When suicide became insane

An interesting study of the nineteenth-century New York State Lunatic Asylum by Kathleen M. Brian (2016) discusses suicide and its link with insanity and mental disorder. Brian points out that suicide became linked with suicide more frequently as a result of its criminalization, which had taken place in many parts of the Europe in the Middle Ages. Confiscation of property was not part of the legal punishment of suicide everywhere in Europe, but for instance in England where the chattels of the suicide were forfeited the practice of confiscation appears to have caused verdicts non compos mentis, that is, it was indicated that the suicide had not been in sound mind, instead of felonia de se. Obtaining such a verdict could mean that the property of the suicide was not confiscated. (Brian 2016, 589)

It was well understood that confiscation of property did not really punish the suicide but his or her family, and in England the punishment appears to have become less “popular” in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, although suicide did remain a legal felony.[1] In the American colonies, then, the practice of confiscation that was part of the traditional law in England ended, e.g. in Massachusetts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although suicide still remained a secular and religious crime. Earlier research on the situation in early modern Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, the Carolinas, Georgia and New Hampshire also suggests that forfeiture may have been avoided or the property of the suicide could be undervalued, to avoid impoverishing the relatives of the suicide.(Brian 2016, 589–590; Snyder 2007,  663)

Insanity as the cause of suicide nevertheless suggested that the suicide had e.g. temporarily lacked reason and will and was therefore innocent. As a result, the family and the relatives of the suicide could not be reprehended for not having been able to prevent the act. The statistics of nineteenth-century medical professionals (including the staff working in the above mentioned asylum studied by Brian 2016), supported the popular view of suicide as an act linked to insanity – and emphasized the role of asylums in preventing suicides. All in all, the tendency to consider self-killers insane has been interpreted by historians as a sign of growing tolerance and compassion towards suicides in the early modern societies. (Brian 2016, 587–588, 589–596; Snyder 2007, 663, 667)

The empathy and tolerance towards self-killers and their families was also expressed in language. The coining of the term “suicide” in seventeenth-century England and its use, which increased gradually, as well the spreading of the term in Europe, which took place in the eighteenth century, have been seen as expressions of the growing sensibility and less derogatory attitude towards suicide. (Snyder 2007, 659, 667)

Kathleen M. Brian’s study concentrates on nineteenth-century North American context, but apparently reflects a cultural change that gradually took place in the western world in general. The popular press may have had an important role in this change. The press criticized the practice of what was considered the traditional law, which still found suicide a crime. They also criticized local cases – for instance, if a suicide had been refused a burial in the churchyard, or if s/he was buried in a manner that was considered pagan, e.g. in crossroads. The press would also report the causes of death, including causes of suicide. Ascribing suicide to insanity was apparently seen to protect the self-killers family. (Brian 2016, 589–591) Simultaneously the views of suicide and its cause presented in media also shaped the views of suicide held by people in general.

As the attitudes changed, suicide can be said to have became medicalized. What had previously been considered bad, deviant and demonic became a sickness or mental distress. Accordingly, suicide became an act that was associated with the depressed, the mad and the melancholic. (Snyder 2007, 659; on medicalization, see e.g. Conrad & Schneider 1992; on the origin of the tolerating attitudes, see e.g. MacDonald & Murphy; briefly also in Snyder 2007, 660)

However, the views of people, the punishments imposed in courts and actual burial practices were not consistent in England and its colonies, or in rest of the Europe, but could differ from place to place, as well as from social class to another. As Terri Snyder has pointed out in her study of the history of suicide in early modern west, wealthy and respected heads of the household or members of the aristocracy and clergy could go unpunished or given the verdict non compos mentis more often than people of the lower classes. In addition, such marginalized people as slaves, servants and criminals were more likely to be punished post-mortem than other people, e.g. by mutilation of the corpse or deviant burial, in case such punishments were still practiced. (Snyder 2007, 662–665)

Although the medicalization of suicide has also been criticized since the 1970s (e.g. Zola 1972) and continues to be criticized, it has been suggested that even today, both laymen and professionals often consider depression as the most likely reason for suicide (Kral 1994).  None of the professionals would presumably think that depression were the only cause of suicide, but the argument deserves some further consideration. Although the study made by Emile Durkheim in the 19th century (which is a classic) has been widely criticized since he relied on official statistics and did not consider the possibility that people who were responsible for those statistics may have defined “suicide” differently (on the criticism, see e.g. Douglas 1967; Van Poppel & Day 1996; Varty 2000), the results of his study merit some attention here and serve as an eye-opener.

Based on his sources, Durkheim argued that mental illnesses (as they were defined in Durkheim’s time) and suicides were not unequivocally linked. Mental illness could result in suicide, but also people defined as sane committed suicide – a notion that could already be read between the lines of the studies of Brian (2016) and Snyder (2007) discussed above. In addition, Durkheim was apparently critical towards the urbanization of his own time, and he also brought forth that suicide was more widespread in towns and cities than in the countryside. He also concluded that suicide was more common among the wealthy and the educated than among the poor, and among the military people than among the civilians. (Durkheim 1952 [1897].)

Durkheim’s research needs to be handled with criticism, but his observations are interesting since they emphasize the multiplicity of the causes. (Although the observations can also be regarded as a critical attitude as far as the medicalization of suicide is concerned, I will not discuss here in greater depth Durkheim’s role in the criticism in question.) Following from Durkheim’s observations, I have grown more aware of the bias that may lurk behind the sources as well as earlier research. For instance: that people’s views of suicide and their causes may not always tell of actual causes but of “imagined causes” in that people may interpret the act in light of the knowledge and understanding they have concerning the causes of suicide considered common in the culture they inhabit. Or, that the mental aspects of suicide may be emphasized and more vigorously looked for in research if there is a tendency in the researcher’s own culture to see suicide as the result of depression and melancholy. When studying the history of suicide we have to keep our eyes open to see even those causes of suicide that are not considered likely or obvious in our own culture, but which contemporary people may have held as common causes of suicide.

Accordingly, questions that rise when studying suicide in medieval Scandinavia include whether suicides could be committed for reasons that differed from the ones usually listed among the common causes of suicide e.g. in medieval and early modern European context, such as  depression, despair, melancholy, mental disorder, crises of faith, economic collapse, extreme physical pain, and so on? Could suicides be committed, for instance, as a consequence of anger or fury, or spite and scorn, out of disrespect towards others or to harm them, to exercise power and authority over others, or to benefit other members of the  society? Or, for other reasons, which have not yet been discovered?


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “When suicide became insane.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 4 April, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/when-suicide-became-insane/  >


Works cited

Brian, Kathleen M. 2016. “The Weight of Perhaps Ten or a Dozen Human Lives”: Suicide, Accountability, and the Life-Saving Technologies of the Asylum. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 90 (2016) 4, 583–610.

Conrad, Peter & Schneider, Joseph. 1992 [1980]. Deviance and Medicalization. From Badness to Sickness. (With a new afterword by the authors). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Douglas, Jack D. 2015 [1967]. The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UniversityPress.

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

Kral, Michael J. 1994. Suicide as Social Logic. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior 24 (1994) 3, 245–255.

MacDonald, Michael & Terence R. Murphy. 1990. Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Snyder, Terri L. 2007. What Historians Talk About When They Talk About Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America. History Compass 5/2 (2007): 658–674.

van Poppel, Frans & Lincoln H. Day. 1996. A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide: Without Committing the ‘Ecological Fallacy.’ American Sociological Review 61 (1996) 3, 500–507.

Varty, John. 2000. Suicide, Statistics and Sociology. Assessing Douglas’ Critique of Durkheim. In Durkheim’s Suicide: A Century of Research and Debate, ed. W.S.F. Pickering & Geoffrey Walford. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought 28. London, New York: Routledge, 53–65.

Zola, Irving. 1972. Medicine as an Institution of Social Control. The Sociological Review 20 (1972) 4, 487–504.


[1] As has been shown in earlier research, in medieval and early modern Sweden, for instance, the property of the suicide was not confiscated, although suicide was considered a felony and burial (outside the churchyard or in the woods) was part of the posthumous punishment of the suicide. Miettinen 2015.