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.

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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/   >

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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.

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Gendered suicide: causes and motives

In my earlier post I considered what earlier research has to say about gender and suicide in medieval and early modern Europe in particular, or in western culture in general. It appeared that, according to statistics, in the western culture men have usually committed more suicides than women. If suicide attempts and threats as well as suicidal imagery are included, however, women may outnumber men – but they appear to engage in less fatal suicidal behavior compared to men. However, it is not only suicide statistics that suggest that suicide is a gendered phenomenon.  Earlier studies suggest that the motives of the self-killers have often been considered gendered as well. Naturally, as suicide notes are mostly a later phenomenon (before 1700 they were extremely rare or nonexistent, see e.g. McDonald & Murphy 1990, 222; 228–229, 335–337) the motives for medieval and early modern suicide discussed in research, for instance, are assumptions – i.e. they quite often answer the question what other people thought had urged an individual to commit suicide.

My own research interest lies in the history of medieval Scandinavian suicide in particular. Therefore, to find some contemporary material and earlier results to compare with, I have acquainted myself with Alexander Murray’s (1998) observations on the motives of medieval suicide in English, German and French sources. As Murray points out, his study of the subject in his book Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves is not yet a comprehensive one since he intends to discuss the issue in greater depth in the third volume of his extensive history of medieval suicide (forthcoming – a book that the historians of suicide are all eagerly awaiting!). Therefore, Murray’s study does not yet make a distinction between male motives and female motives, but offers an overview of the causes and motives of suicide described in various sources, such as hagiographical sources, town chronicles and legal records. His preliminary results offer some interesting observations, however, and give some idea of the possible causes and motives of suicide, which might have been identified in medieval Scandinavian sources as well.

Interestingly, Murray notes that the motives indicated in various sources – chronicles, religious sources and legal sources – differ from each other. In chronicles, for instance, most cases appear under the category entitled by Murray as “prison and accusation”, which indicates that the individual had committed suicide to escape a legal verdict. “Defeat, violence, or wound” and “love or bereavement” (including e.g. spouse bereavement, jealousy and loss of virginity) are second on the list, although the intention to avoid imprisonment and legal punishments outnumber both of these motives clearly. Other motives categorized by Murray appear in the chronicles as well, although less frequently, such as “disgrace”, “shame”, “madness or demon”,  “loss” and “disease”. These categories used by Murray (which are only used as umbrella terms and include various kinds of motives that can be found as somehow related) are the same in religious sources (e.g. saints’ lives, miracles and exempla). What is significant, however, is –firstly – that three-quarters of the suicides discovered by Murray in the sources he has examined are in religious sources. Secondly, in addition to the categories listed above, in religious sources another category defined by Murray occurs: “despair, tristitia, or ‘fate’”. Interestingly, this category is the most common one when motives for suicide in religious sources are examined. The categories “’madness’, or demon”, “shame” and “love or bereavement” are slightly fewer in number, but “loss”, “disgrace”, “prison or accusation”, “defeat, violence or wound” and disease have less cases than the three mentioned above (i.e. madness/demon, shame and love/bereavement). (Murray 1998, 400–401.)

In addition, Murray has pointed out that the chronicles concentrate more on the worldly matters and on the prospering and defeats of the great men (Murray terms them “extroverts”), whereas the religious sources focus on the inner lives of people, and, instead of stating any clear motives, they imply that despair, sadness and sloth, for instance, are among the motivating forces that may propel suicidal behavior. (Murray 1998, 400–402; on emotional causes of medieval suicide see also McNamara and Ruys 2014.)

Murray also considers the question, which of the two groups of source material – chronicles or religious sources – may offer a more reliable picture of medieval suicide. He points out that the issue still requires further research. However, he suggests that “laity normally committed suicide for a tangible, external reason, while priests, monks, and nuns were the ones who envisaged, attempted, and committed suicide for invisible motives, motives definable, that is only in psychological or spiritual terms.” (Murray 1998, 402.) Accordingly, the clerical people who produced religious sources were interested about the state of the soul, whereas in secular contexts, people who composed chronicles expected suicides to be motivated by external factors. Both views may reflect the medieval reality, in their own way.

As far as the medieval English, German and French legal sources scrutinized by Murray are concerned, Murray notes that these legal texts are far less eager to explain the motives of the suicides. Only three motives are categorized by Murray, namely “prison or accusation”, “disease” and “madness” in English sources, and in addition to them, “wound” in French sources.  Naturally, criminals who would want to escape a legal punishment, or perhaps were waiting for execution, were already listed in legal records, so their suicide was likely to be reported as well. In addition to these motives, economic causes, such as debt, were seen as likely motive for suicide. Based on his observations Murray suspects that – due to the nature of his sources which also included French Letters of Remission – madness may be overrepresented in the legal records he has studied. Therefore, the sources do perhaps not reflect the medieval reality, as far as the frequency of madness in suicide cases is concerned. However, based on his observations on the frequency of disease Murray also suggests that illness may in fact have been “a commoner motive for suicide than chronicles, miracles, or exempla would give us reason to believe.”[1] (Murray 1998, 403.) At any rate, great pains and severe illness would perhaps have been considered an understandable motive for suicide in many contexts. (See also Miettinen 2015, 389 on disease and pain as background factors of suicide in seventeenth-century Sweden.)

Since Murray’s study does not concentrate on gendered motives in particular, I have also acquainted myself with some research on early modern and modern suicide that discuss the issue, to find some points of comparison for my own study of medieval Scandinavian suicide. Riikka Miettinen (2015; see also Miettinen 2012) has studied suicide in early modern Sweden in light of the legal praxis in seventeenth-century Swedish Lower courts.  Although her sources differ from my own, i.e. medieval Icelandic saga literature, and the era and area she concentrates on is different from my own, her research offers some valuable information. Among other things, it also contains quite an extensive analysis on the gendered aspects of suicide (Miettinen speaks of background factors instead of causes or motives).

Miettinen points out that in early modern Sweden, compared to male suicides female suicides were more often connected with certain life circumstances. To begin with, in early modern Sweden insanity was considered a mitigating factor when suicide cases were put on trial. Insane suicides received a milder punishment. According to the sources scrutinized by Miettinen, mental illness and insanity were the most common background factor of suicides mentioned by the witnesses in court. However, over half of the suicides that were motivated by mental illness and insanity (according to the testimonies of the witnesses) were women. In addition, women were also more likely to receive a sentence as insane suicide compared to men. (Miettinen 2015, 385–387.)

Therefore, Miettinen suggests that female suicides were less likely to be treated as rational and sane compared to men, who were more likely to be expected to have logical reasons to do their deed. The view of the witnesses may have been influenced by contemporary ideas of women as the physically, mentally and spiritually weaker sex. (Miettinen 2015, 387–388; on a similar views in medieval English legal records, see Murray 1998, 384.) In addition, according to the sources scrutinized by Miettinen, male and female insanity appear to have been gendered as well. Whereas men would be melancholic (an illness often associated with the learned intellectual elite) or their madness was described as more active in nature, women were described as passive and suffering from mental weakness. (Miettinen 2015, 388.)

According to the early medieval Swedish Lower court testimonies, mental illness and insanity was the most common cause of female suicides. Other motives mentioned as background factors of female suicides were (when listed from the more common to the least common one): “economic difficulties/poverty”, “interpersonal/marital discord”, “physical illness/disability”, “loss of a family member”, and “crime/threat of punishment”. A few cases of “guilty conscience/feelings of sinfulness” and “alcohol abuse” were also recorded. Men committed suicide for similar reasons, but “physical illness/disability” appears as the most common background factor in Miettinen’s sources. “Mental illness/insanity” comes second, then “interpersonal/marital discord”, “economic difficulties/poverty”, “crime/threat of punishment”, “loss of a family member”. Slightly more men were described as suffering from “guilty conscience/feelings of sinfulness” or “alcohol abuse” compared to women. (Miettinen 2015, 387, 389.)

If the background factors are examined further by gender, it turns out that economic difficulties and poverty as well as emotional matters appear in Miettinen’s sources as gendered, too. Poverty is mentioned in female suicide cases more often compared to men. Although men were expected to take care of economic issues, in early modern Sweden the majority of the poor were women. Whereas male suicides were troubled by debts and sustenance, female suicides had lived in utter poverty and had resorted to thieving and begging. Concerning emotional matters, such as interpersonal or marital discord or bereavement, love problems were more often mentioned in female suicide cases compared to men, whereas men would, for instance, quarrel with neighbors. In general, women were expected to be motivated by emotional and interpersonal issues more often than men. (Miettinen 2015, 389–392; see, however, the study by Watt 1996, who argues that in eighteenth-century Geneva marriage offered immunity to suicide, to both men and women.)

Legal sources are not unproblematic either, however. Miettinen points out that all the information presented by witnesses was not necessarily written down. Things that were written down were apparently held as relevant. Naturally the views of the witnesses and the views of the authorities – e.g. whether the act was comprehended as a morally, religiously and legally punishable deed – had an impact on the witnesses’ testimonies and their ideas of what could be the cause of suicide. Their testimonies could be intended to elicit empathy, to express reprehension or to explain the unexplainable and to make the act understandable. Therefore, although the category “mental illness or insanity” appears to outnumber the others, mental disorder may not in fact have been the major cause of female suicide in early modern Sweden. In addition, witnesses may not actually have considered the self-killer insane, but merely wished to ensure that the punishment would be less severe. Moreover, as Miettinen has noted, gender alone did not influence the empathy felt towards the suicide, or lack of it, or the probability of an insane suicide verdict. (Miettinen 2015, 386, 388–389, 394.)

The emotions that lurk behind the motives may sometimes be hard to define. What Miettinen has categorized as “crime/threat of punishment” appears to indicate not only fear of punishment but also the individual’s wish to escape the shame that was associated with public trials and punishments. In addition, the category of “guilty conscience/feelings of sinfulness” may be linked to shame as well – and thus the category may resemble that of Murray in his study of medieval suicide – although Miettinen suggests that the category may reflect the moral and religious attitudes of the authorities who regarded suicide an act caused by despair and moral-religious failure. (Miettinen 2015, 392–394.)

As far as guilty conscience and feelings of sinfulness are concerned, the greater number of men could indeed be related to the assumption that men would ponder such questions more, as Miettinen (2015, 393) suggests, bearing in mind the early modern view of women as the spiritually and mentally weaker sex. In medieval Iceland, for instance, emotions of moral responsibility – such as guilt – were thought to require wisdom and intelligence, that is, the capability to recognise the consequences of one’s actions and their own responsibility for them. (Kanerva 2015, 88–90.)

Research of other historical periods suggests that some of the gendered aspects of early medieval Swedish suicide are specific for the culture in question, whereas some of them can be found in other cultures as well. For instance, Howard I. Kushner has brought forth that according to nineteenth-century (Anglo-American) discourses of suicide, women were expected to commit suicide because of moral and emotional issues, whereas men were anticipated to be more worried about material things and questions of (male) honor (although it could naturally be asked whether honor as well is an emotional issue). Consequently, women would become suicidal because they had been betrayed, deserted or otherwise disappointed with love, or if they had been tortured by jealousy or experienced problems at home. Conversely, male suicides were interwoven with their role as public figures and active agents in the society. They were more often motivated by economic issues, such as financial losses, bankruptcy, and other misfortunes. Or, they committed suicide because they wanted to escape a legal punishment, or as a consequence of their alcohol abuse, for instance. (On gender and suicide in the nineteenth century, see Kushner 1985, 541.)

The studies discussed above show that the motives of suicides have varied, but that they have also been gendered in that in history, men and women appear to have ended their lives for different reasons. Again, the historical context matters, as does the view of gender held in the society under scrutiny. The cases discussed here do not concentrate on gender and suicide in the Middle Ages, but they will be helpful in the study of medieval Scandinavian suicide in that they offer material I can compare my own results with.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: causes and motives.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 22 August, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/gendered-suicide-causes-and-motives/   >

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Works cited

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

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

McNamara, Rebecca F. and Juanita Feros Ruys. 2014. Unlocking the Silences of the Self-Murdered: Textual Approaches to Suicidal Emotions in the Middle AgesExemplaria 26 (2014), 58–80.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2012. Gendered Suicide in Early Modern Sweden and Finland. In Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Marianna Muravyeva & Raisa Maria Toivo. Routledge Research in Gender and History, 14. New York: Routledge, 173–190.

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

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

Salmela, Anu. 2017. Kuolemantekoja. Naisten itsemurhat 1800-luvun jälkipuolen tuomioistuinprosesseissa. [The title in English: “Making deaths. Female suicides in late nineteenth-century [Finnish] court processes.].  PhD Thesis (Cultural History), University of Turku.

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

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[1] In fact, I find it possible that the category that Murray names as “wounds”, which is found in French Letters of Remission could also be related to “illness” since infected wounds, in an era when antibiotic medicine had not yet been discovered, could result in a condition that could be construed as an illness.

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.

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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/   >

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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.

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[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.

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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/  >

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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.

What is martyrdom? (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “What is martyrdom? (Part 1).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/what-is-martyrdom-part-1/  >

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Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval causes of suicide

One of the questions I will be dealing with in my project is the ways in which suicide has been explained in medieval Scandinavia, in other words, what were regarded as plausible causes of suicide.

Causes of suicide have been explained in various ways in different cultural and historical contexts. It has been pointed out that, compared to premodern eras, in our modern world the assumed causes of suicide have become medicalized, pathologized and secularized as a consequence of social, cultural and scientific change. Suicide has been tied e.g. to anger and depression, and recent studies have also pointed out the use of suicide as a ’weapon’ or instrument of revenge among subjugated peoples (Rosenberger 2003; Hacking 2008, 2–3; Snyder 2007; Dahlgren 2014; Myllykangas 2014; see also e.g. NHS choices; suicide.org).

In the medieval context, causes of suicide were often interpreted from religious perspective, but in many cases social, psychological and health-related aspects were recognized to have played an important part in the motivation of the suicide as well. Based on studies of English and continental sources, for instance, despair, hopelessness, misfortune and various kinds of misery, godlessness and sinful life, old age and infirmity have all been considered causes of suicide. In medieval court records (e.g. in England and Florence), many of the recorded suicides were, e.g. criminals who could suffer from guilt or be afraid of their imminent verdict and punishment, debtors in shame, sick who felt discomfort and impatience because of their illness and suffered from fever, excessive and constant pain, or other extreme mental and bodily symptoms, or the insane (naturally, what was considered ‘insane’ in the medieval context is another issue). Motives for suicide could also include economic collapse (the cause has been attested both among the rich and the poorer), feelings of insecurity and inability to care for one’s family, damage done on the person’s social status and poverty and destitution, including depredations of war as a consequence of pillaging. (Murray 1998, 32–38, 89, 155–164; Pfau 2008, 188–190, 195–199, 212; McNamara 2014) In medieval fourteenth-century Florence, also “raging madness” and fury, even “boredom with life” appear to have been included among the plausible causes of suicide. (Murray 1998, 89)

The role of diabolic influence in suicide was also acknowledged in the Middle Ages (e.g. Schmitt 1976, 4–5; Pfau 2008, 233), although e.g. Rebecca McNamara (2014, 11) has pointed out that, with reference to English sources at least, the devil (or sin) as the cause of suicide is rarely mentioned in secular contexts such as legal records prior to late fourteenth century. (McNamara 2014) In addition, Murray (1998, 115–119) has noted based on his study of medieval chronicles of religious orders that suicide was also considered a divine punishment, a “fate reserved for ‘bad’ people”.

In addition to the causes listed above, Rebecca McNamara has pointed out that in medieval England emotions as well were considered common causes of suicide. In a study of medieval 13th and 14th-century English bureaucratic records and life narratives written in first person it is suggested that such suicide-prompting emotions could include sentiments “associated with crises of faith, physical illness or pain, and social shame”. Although emotions were not explicitly named emotional motivation could still be indicated, e.g. by referring to infirmity. (McNamara 2014, 11–12; McNamara & Ruys 2014, 66–74, 59–66). In her study of medieval French remission letters, Aleksandra Pfau has found that also jealousy was considered to be among the causes of suicide. (Pfau 2008, 203–205; Pfau 2010, 113–115)

The sources that I’m using in my study of suicide in medieval Scandinavia differ from the sources used in the studies referred to above in that the majority of the sources consists of vernacular literature. Therefore, what I will be studying is not actual suicides or suicide verdicts, but suicides described in literature. Consequently, I will not be able to trace ‘actual’ causes of suicide as they would have been categorized and recorded in official documents (or comprehended by surviving relatives and the society as the causes of the suicide) – bearing in mind that some suicides could escape such records or where exempted from suspicions of suicide in the first place for various reasons (see. e.g. Murray 1998, 61-69, 102–103; Butler 2006, 263-264) – but causes of suicide considered likely by the medieval writers of the sagas. I depart from the notion that literature may reflect the reality of the society where it was produced, and simultaneously the literature influenced this reality and was influenced by it, and affected the suicide discourses available for medieval Scandinavian people.

At the moment I’m conducting a case study of a young woman called Hrefna in a thirteenth-century Family saga, Laxdæla saga. Hrefna is married to a man called Kjartan, but before his marriage Kjartan has been loved by a certain Guðrún who does not seem to approve of their marriage. Later Kjartan is killed by Guðrún’s instigation, and Hrefna suffers from great sorrow as a consequence of her loss. The saga tells that after the incident, she was “very swollen with grief, but still she behaved in a courteous manner (var mjök harmþrungin; en þó bar hon sik kurteisliga. Laxdæla saga,158). She lives only a while after returning back to her parents, and the saga states that “people say that she had died of grief” (er þat sǫgn manna, at hon hafi sprungit af stríði. Laxdæla saga, 158).

According to earlier research, there is evidence in saga literature of a vernacular belief in the power of emotions to cause death that would have been held in medieval Scandinavia. According to this belief, people could indeed die of grief. (Thomas 2013; Larrington 2015, 78) This understanding of the possible causes of death suggests a vernacular theory of emotions different from our own (Kanerva 2015), but the notion is also interesting since it raises some intriguing questions concerning the degree of passivity or activity in the process of dying: whether dying of grief was considered a deliberate death or a process that the dying person could not have any influence upon, and/or whether the expression “die of grief” is to be read literally or whether it was actually a euphemism that was used to refer to suicide, to enhance the “politeness” of the text or speak of a taboo (on euphemisms, see e.g. Crespo Fernández 2005). I will be dealing with this subject in the following months and will tell you more about the results in my posts later on.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Medieval causes of suicide.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 March, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/medieval-causes-of-suicide/  >

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Works cited

Butler, Sara M. 2006. Degrees of Culpability: Suicide Verdicts, Mercy, and the Jury in Medieval England. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36 (2006) 2, 261–288.

Crespo Fernández, Eliecer. 2005. Euphemistic Strategies in Politeneness and Face Concerns. Pragmalingüística 13 (2005), 77–86.

Dahlgren, Susanna. 2014. ’She Kissed Death with a Smile’: The Politics and Moralities of the Female Suicide Bomber. In Culture, Suicide and the Human Condition, ed. Marja-Liisa Honkasalo & Miira Tuominen. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 149–170.

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, 1:1–32.

Hill, Thomas D. 2013. Guðrúnarkviða in fyrsta: Guðrún’s Healing Tears. In Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend, ed. Paul Acker & Carolyne Larrington. New York: Routledge, 107–116.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400), School of History, culture and Arts studies, University of Turku. https://oa.doria.fi/handle/10024/103361

Larrington, Carolyne. 2015. Learning to Feel in the Old Norse Camelot? Scandinavian Studies 87 (2015) 1: 74–94.

Laxdæla saga = Einar Ól. Sveinsson (ed.). 1934. Laxdœla saga […]. Íslenzk Fornrit 5. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag.

McNamara, Rebecca F. 2014. The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England. Parergon 31 (2014) 2: 11–34.

McNamara, Rebecca F. and Juanita Feros Ruys. 2014. Unlocking the Silences of the Self-Murdered: Textual Approaches to Suicidal Emotions in the Middle Ages. Exemplaria 26 (2014), 58–80.

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

Myllykangas, Mikko. 2014. Rappeutuminen, tiedostamaton vai yhteiskunta? Lääketieteellinen itsemurhatutkimus Suomessa vuoteen 1985. Doctoral thesis. University of Oulu Graduate School; University of Oulu, Faculty of Humanities; History. http://jultika.oulu.fi/files/isbn9789526204468.pdf

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2008. Madness in the Realm: Narratives of Mental Illness in Late Medieval France. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Michigan. https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/61631

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2010. Crimes of Passion: Emotion and Madness in French Remission Letters. In Madness in Medieval Law and Custom, ed. Wendy J. Turner. Leiden: Brill, 97–122.

Rosenberger, John. 2003. Discerning the Behavior of the Suicide Bomber: The Role of Vengeance. Journal of Religion and Health 42 (2003) 1: 13-20.

Schmitt Jean-Claude. 1976. Le suicide au Moyen Âge. In Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 31 (1976) 1: 3–28.

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.

 

Sagas and the missing suicide revenants

Motives for doing research on a particular subject can be many, and this rule applies to my own study as well. The societal aspect of my study is among the strongest motives, but I have also been inspired by the earlier research of my colleagues and their questions concerning the sources I have analyzed in my earlier studies, medieval Icelandic saga literature. I became first acquainted with the history of suicide through the studies made by my colleagues Anu Salmela, who is soon about to defend her PhD thesis on female suicides in 19th and early 20th century Finland in the University of Turku, and Riikka Miettinen (University of Tampere) whose dissertation entitled Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Court deals with the legal processes concerning suicide in early modern Sweden and concentrates on how suicides were investigated, interpreted and convicted in the Swedish realm.

I was greatly inspired especially by the questions that Riikka once posed me, namely concerning the so-called restless dead, that is: deceased who become posthumously active – revenants –  in medieval Icelandic sources. I had been doing research on the role of the restless dead in saga literature and realized that I had never encountered in my sources any individual who was said to have committed suicide and would have returned posthumously.

This lack of suicide revenants was remarkable since restless dead are a fairly frequent motif in medieval Icelandic sagas, especially Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur, and Legendary sagas, fornaldarsögur.  Both were written in Iceland in the 13th century, some also later in the fourteenth century (some of the Legendary sagas may actually postdate 14th century). In addition, as I have pointed out also before, the sagas are not silent about suicide per se: there are people in both Íslendingasögur and fornaldarsögur who commit suicide – it is quite often said explicitly if somebody “killed himself” – but none of them become revenants.

This lack of suicide revenants in medieval Scandinavia was already noticed by Alexander Murray. Although the research he refers to at this point (Engfield 1972) discusses only few suicides in a limited number of medieval Scandinavian sources, the cases appear to represent fairly well the overall situation. In fact, Alexander Murray has noticed that anti-revenant measures for suicides, such as beheading the corpse or pinning it down in the ground with a stake, is a fairly late idea in the Germanic cultural context in general, and appeared presumably first in the 16th century. (Murray 2000, 51–52)

Naturally, as Murray has pointed out, suicides who returned posthumously were not part of official Christian doctrine and, as a consequence, ghosts who were former self-killers were not a common theme in ecclesiastical sources. The Christian view of suicide considered suicide a sin and self-killers were often denied burial in the churchyard. Those who committed suicide were also often thought to have died suddenly, and a sudden death was bad because in such a case no proper preparations for the afterlife – absolution and sacraments – could be made. Perhaps through the interaction of the views of the Church and possible popular beliefs, suicides as restless souls who returned could have been part of the social reality of lay people, however. (Signori 1994, 34–40; Murray 2000, 23–28, 471–474, 476–479;  Butler 2007, 434; on social reality, see also Berger & Luckmann 1967)

I also found in eighteenth to early twentieth-century Icelandic legends traces of the belief that self-killers would return posthumously as ghosts. In the Sagnagrunnur database of published Icelandic folk legends I have found legends that tell of men and women who committed suicide and returned after death.

For instance, the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig tells of a young woman called Solveig who wanted to marry a Lutheran priest who nevertheless did not wish to have her as his wife. Solveig was then constantly kept an eye on since she intended to kill herself, but one day she managed to flee from her guardians and was discovered too late: she had managed to cut her throat and eventually, she bled to death. However, she managed to utter her last wish before departing this life: that she would be buried in the churchyard. The priest was not given permission to bury her there by his superiors, however, as she had committed suicide, so she was interred outside the churchyard and without Christian rituals. Later, however, the priest was riding on his errands and finally came back home. Or so the people who lived on his farm thought, but they could only find his horse whereas the priest himself had vanished. The priest was never found. Later a man called Þorsteinn who worked in the vicarage wanted to know what had happened to him. One night he prepared himself in the following manner: he took some things that had belonged to the priest and put them under his head as he went to sleep. It was his intention to receive knowledge of the priest’s fate in his dream. In the night, he dreamed of Solveig: she informed him that he would never know what had become of the priest and then tried to cut his throat. Þorsteinn then woke up still feeling the wound in his throat caused by Solveig, and gave up the idea of finding out what had happened to the priest. After this dream, little was heard of Solveig, but she seemed to have occasionally harassed some people later on as well. (Miklabæjar-Solveig in Jón Árnason1862–1864: I, 295–298.)

Like in the story of Miklabæjar-Solveig, in the other stories found in the Sagnagrunnur database some of the suicides were denied Christian burial in the sacred ground, some had been interred in the churchyard without any religious ceremonies performed by the priest. Some caused trouble to the living whereas some did not.

The observations in later folklore inspired me to return to the medieval Icelandic saga sources and examine whether the suicides really remained peacefully in their mounds and graves and if yes, why, that is: what indigenous beliefs and conceptions contributed to this view. The research I conducted resulted in an article (Kanerva 2015, you can read the article here). In this article, I argued that in medieval Iceland suicide per se was not expected to make the corpse restless. People who were considered weak and powerless in life would not return after death, since posthumous restlessness required that the person had a strong will and motivation to come back. Consequently, in the case of suicides, possible posthumous restlessness depended on the person’s character in life. People with strong will and special magical skills were anticipated to return, whereas other suicides remained passive and peaceful.

Needless to say, the results of my studies of the saga revenants inspired me to find out more about this understudied subject, history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Sagas and the missing suicide revenants.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 February 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/sagas-and-the-missing-suicide-revenants/  >

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Works cited

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Butler, Sara. 2007. Cultures Cultures of Suicide? Regionalism and Suicide Verdicts in Medieval England. The Historian 69 (3/2007): 427–449.

Engfield, Roy. 1972. Der Selbstmord in der germanischen Zeit. Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 8 (1/1972): 1–14.

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

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

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

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

Signori, Gabriela. 1994. Rechtskonstruktionen und religiöse Fiktionen. Bemerkungen zur Selbstmordfrage im Mittelalter. In Trauer, Verzweiflung und Anfechtung. Selbstmord und Selbstmordversuche im mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Gesellschaften, edited by Gabriela Signori, 9–54. Tübingen: Edition diskord.