, there was no term for ‘suicide’ – as discussed earlier, the word sjálfsmorð, “self-murder”, appears first in eighteenth-century Icelandic sources, and prior to this era, no particular term for the act existed. The sources only spoke of the actual act (e.g. ‘killing oneself’) or used verbs that indicate the method, or referred to a ‘sudden death’ (bráðr bani).

Therefore, even if a man who had been well aware that a battle in which he was about to participate would be his last died in this battle, the terminology concerning deliberate self-killing used in sagas in general would not have been suitable for the depiction of this man’s death. The expressions used in literature concentrated on the actual act, the method used and the degree of unpredictability, i.e. the suddenness of a person’s departure from this world, not on the thoughts and motives of the individual who died.

Luckily for the historians, some sagas do describe the behavior of the suicidal heroes, which may serve as a clue to their motives (as defined by the authors of such sagas).[2] All in all, military suicide as reflected in medieval sagas is an intriguing issue, bearing in mind that the idea of Christian martyrdom was adopted in Scandinavia fairly soon after the Conversion (which started to take place – depending on the place – from the 10th century onward), and that the prototype of a medieval Scandinavian (Christian) martyr who were born in the newly Christianized North was a man of high rank (e.g. prince or king) who died a violent death. Death in battle could indeed be considered such a violent demise, suitable for a future martyr. (On Scandinavian martyrdom, see Haki Antonsson 2004.)

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: military suicide in sagas.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 25 October, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/research-notes-military-suicide-in-sagas/   >

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Works cited

Aalto, Sirpa. 2014. Jómsvíkinga Saga as a Part of Old Norse Historiography. Scripta Islandica: Isländska Sällskapets Årsbok, Vol. 65 (2014), 33–58.

Blake, N. F. 1962. Introduction. In Blake, N. F. (ed. & trans.). 1962.  Jómsvíkinga saga. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto & New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, vii–xxv.

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. <http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Durkheim_emile/suicide/suicide.html&gt; [or: Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.]

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

Jómsvíkinga saga = Blake, N. F. (ed. & trans.). 1962.  Jómsvíkinga saga. The Saga of the Jomsvikings. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto & New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons.

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 & Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

Meulengracht Sørensen, Preben. 1993. Fortælling og ære. Studier i islændingesagaerne. [Århus]: Aarhus universitetsforlag.

Miller, William Ian. 1993. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

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

Willson, Kendra, 2009: Parody and Genre in sagas of Icelanders. In Á austrvega: Saga and East Scandinavia. Preprint papers of the 14th International Saga Conference, Uppsala, 9th—15th August 2009, ed. Agneta Ney, Henrik Williams and Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist. Gävle: Gävle University Press, 1039–1046. Available at http://www.sagaconference.org/SC14/SC14_PAPERS2.PDF

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[1] Engi maðr skyldi þar renna fyrir jafnvígligum ok jafnbúnum. […] Engi skyldi þar æðruorð mæla ne kvíða neinum hlut hvégi óvænt sem um þœtti. Jómsvíkinga saga, 17. The text is the edition used here is based on Codex Holmianus 7, 4o, better known today as the Stockholm manuscript, Sthm. perg. 4:o nr 7, which dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. In its original form, the manuscript has also contained many fornaldarsögur (Legendary sagas) and indigenous riddarasögur (Chivalric sagas). Therefore, the context of the saga in this manuscript is heroic instead of historical in the strict sense.This version of the saga is shorter compared to many other surviving versions of Jómsvíkinga saga. Blake 1962, xvi, xx.

[2] I discussed this issue in my conference paper, and the results of the discussion will be elaborated further in my book (work-in-process) on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.

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Research notes: suicidality of heroic females

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroic death? The case of seppuku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Works cited

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

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

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