(Who decides) What is martyrdom? (Or what is not…)

There is not so much earlier research on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia, but a paper presented by Ólafía Einarsdóttir in the 12th International Saga Conference in Bonn in 2003 makes an exception. The paper discusses the description of the death of King Óláfr Tryggvason in various north European sources. The results of the paper have not been widely cited and discussed, even though Ólafía Einarsdóttir makes some interesting observations, which are relevant for my study as well. I will summarize her main points here, as they are related to the definition of martyrdom in Old Norse-Icelandic society, and to the question: who decides what is martyrdom?

In his Latin history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen the German historian Adam of Bremen (11th century) told that after most of Óláfr Tryggvason’s men had fallen in the battle of Svöldr in 999/1000, Óláfr himself jumped into the sea and perished in this manner. He was not given any credit for converting the West Nordic people by Adam. Instead, Sveinn Haraldsson tjúguskegg (Forkbeard) – Óláfr’s enemy – is said to have ordered that Christianity should be adopted in Norway.  In addition, according to Adam, Óláfr’s death was clearly a suicide: certain of his defeat, Óláfr chose to die by drowning. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 413-414.) As a cleric, Adam wished to emphasize that Óláfr had committed a grave sin.

In Iceland, a source that was contemporary to Adam’s history – Ari the Wise’s brief history of the Icelanders, Íslendingabók, from the beginning of the twelfth century – stated explicitly that Óláfr Tryggvason was responsible for the Christianization of Norway and Iceland. He also stated that Óláfr fell in the battle of Svöldr. Another Icelandic source, a skaldic poem by Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld (ca. 965–1007), tells that Óláfr’s body was never found, however. As a consequence, some people expected that the king was still alive, and some later stories imply that Óláfr Tryggvason had actually been seen in various places afterwards. The poet is clear to indicate, however, that he believed King Óláfr Tryggvason was in Heaven. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 414.)

Around circa 1160–1180, two histories of the Norwegian kings were written in Latin in Norway. The first one, Historia Norwegiae (ca. 1160) praises Óláfr for bringing Christianity to Norway, and suggests that Óláfr managed to rescue himself and continued his life elsewhere. According to the writer of Historia Norwegiae, the king did throw himself into the sea. However, he also considers it possible that even though the king was wearing his armour, which would have made his movements under water difficult, he was saved by angels, or he was rescued in a boat, unless he managed to swim to safety by himself. As Ólafía Einarsdóttir suggests, Óláfr’s death in Historia Norwegiae was heroic and honourable. Nobody expected a prominent war leader to outlive his men, who had all fallen in battle already. The writer of HN and his contemporaries presumably considered Óláfr’s death a self-killing, but they did not regard his manner of death problematic in that it would have made his passing away less heroic and less honourable. (See Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 414-415.)

However, Ólafía Einarsdóttir finds the attitude expressed in HN slightly problematic since the writer would probably have been aware that in Norwegian and Icelandic laws suicides were not allowed burial in the churchyard. However, the writer of HN is, as Ólafía Einarsdóttir notes, the only one writing about King Óláfr Tryggvason who calls him Sanctus (Óláfr Haraldsson the saint on the other hand is named Sanctissimus). (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415.) Therefore, although the writer of HN held it possible that Óláfr Tryggvason either drowned or actually did not die at the battle of Svöldr, he appears to accept that even after killing himself he could still be a Sanctus.

Adam’s history is said to have been among the sources of HN, along with some works written by the Icelandic historian Sæmundr fróði, whose texts unfortunately have not survived. (Simek & Pálsson 2007, 181.) However, the writer of Historia Norwegiae clearly has a positive attitude towards King Óláfr Tryggvason. Although Óláfr’s choice to throw himself into the water is not completely rejected, in another version he is also allowed (miraculous) escape. In addition, by disappearing from the scene, Óláfr is also allowed later (perhaps also eternal) existence. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415.)

In De antiquitate regum Norwagiensium from around 1180 commissioned by Eysteinn, the archbishop of Nidaros, and written by a Benedictine monk called Theodoricus, Óláfr Tryggvason is also held in esteem as the king who brought Christianity to Norway. The account of Óláfr’s death resembles that of HN. King Óláfr Tryggvason is said to have fled in a boat, and people expect that he traveled to a faraway country for the sake of the salvation of his soul. Theodoricus also tells that according to some people, Óláfr had jumped into the sea and drowned. He does not confirm or reject either of the views, but appears to think that Óláfr is now with God. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 415-416.)

Around 1190–1210 two histories of King Óláfr Tryggvason were written in Iceland, in Latin, but only vernacular translations of these texts survive. In the saga written by a monk called Oddr Snorrason from the Þingeyri monastery, Óláfr Tryggvason appears to represent John the Baptist, whereas St Óláfr resembles Jesus Christ. In his account, Oddr relies especially on the Norse tradition, such as skaldic poetry (attributed both to the followers of Óláfr Tryggvason and his enemies). However, he was also familiar with Latin literature, such as the lives of saints, which appear to have influenced Oddr’s description of Óláfr’s death. In Oddr’s account, Óláfr Tryggvason is standing in his ship, on an elevated place where he can be seen by everyone, and he is surrounded by the bodies of fallen warriors. As his enemy is approaching him, Óláfr suddenly disappears; the enemy has bent for a second to remove the fallen men that are on his way, and during this instance Óláfr has vanished. No trace of Óláfr is found, and it remains unclear whether he is dead or not. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 416-417.)

Oddr brings forth that his own contemporary King Sverrir of Norway (1145/1151–1202) had found Óláfr’s death and his last moments on his ship Ormr inn langi (the Long Serpent) most heroic (a view that here as elsewhere in the sources reciting Óláfr Tryggvason’s death may have been motivated by the commonly held observation that Óláfr had been fighting against an overwhelming enemy). Oddr adds a new element to the story: According to him, a bright light from the heaven suddenly came over the place where Óláfr was standing, and after the light had extinguished, the king was nowhere to be found. Ólafía Einarsdóttir then discusses how Oddr considers carefully the probability that Óláfr would have been able to save himself, should he have fallen or jumped into water. Oddr points out in the saga, for instance, that Óláfr is a very good swimmer – a ‘fact’ known also elsewhere in saga literature, such as in the thirteenth-century Laxdæla saga, which tells about Óláfr’s encounter with some Icelanders. Oddr also speculates that when Óláfr had jumped into the sea, he held his shield above him with another hand and then pulled of his heavy armour with his other hand, and would therefore have been able to swim and escape in that manner. Indeed, in Oddr’s opinion, Óláfr survived and later traveled to Syria and entered a monastery there. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 417-418.)

As a monk, Oddr was aware of the attitudes of the Church – that suicide was regarded as a sin – which presumably influenced his eagerness to keep Óláfr from drowning. As a cleric, Oddr may not have considered the possibility that Óláfr fled from battle as a disgrace, but perhaps thought that because of his humility, Óláfr was aided by God to escape. However, Oddr also betrays in his saga an attitude that (although it was perhaps not his own view of the matter) still existed in warrior society: he describes in the saga Óláfr Tryggvason’s own view of those who fled a battle: according to Óláfr, a real king would never flee a battle but would fight to the end. (See also Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003,417.)

Indeed, two collections of king’s sagas, Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (from the beginning of the 13th century) and Fagrskinna (possibly written by an Icelander in Norway around 1230), which are both more secular in tone compared to the sources of clerical origin discussed above, both emphasize that Óláfr did not escape but died during the battle. In Ólafía Einarsdóttir’s words, the writers of Heimskringla and Fagrskinna “value traditional Teutonic heroism, and to them Olaf’s flight would have been an outrageous disgrace and an indelible stain on the memory of the glorious king.” Ólafía Einarsdóttir’s notion is intriguing, as it raises a question: what, then, was a less disgraceful – or even heroic and respectable – way to depart, according to the writer’s of Heimskringla and Fagrskinna? (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 417-418.)

Military suicide does not appear to have been as tricky issue as might be expected. In Fagrskinna and Heimskringla, it is indicated that king Óláfr Tryggvason sprang overboard “to his deep-sea death” and died (Fagrskinna, 131–132; Heimskringla, chs 119–120). In a warrior culture, deliberate and self-inflicted death could, naturally, be a preferable option if there was a threat that after your own troops had been defeated, you would be seized by the enemy and treated in a shameful way. (Sagas do contain descriptions of such cases as well.) In addition, if captured by the enemy, the warrior would not always be able to decide by himself how he died and when he died. That self-killing was a better option compared to capture is implied in Saxo Grammaticus’s recount of Óláfr Tryggvason in his history of the Danes, Gesta Danorum (ca. 1200). Saxo’s view may have been influenced by the Norwegian archbishops (or Icelandic bishops) who visited the Danish archbishop Absalon in Lund while Saxo was writing there his Gesta Danorum for Absalon. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 418.) However, it is also possible that Saxo’s account reflected a common Nordic view of honourable death, and behaviour that was expected in war conditions.


Therefore, in the sources Ólafía Einarsdóttir discusses, Óláfr Tryggvason’s death is treated 1) as a suicide and therefore as a sinful act (Adam of Bremen), 2) as a self-inflicted death, but the fact that Óláfr’s body is never found is emphasized and the option that Óláfr actually escaped and survived is also given (in Nordic clerical context, e.g. in Historia Norwegiae, Oddr Snorrason’s saga), or 3) as a heroic death of a warrior king who chose not to flee but fought until the end (in secular contexts in Fagrskinna and Heimskringla). Ólafía Einarsdóttir shows in her study that the portrayal of Óláfr Tryggvason’s death is heavily influenced by issues of political power. It is probable that the attitude of the German historian Adam of Bremen who wrote about the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, was affected by his dislike towards Óláfr Tryggvason’s choice to rely on English clerics who assisted him in his attempts to convert the Nordic people, even though the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen had been granted authority over the people in the North by the Pope. In addition, Adam’s view of the case may not have been that objective because the sources he used were biased: the source of Adam’s account was Sveinn Forkbeard who was Óláfr Tryggvason’s enemy. (See also Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 413-414.)

As Haki Antonsson (2004) has pointed out, many of the martyrs in the North, such as St Óláfr, were men (kings and princes) who had died a violent death. He has also shown that royal martyrs started to be borne remarkably soon after Conversion – or their cults were born first, and aspects of Christian martyrdom were added to them later. Óláfr Tryggvason never became a saint, however, even though the writer of Historia Norwegiae thought he was a Sanctus and he was widely known in Norway and Iceland as the king who Christianized the north.

Oláfía Einarsdóttir argues that Óláfr never became a saint because his death was a suicide. According to her, that there was no body to be found and placed in a shrine, similar to St Óláfr, would not have been crucial. (Ólafía Einarsdóttir 2003, 419.) It is possible that in the minds of the clerics, suicide played a crucial role, but bearing in mind the emphasis on materiality in medieval western Scandinavian culture, the hypothesis concerning the unimportance of the body can be contested; in medieval west Scandinavian thought, power was thought to reside in material objects, such as bones and corpses. (See e.g. Kanerva 2017, 29–35.) Therefore, that there was no corpse could have influenced Óláfr Tryggvason’s posthumous reputation.

However, it is remarkable that although Óláfr Tryggvason was the herald of God in Norway and in the minds of the Icelanders, his death did not give rise to multiple miracle stories. Naturally, Christian tradition in Scandinavia was still young and some of its aspects had not yet been adopted when Óláfr Tryggvason died. In addition, many of the Nordic versions (apart from Fagrskinna and Heimskringla) seem to support the idea that Óláfr Tryggvason managed to escape and survived, and that some people met him in the southern lands. St Óláfr, however, was associated with several miracles after his death. Naturally, St Óláfr may have had strong supporters, since e.g. the earliest reference to his martyrdom is made by Adam of Bremen (see Haki Antonsson 2004, 72). Good reputation in the Hamburg-Bremen archbishopric may have facilitated the recording of miraculous events that concerned St Óláfr in the North as well. In addition, it is probable that the negative attitude towards Óláfr Tryggvason expressed in Adam of Bremen’s work, and the annoyance felt in Hamburg-Bremen when Óláfr chose to communicate with English clerics and ignore the authority of Hamburg-Bremen had an affect on Óláfr’s possibilities of becoming an official saint. Whether somebody became a Christian saint or a martyr was a political issue; people who had power defined sainthood and martyrdom.

However, whether there ever was a local cult (as a result of native instead of Christian beliefs) in the first place that could have resulted in a status as a Christian saint, should the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen not have held a grudge against Óláfr, is hard to attest – that there was no proof of Óláfr’s posthumous material presence, for instance, presumably affected his status as an ancestor who according to native beliefs could observe and influence the physical and mental environment around his grave mound. As Óláfr had disapperead, there was no body to be buried.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “(Who decides) What is martyrdom? (Or what is not…).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 January, 2018. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/who-decides-martyrdom >


Works cited

Adam of Bremen: Hamburgische KirchengeschichteGesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Edited by Bernhard Schneidler. Hannover 1017.

Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss. In Þórhallur Vilmundarson & Bjarni Vilhjálmsson (ed.). 1991. Harðar saga. Íslenzk fornrit 13. Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag.

Fagrskinna. Edited by Finnur Jónsson. Køpenhavn: S. L. M, 1902–1903.

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

Heimskringla. English translation:  Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla. Vol 1: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason. Trans. Alison Finlay & Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011.

Historia Norwegiae = Ekrem, Inger (editor), Lars Boje Mortensen (editor) and Peter Fisher (translator). 2003. Historia Norwegie. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. Available online at http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=342356 English translation: A History of Norway and the Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Óláfr. Trans. Devra Kunin. Edited with and introduction and notes by Carl Phelpstead. London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2001.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2018. Restless Dead or Peaceful Cadavers? Preparations for Death and Afterlife in Medieval Iceland. In Dying Prepared in Medieval and Early Modern Northern Europe, ed. Anu Lahtinen and Mia Korpiola. Leiden: Brill 2018, 18–43.

Oddr Snorrason: Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar = Det Arnamagnæanske haandskrift 310 qvarto: Saga Olafs konungs Tryggvasonar er ritaði Oddr muncr. En gammel norsk bearbeidelse af Odd Snorresøns paa latin skrevne saga om kong Olaf Tryggvason. Edited by P. Groth. Christiania: Fondet, 1895.

Ólafía Einarsdóttir. 2003. Olaf Tryggvason – Rex Norwegiae 994–999. Christian Ethics versus Teutonic Heroism. In Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages: Papers of the 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn/Germany, 28th July—2nd August 2003, ed. Rudolf Simek & Judith Meurer. Bonn: Universität Bonn, 413–420.

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



On the ethics of suicide research

Recently I read an article about the ethics in historical research written by Riikka Miettinen (2017). In her earlier studies, she has concentrated on the history of suicide in seventeenth-century Sweden (Miettinen 2015), and in the article, she discusses ethical aspects of suicide research. Similar to my own study, the sources Miettinen uses in her research predate the modern era. Many of the ethical problems she discusses are quire relevant for my own study as well. As Miettinen points out, there are many ethical issues that need to be considered in a historical study, even though the sources and people who are studied were produced and lived over 100 years ago. I will summarize some of her main points below.

In historical sciences, heavy, and adequate, source criticism is the key to ethical research. The sources are studied in the cultural and historical context where they were produced. Attention is paid to the producers of the sources, his or her values and attitudes, which may have distorted the recorded information. Instead of relying on a single source and the one-sided views it may offer, sources that offer a comprehensive and wide-ranging view of the phenomenon are studied. Multi-method approaches are utilized to draw a picture that illuminates not only single but various aspects of the phenomenon. (Miettinen 2017, 146–147, 149, 151.) As historians, we must be aware that what we find out in our study may not be absolute ‘truths’, but possibilities, in the polyphonic reality of the past, which contains multiple voices, some of them silenced, some of them loud.

Historical research should be honest, open-minded and transparent. Historical research questions prevailing truths, but treats the subjects of the past in a morally just and respectful way. Choosing to study suicide is an ethical statement as such. The ethics of historical study of suicide also require that the subject – suicide – is not morally appraised (e.g. neither condemned nor eulogized) by the researcher, but objectively examined. (Miettinen 2017, 140, 142, 149.) (Needless to say, this requirement applies to academic peer-reviewers as well!) However, treating the object of research in a just manner and explaining the phenomenon in question (i.e. making it understandable in that e.g. the motives of the act are comprehended) does not mean that deed would thus become justified. A researcher does not give a moral verdict, but must remain objective. (Miettinen 2017, 151.) To make the process of research more transparent it is advisable to discuss the ethical issues (such as the ethical choices made) as the sources are interpreted and the results are reported. (Miettinen 2017, 157.)

The results and interpretations should be presented in an ethical way. The mode of presentation should be considerate and matter-of-fact. Secrecy is not part of proper historical research. Hiding things or leaving things unsaid would be an ideological choice as such: silence may reinforce normative attitudes, such as views of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ death (whatever those terms mean in each context). Sensitive issues, which relate to people still alive, may not be revealed, but although there is no need to anonymize or leave the personal data of people who died over 100 years ago unmentioned, it should also be born in mind that the privacy and the memory of the deceased should be respected. Open science should nevertheless be our aim. (Miettinen 2017, 143, 152–155.) Studying pre-modern sources usually meet the aim of open science in that most of the sources are publicly available in various institutions and in academic editions.

As historians, we should recognize that the object of our study is characterized with ‘otherness’, that is, it is ‘alien’ to us. Modern theories cannot necessarily be applied to the past that this ‘alien’ inhabits. (Miettinen 2017, 150–151.) For instance, we cannot apply modern – medicalized – theories of suicide (i.e. theories as explanations of why some people become suicidal and engage in suicidal behavior) to medieval or early modern subjects. Medical conditions such as depression and mental disorder are not necessarily the sole causes of suicide in all cultural and historical contexts, although the tendency to locate, in Ian Marsh’s words, “the source of suicidality within the pathologized ‘interiority’ of the individual subject” has been part of “‘the great origin myth’ in suicidology” for quite some time (Marsh 2013, 752–753). Earlier research suggests that motives for self-killing have varied – consider, for instance, the Japanese seppuku as a “socially and culturally prescribed” form of role-behavior (Fusé 1980), or some male suicide cases in late twentieth-century Finland whose motive for self-killing appears to have been revenge (a revenge sometimes enacted even from beyond the grave, as the men would e.g. promise in their suicide notes to haunt their former spouses). (See Honkasalo 2014, 187–188.)

Choosing the concepts that we will use in our study and defining these concepts, is an ethical choice as well. As Miettinen points out, the term ”suicide” should be used with care when studying sources from pre-reformation era, since the word for the act is fairly late in e.g. Scandinavian languages as well as in German and English. For instance, according to Online Erymology Dictionary, the word suicide with the meaning ”deliberate killing of oneself” started to be used first in the 1650s. (See ”Suicide” in https://www.etymonline.com/word/suicide; Miettinen 2017, 156.) The Icelandic term for self-killing, sjálfsmorð, dates from the 18th century and similar to other Scandinavian languages, it includes the word ”murder” (i.e. morð) – therefore according to the literal translation of the word, by then at least, suicide was considered a “self-murder”. Murder, then, was considered to be one of the most severe crimes, and therefore, the term sjálfsmorð in itself had (and has) moral and condemning connotations. (It may be telling that before suicide became “self-murder”, sjálfsmorð, medieval saga writers, for instance, would speak of self-killing by describing act (e.g. “he killed himself”) or the method.)

Regarding the definition of the term, some may be eager to distinguish between suicide, self-sacrifice and martyrdom, for instance. All of the three terms are quite handy in some contexts, but the researcher should be aware of the various normative connotations of these terms. Distinguishing between the terms in question may be based on an implicit presupposition that, for instance, martyrdom is heroic, noble and admirable, whereas suicide may indicate something else. ‘Suicide’ is perhaps held as the opposite of martyrdom – unheroic, ignoble, and despicable – so that somebody’s martyr is another man’s suicide. Such definitions of ‘suicide’ and ‘martyrdom’ – and not being aware of the connotations of these terms – pose a risk in that by using the concepts in question a researcher implicitly categorizes some deaths as ‘good’ and some deaths as ‘bad’. Although Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide (1897) has been criticized – e.g. because his theory appears to presuppose moral condemnation of suicide and regards self-killing as social pathology – following his definition of suicide makes it possible to place both martyrdom and self-sacrifice under the category of suicide (which is the main category in his study).  According to him, the essential element in suicide is that an individual does actively or passively something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death and is aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die. (Durkheim 1897.) Despite the criticism presented, Durkheim’s definition of suicide is a good point of departure in our search for less normative research concepts.


As a researcher, it is also important to bear in mind that research on suicide has an impact on people. The influence is perhaps the greatest in interview surveys where questions posed may also influence people’s attitudes towards suicide. (Miettinen 2017, 139–140.) Although studying pre-modern sources does not involve interviews, the point made by Miettinen has relevance in the study of the history of suicide in general. Historical research is not only about the past, but also about the present. History affects the present, and to answer questions concerning the present and to understand the present better, it helps us if we also know the past. History is knowledge, but knowledge is power as well. (On the power-knowledge concept, i.e. pouvoirsavoir, see Foucault 1995 [1975], 27–28.) It is not irrelevant how the power is exercised and therefore, firstly, what kind of knowledge is acquired (what kind of questions are asked) and secondly, how this knowledge – that is, the results of the research – is disseminated. (See also Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 36.)

Concerning the first aspect of power, the questions the researcher chooses to pose on the sources often reflect the concerns of the time and culture that the researcher inhabits. The researcher should be aware of these concerns that may influence – either implicitly or explicitly – his or her choice of the subject. S/he should also recognize the aims of his or her study – what contemporary discussions his/her research and results will contribute to. Personal interests and values may have an impact on one’s work and again, objectivity is required. (Miettinen 2017, 141–142.) Taking up the subject of suicide can as such be a form of critique towards power structures as well as towards our limitations of thought (e.g. if we try to universalize the phenomenon and do not recognize its cultural and historical aspects). Studying the subject objectively and critically helps us to better understand the phenomenon in question. (Marsh 2013.)

Concerning the second aspect of power, the results of the research may have an impact on people, but it is sometimes hard to predict the nature and depth of this influence. In the case of interview surveys, the risk of influence is linked to the use of vulnerable subjects as interviewees. The vulnerability of these subjects (e.g. suicidal individuals) “is connected to substantial incapacity to protect one’s own interests”, such as “the inability to protect oneself from exposure to an unreasonable risk of harm.” (Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 28.) Similar vulnerability may not characterize only the subjects that are studied, but also the recipients of the information that the study produces. As the research results are reported, a question worth considering is, whether you should regard all the recipients of your knowledge as vulnerable, that is, vulnerable to the contents of the knowledge you intend to disseminate, and vulnerable to the potential of this knowledge to influence their ideas and behavior. ( See also Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 36.)

Although – philosophically speaking – from the libertarian perspective individuals have a freedom of choice and from the relativist perspective the (un)acceptability of suicide depends “upon the nature of the situation” and therefore also “the obligation to protect life varies depending upon an analysis of the situation”, researchers agree that they have the moral obligation to protect life. (Miettinen 2017, 139; Mishara & Weisstub 2005, 25–26.) For this reason, dissemination of research results is an act (of power) that requires careful ethical consideration.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “On the ethics of suicide research.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 29 December, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/12/29/on-the-ethics-of-suicide-research/  >


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

Foucault, Michel. 1995 [1977]. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books. Originally published in French, Surveiller et punir, 1975.

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

Honkasalo, Marja-Liiisa. 2014. “ ‘When We Stop Living, We also Stop Dying’. Men, Suicide, and Moral Agency.” In Culture, Suicide and the Human Condition, ed. Marja-Liisa Honkasalo & Miira Tuominen. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 171–198.

Marsh, Ian. 2013. “The Uses of History in the Unmaking of Modern Suicide.” Journal of Social History 46 (2013) 3: 744–756.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. Tampere: University of Tampere, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2017. “Hullut, pahat, olosuhteiden uhrit? Eettiset kysymykset itsemurhien historian tutkimuksessa.” [The mad, the bad, the victims of circumstances? Ethical questions in the study of the history of suicides] In Historiantutkimuksen etiikka [The ethics in historical research], ed. Satu Lidman, Anu Koskivirta & Jari Eilola. [Helsinki]: Gaudeamus, 139–158.

Mishara, Brian L. & David N. Weisstub. 2005. ”Ethical and Legal Issues in Suicide Research.” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 28 (2005), 23–41.

Research notes: women, emperors and supernatural things

Lately I have been presenting my research in a couple of conferences, and in December, I will present yet another paper on the subject. Earlier this month I attended the Finnish conference on medieval studies, Dies Medievales, in Tampere, where I discussed the death of Nero and its portrayal in Scandinavia. In ancient Rome, the story of Nero’s death was told, for instance, by the Roman historian Suetonius (ca. 69- after 122), according to whom Nero first escaped from Rome, and later, as he knew he was pursued by his enemies, he stabbed himself. According to Suetonius, Nero did not die immediately, and knowing that his enemies were approaching, and to avoid being seized by them, Nero had his follower to strike the lethal blow. In practice, then, Nero’s death was an ‘assisted suicide’.

However, at some point of its transmission, new versions the story of Nero’s death started to appear in medieval northern Europe. In some versions, for instance, the role of Nero’s follower was erased, and Nero is just mentioned to have committed suicide. Some versions stated that Nero did not use any blade in his deed but had sharpened a stick with his teeth, which he then used to stab himself. An especially popular version of the story suggested that after Nero had committed suicide, his body was devoured by wolves.

In Sweden, for instance, the story of Nero the Emperor was told in the Fornsvenska legendariet, which is a legendary compiled sometime between 1276 and 1307 by an anonymous writer. In the legendary, it is first stated that St Peter and St Paul had been executed (by Nero), and , “after that Nero also got his reward: He killed himself and wolves ate him” (Thær nest fik ok nero sin løn: Han drap sik siælfwir ok vlua ato han. Fornsvenska legendariet, I:107–108).  The medieval Swedish version of Nero’s death could originate from Jacobus of Voragine’s Legenda aurea, but one question still remains: What were the sources used by Jacobus of Voragine (ca. 1230-1298) or the other medieval authors who wrote about Nero’s death and told a version that differed from the story told by the ancient historian.

In the Folklore and Old Norse Mythology conference in Helsinki in the end of November I discussed female suicide in medieval Icelandic mytho-heroic saga literature. The sources in question do not recite stories of actual suicides, and their anonymous writers did not usually express explicitly their attitudes towards selfkilling. However, as literature these mytho-heroic sources may tell of possibilities that were available for medieval Icelanders, as a kind of ‘mental toolbox’ (outillage mental), a concept introduced by Lucien Febvre.  Accordingly, they may tell us of possible methods employed in suicide, possible motives for the act, possible attitudes toward and views of suicide, and so on.

The next paper, which I will present in December in Tartu in the conference Crossing Disciplinary Borders in Viking Age Studies: Problems, Challenges and Solutions, will deal with veiled meanings: I will discuss the possibilities of using post-medieval folklore in the interpretation of certain motifs in medieval sources.  Namely, some of the Icelandic sagas contain stories of people who are killed by supernatural agents. In Grettis saga, for instance, when Glámr – who is portrayed as a wicked, unsociable pagan in the saga – dies it is implied that an evil spirit, meinvættr, which haunts the valley where Glámr is working as a shepherd, is somehow responsible for his death. Þiðranda þáttr Síðu-Hallssonar tells of the death of Þiðrandi who is loved and well-liked by everyone. The story indicates that he is killed by pagan fylgjur who wound him with their swords when he goes out one winter night.

The stories in question may well have been considered to refer to the confrontation and conflicts between the pagan and the Christian, but in this paper, I will discuss other possible interpretations of the two stories in medieval Iceland. I will take up some examples in nineteenth-century Icelandic folklore and examine a similar case in the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig, which I have discussed earlier in my blog. In this folktale, a young woman commits suicide because she had wanted to marry a priest, who nevertheless took another woman as his wife. Later the priest is said to have disappeared, but people expected that he was taken by the dead young woman to her grave, that is, he was supposed to have been killed by a supernatural agent, and his body was according to the story never found.

The folktale is based on a story of the disappearance of a real historical person who lived in the end of the 18th century. Historical sources also mention his disappearance, but they give different information on the finding of his corpse. Some of them insist that the priest’s body was never found, whereas some say that it was found one year after the actual disappearance. It has been suspected that the priest had actually been murdered by some local people, or that he had committed suicide, which in those days was still a legal felony. As a punishment, his property would have been confiscated, and his right to be buried in the churchyard would have been denied. (Sölvi Sveinsson 1986; Sigríður Sigurðardóttir 2012.) Therefore, some people undoubtedly found the story of a supernatural being that killed the priest fairly convenient.

We will never know what really happened to this priest, but in the paper that I will present in Tartu, I will consider whether the folktale and other additional information linked to the story in question may help us in the interpretation of the two medieval cases mentioned above and in examining alternative medieval readings of the stories in question.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: women, emperors and supernatural things.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 29 November, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/11/29/research-notes-women-emperors-and-supernatural-things/  >


Works cited

Fornsvenska legendariet = Stephens, Georg (toim.). 1847. Ett forn-svenskt legendarium, I. P. A. Norstedt & Söner: Stockholm.

Miklabæjar-Solveig = Jón Árnason. 1862. Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og æfintýri, 2 vols. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, I: 295–298.

Sagnagrunnur. A geographically mapped database of Icelandic folk legends. http://www.sagnagrunnur.com/

Sigríður Sigurðardóttir. 2012. ”Solveig from Miklabær.” In Stories from Glaumbær [trans. David Gislason]. Skagfirðinga Heritage Museum Booklet no XVII.  Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga, pp. 23–29. Electronic document, available at http://www.glaumbaer.is/static/files/Gagnabanki/xvii-stories-from-glaumbaer.pdf

Sölvi Sveinsson. 1986. ”Af Solveigu og séra Oddi.” Skagfirðingabók 15 (1986), 69–127.

Gendered suicide: the methods

A little while ago I wrote about the gendered aspects of suicide in history (differences between male and female suicide rates as well as gendered motives). This time it is my intention to consider earlier research on gender and suicide methods. It has been suggested that in general, methods employed by men in western societies from the medieval times to the modern era have tended to be more lethal – even bloody and dramatic, such as throat-cutting or shooting. Women have been less prone to use weapons and firearms compared to men. For instance, in the nineteenth century it was assumed that women would rather hang, drown or poison themselves (although it should be noted that men could also employ these methods), and in the twentieth century statistics, poison still appeared as a more common method among women compare to men, as far as attempted and completed suicides were considered. Men, then, would resort more often to firearms. (Kushner 1985, 546–548; Butler 2006.)

Earlier research does not offer detailed information about the methods used in medieval Scandinavia – the historical and cultural contexts my own study concentrates on –  but examples from medieval continental Europe and England as well as early modern Europe offer some comparative material. Alexander Murray’s study of the methods in medieval French and English legal sources, chronicles and religious literature suggests that in general, female suicides were most often committed by drowning (with hanging as the second option). However, there are differences between the sources used. According to English and French legal sources, hanging outnumbered drowning in female suicide methods, with the exception of English coroners’ rolls and Westminster rolls, which reported more female cases of drowning than hanging. In French legal sources hanging outnumbered other methods in both male and female suicides, although as the cause of death in female suicides, drowning was reported to be far more common than blades. ‘Blades’ (which supposedly included weapons as well) were used less often by women compared to men, and more men committed suicide by blade compared to women. Both English and French sources record more male suicides by blades compared to women, but it appears that the difference between male and female suicides committed by blades was clearest in the recorded cases in English coroners’ and Westminster rolls. (Murray 1998, 403–413.)

As far as the Scandinavian suicide methods were concerned, in seventeenth-century Swedish lower court records hanging was a method that was used most often by both sexes, i.e. it was a ‘gender-neutral practice’. However, women were more likely to drown themselves compared to men, whereas use of weapons (including knives, swords and firearms) was extremely rare among women: no cases where swords and firearms were used were detected in the sources that were scrutinized. What stands out from the sources is that the blades women may have used were likely to have been objects that were used in domestic spheres, such as knives. In addition, drowning was considered a feminine way to end one’s life – a kind of ‘gendered [suicide] meme’, which had parallels in other early modern cultures. (Miettinen 2015, 380–384.) In early medieval Schleswig and Holstein, for instance, drowning was the most common method used by women who wished to end their lives, and the majority of the drowned were women. (Lind 1999, 299, 326–333; see also on drowning as a feminine method in early modern English context MacDonald 1986, 66; in early modern Geneva, see Watt 2001, 34.)  

However, it should be noted that drowning as the cause of death could cause the officials and jurors extra problems: it was not easy to distinguish whether death by drowning was a misadventure, or the result of an intentional act. Drowning did not leave any traces in the body, which could have been unequivocally interpreted as suicide. (Vera Lind 1999, 200, 326–333; Miettinen 2015, 270272.)

Although the earlier studies do not comment on the situation in medieval Iceland or Scandinavia, they do imply that in many medieval and early modern contexts women would prefer drowning to using a weapon. However, it should be noted that the methods used are also dependent on the context and the means available. Drowning, for instance, was a method that in practice was available for nearly anyone if there were some wells, rivers and lakes nearby. In both medieval and modern context, female suicides tend to have been regarded as ‘pacific’ and ‘domestic’: e. g. women who hanged themselves in medieval England could use a wimple, which was a traditional headdress used by women. Earlier studies also suggest that in many cases a ‘blade’, if used, could indicate a knife used in domestic work instead of a sword, since women were presumably less likely to have handled weapons in the first place. (See e.g. Kushner 1985, 547, 549–551; Butler 2006, 147.) The question remains, however, whether the tendency to see death by (weapon) blade as a male method and drowning as a feminine method in early modern Sweden reflects a view that had long roots in the Scandinavian worldview.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: the methods.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 28 September, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/gendered-suicide-the-methods/   >


Works cited

Butler, Sara M. “Women, Suicide, and the Jury in Later Medieval England.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 32 (1/ 2006): 141–166.

Kushner, Howard I. 1985. Women and Suicide in Historical Perspective. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 10 (1985) 3: 537–552.

Lind, Vera. Selbstmord in der Frühen Neuzeit: Diskurs, Lebenswelt und kultureller Wandel am Beispiel der Herzogtümer Schleswig und Holstein. Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 146. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.

McDonald, Michael and 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.

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

Watt, Jeffrey R. 1996. The Family, Love, and Suicide in Early Modern Geneva. Journal of Family History 21 (1996): 63–86.

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.

Gendered suicide: the person

Several sociological and historical studies suggest that suicide is and has been a gendered phenomenon. In history, as far as completed suicides are concerned, men have committed suicide more often[1], or: their deaths have been classified as suicide more frequently. Research on suicide in early modern Sweden, Scotland, England, and Germany support this view: in these cultural contexts also, men appear have committed more suicides that women. (Kushner 1985, 543–546; Lind 1999, 190–193; Maris et al. 2000, 148; Miettinen 2015, 373–375, 385.) In my own research I am especially interested in the medieval context: according to sources scrutinized by Alexander Murray (1998, 379–386), the ratio of medieval suicide was around two to three males to one female.

Why would men have committed more suicides than women? Various explanations have been offered. For instance, it has been suggested that men in general engage in violent behavior more than women (women appear to have been underrepresented in the other convicted violence crimes as well). On the other hand, the methods men have employed in committing suicide may have been more violent (or even: more effective) than those of the women. It has also been suggested that in some contexts the difference between male and female suicide rates depended on different motives. In addition, familial discipline, which in medieval and early modern context could also involve violence, was often considered a man’s task in the household and part of the natural order – in other words, male violence was considered more acceptable than female aggression (bearing in mind that suicide was considered an act of violence against the self). Accordingly, the role of women was likely to be socially more restricted, or “harmonized” than men’s who were allowed less social conformity. (Kushner 1985, 540–542, 546–551; Lind 1999, 193–194; Maris et al. 2000, 145–146, 152, 156; Hacking 2008, 7–8; Butler 2006, 143–144; Miettinen 2015, 375.)

(At this phase it should be borne in mind that suicide was not only considered a grave sin, but also a legal felony in many parts of medieval and early modern Europe. The felony could be punished by confiscation of chattels and burial outside churchyard. In England, for instance, according to Groot (2000), the property of the suicide was not forfeit in Eyre rolls that date from 1175–1221; after that suicide started to be categorized as felony, but the idea and practice of seeing suicide as felony became established in the 1230s. In Scandinavia, confiscation of property as a punishment for suicide was established e.g. in Iceland in the thirteenth century, but in Sweden, for instance, the posthumous punishment of the suicide involved only the place and manner of burial. Accordingly suicides would not receive a Christian burial in the churchyard.)

It has also been suggested that, for instance in the medieval context, since suicide was a taboo female suicides were considered something truly abhorrent and too horrific to think about, and for this reason the sentences of female suicides were likely to be modified, which could then result in fewer female suicides in legal records. Some researchers suggest that women could be protected and consequently, cases of female suicides were handled privately – however, some historians disagree with this view. Or, women were not expected to be capable of committing any violent crimes, such as homicide or suicide. In addition, in medieval English legal records and in the formulae used in them (studied by Alexander Murray), for instance, the judges appear to have been harder on men than on women in their verdicts. Men were often represented as being clearly aware of what they were doing and found guilty of felony. In the case of women it could be indicated that the act was committed e.g. under some external pressure. Such cases could then result in exculpation, i.e. the death was categorized e.g. as misadventure. Therefore, no posthumous punishment, confiscation of property, or shame resulted from the act – the women whose deaths were handled in this way would still receive a Christian burial and their chattels were not confiscated. (Murray 1998, 383–385; see also Lind 1999, 193–194, 197–201; Butler 2006, 144–145; Miettinen 2015, 375–377.)

However, Alexander Murray whose study (1998, 2000) is based on a variety of sources, ranging from medieval English, German and French legal records to chronicles, abbey registers and religious literature has also pointed out that attention should not be payed merely to completed, i.e. “full” suicides. If suicide threats and attempts are included in the study of suicide in hagiographical sources, such as miracula and vitae (excluding exempla), the ratio of male suicide to female suicide becomes inverted (according to the sources used by Murray: 1,6 female: 1 male). (Murray 1998, 380–383.) This ratio is more or less consonant with modern findings, which suggest that women engage more often in suicidal behavior than men, and that suicide attempts and unsuccessful suicides are more common among women than among men. Still, men are more likely to die as a result of their suicidal act than women.  Accordingly, men appear to engage in more fatal suicidal behavior.  (Murray 1998, 380–383; see also Kushner 1985, 543–546; Canetto 1997; Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998, and the studies mentioned in Murray 1998, 383n; Lind 1999, 197–198; Maris et al. 2000, 150–151.)

Murray has also pointed out that legal sources may be problematic especially in the study of medieval suicide in that suicide as an illegal act, which was punishable by confiscation of property, could make officials selective; it must have been found tempting to record suicides committed by important and wealthy males in particular. Cases that were found unimportant and those suicides who possessed no wealth could perhaps be more easily ignored. Women would often be included in the latter category. (Murray 1998, 380, 390; see also Lind 1999, 194 (on early modern Germany); Groot 2000, 9.)

Roger D. Groot has also pointed out in his study of medieval Eyre rolls (from 1194–1232) and Pipe Rolls (for the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John) that women’s cause of death in general was not always investigated in detail. For instance, in early thirteenth-century Bedford, England, murder fine did not necessarily apply to women. Therefore, if a woman had been killed, her death would have been adjudged neither murder nor misadventure. In addition, an accidental death of a female could be adjudged misfortune, a category which was, however, clearly distinguished from suicide. Or, a woman’s accidental death was left without judgment altogether. It could be merely stated that no one was suspect. Although the sources studied by Groot at first glance seem to imply that women were treated differently from men in suicide cases, Groot concludes that such was probably not the case. (Groot 2000, 8–9, 11–12.)

However, early modern Scandinavian sources offer another view of the possible selectiveness of the jurors. As Riikka Miettinen has shown, in early modern Sweden where suicide was not punished by confiscation of property but by exclusion from the churchyard, suspected suicides were not always treated equally. Those of the suicide who had been well liked and respected in life or towards whom people felt sympathy, could in certain occasions avoid ending up in secular court or escape a sentence – and therefore, they could still receive a Christian burial. Or, they could be deemed insane (which resulted in a milder punishment, i.e. silent burial aside the churchyard, which indicated burial without ceremonies), whereas unpopular individuals and people who lacked social ties were likely to be judged more rigorously. Accordingly, gender alone did not influence the verdict. The social status of the person was apparently a more important factor. However, it appears that women were diagnosed insane more often than men who were more frequently expected to have committed suicide for rational causes. (Miettinen 2015, 85–86, 367–452.)

To conclude, although historical sources have to be used cautiously and statistics based on their information are not commensurable with modern statistics, they offer some guidelines for the study of suicide and its gendered aspects in medieval Scandinavia. Earlier research also suggests that suicide methods and motives can likewise be gendered. I will continue to discuss the gender issue regarding these points – methods and motives – in my following posts.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: the person.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 4 August, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/gendered-suicide-the-person/   >


Works cited

Butler, Sara M. 2006. Women, Suicide, and the Jury in Later Medieval England. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 32 (2006) 1: 141–166.

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

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

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 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Kushner, Howard I. 1985. Women and Suicide in Historical Perspective. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 10 (1985) 3: 537–552.

Lind, Vera. 1999. Selbstmord in der Frühen Neuzeit: Diskurs, Lebenswelt und kulturellerWandel am Beispiel der Herzogtümer Schleswig und Holstein. Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 146. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Maris, Ronald W., Alan L. Berman & Morton M. Silverman. 2000. Suicide, Gender, and Sexuality. In Ronald W. Maris, Alan L. Berman & Morton M. Silverman (eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology. New York: The Guilford Press, 145–169.

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.


[1] Naturally, some cultural differences do occur.

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.