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. <   >


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. <  >


Works cited

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. Available electronically at:

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.


 How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “What is martyrdom? (Part 1).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2017. <  >


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. < >

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;

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.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Medieval causes of suicide.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 March, 2017. <  >


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.

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.

Pfau, Aleksandra. 2008. Madness in the Realm: Narratives of Mental Illness in Late Medieval France. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Michigan.

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.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Sagas and the missing suicide revenants.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 February 2017. <  >


Works cited

Berger, Peter L. & Thomas Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Allen Lane.

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.

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.

Suicide or no suicide: Examining the cause of death

In my previous post I considered the need of medieval Icelanders to investigate deaths that were not natural. Since a killing that had taken place in secrecy was regarded as a murder, that is a great villainy, it would have been considered imperative to discover whether the death was indeed a murder, an accident, or a suicide.

The focus in my study is on the attitudes towards and norms concerning suicide in medieval Iceland, but as a kind of sidetrack in my work, I wanted to consider in this post who in practice would have taken care of the examination of the cause-of-death in a rural and peripheral culture like medieval Iceland. If there were no coroners or no jury, who could tell ”the truth” about the cause of death? Who would have defined whether a death was a natural one, or perhaps a murder or a suicide, in case manslaughter was excluded because nobody had claimed responsibility for the killing, or whether the death (e.g. drowning) had been deliberate or accidental?

Research on medieval and early modern Europe may offer some clues of the situation in medieval Iceland, or at least suggest what I may need to look for. In England, for instance, inspection of corpses first belonged to sheriffs and local justiciars, but the office of a coroner was established in the twelfth century. The coroner investigated, confirmed and certified the cause of death and they were responsible for recording the deaths in their districts. Coroners were Crown officials who protected the financial interests of the Crown and the same interest motivated they work: the Crown needed funds and suicide, felonia de se ipsa, offered possible income as the property of the self-killer could be confiscated (unless the suicide had been insane, infortunium).[1] (Murray 1998, 132–133; McNamara 2014, 4–5; Groot 2000, 8)

To return to the Icelandic context, after the Icelanders had submitted under the rule of the Norwegian king in 1262–1264, the king’s officials started to take care of the execution of law in Iceland. Suicide was criminalized in the Jónsbók law in 1281 and half of the self-killer’s property was to be confiscated (Jónsbók, 41–42; Lárusson 1960, 83; Fenger 1985, 63). The new decree suggests that then, at the latest, officials of the Norwegian Crown would have become interested in the investigation of suicide, along with the Icelandic clerics who had already earlier started to consider the final resting place of the deceased in the churchyard and who was entitled to it. The clerics would obviously have gained some earlier practice in inquiring the causes of death, as suicides had been excluded from the churchyard already in the old Church law, which was presumably originally compiled by the third bishop of Iceland after Conversion, Þorlákr Rúnólfsson (1086–1133, bishop of Skálholt since 1118).(Fix 1993; Finsen 1852, 12; Kanerva 2015b)

But who else could have bothered to examine the cause of death? To return to the European examples above, what may appear as surprising to modern people at first is the absence of medically trained professionals in death examinations. Reporting the cause of death first became a routine practice of the physicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, and autopsies before this date were rare. (Alter & Carmichael 1999; Miettinen 2015, 259–260) Medical examinations and autopsies could be motivated by different reasons, not always by strictly financial ones as was suggested by the example of coroners and king’s stewards above. In late medieval Milan studied by Ann G. Carmichael 2017, for instance, the recording of civic mortality registers as early as around 1450 was prompted by the urge to control potential epidemic outbreaks, such as plague. In a medieval town or city such as Milan, surveillance of the death causes in general and during epidemic outbreaks were practiced to eliminate or mitigate the threat posed to the community. Presumably the certification was usually made and death cases were reported by public physicians, surgeons and barbers, not by elite doctors who did not want to inspect the dead during plague, or, as in Milan’s case, also by parish elders. Autopsies, however, would not have been common, although detailed observations of the appearance of the body were made. In general, medical theories were less important that political and social equilibrium; as a consequence of effective surveillance of the causes-of-death for instance during epidemics, the rich could flee to the countryside in time and potential riots could at least partially be avoided.

Recording of the causes-of-death made by physicians first started to be practiced in towns and cities and only later in rural areas (where the majority of medieval population still lived) where there were only few medically trained physicians. Physicians would have been extremely rare in medieval Iceland,[2] they were rare still in seventeenth-century Scandinavia, but clerical people would often had acquired some medical skills during their studies abroad and their sojourns in European monasteries.[3] The clerics were, as we learned above, interested in whether the deceased was entitled to a burial place in the churchyard or not, so for them it was essential to know if the departed was unbaptized, outlawed, excommunicated or had committed suicide. There is a possibility that in order to be sure whether the deceased who was brought to the church had committed suicide the priest may have needed to examine the corpse unless witnesses were available, but otherwise the Old Church law only suggests that the priest needed to pay attention on the appearance and condition of the body so that a bare and bloody corpse would not be carried in the church and that the corpse had to be cold and the deceased should not be breathing anymore (!) before s/he was buried. But since the Church law decreed that (most of) the dead should be carried to the church the clerics were plausibly people who had some experience in examining the causes of death in case a need for it had arisen, and could apply their knowledge of medieval medicine (should they have had some). (Finsen 1852, 7–12)

Back in the medieval and early modern European (and urban) context, no Crown official or trained physicians were necessarily required to investigate the cause of death. In some Belgian towns in the fifteenth-century, for instance, the town aldermen usually inspected a corpse “to pronounce it dead”. (Vandekerckhove 2000, 43–44) In the seventeenth-century Sweden, investigation and classification of the cause of death greatly depended on the testimonies of local people: eyewitness or people who had discovered the corpse that raised suspicions since the cause of death was unknown and was not considered natural. As witnesses some farmers and their testimonies were perhaps trusted more than others, and some causes of death revealed more about the killer – it is likely that hanging and strangling would have been considered self-killings in many of the cases, but drowning, although likely to have been a common way to take one’s own life, caused problems as it was occasionally difficult to attest the deliberateness of the act or its accidental nature. What the local people knew about the personality of the accused self-killer and his or her earlier deeds and intentions was all relevant information for the representatives of the law. (Miettinen 2015, 256–276)

Although medieval Icelandic customs were not identical to the customs in early modern Sweden explicated above, it is possible that similarities existed, despite the different time and place. Medieval Icelandic farmers were likely to have been central figures in the death examination, as their testimonies were also important for cases of manslaughter. Especially prior to 1262-1264 their role was likely to have been essential. The local people were likely to be the first to find the bodies of suicides committed in secrecy, and responsibility to attend to the corpse and take care of its disposal rested on their shoulders.

Although the considerations presented here do not tell so much about the attitudes towards and norms concerning suicide in medieval Iceland per se, they shed light on the context where these attitudes were held and norms were followed, and draws a broader picture of the culture that is being examined.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide or no suicide: Examining the cause of death.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 24 January 2017. <  >


Works cited

Alter, George C. & Ann G. Carmichael. 1999. Classifying the Dead: Toward a History of the Registration of Causes of Death. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54 (1999) 2: 144–132.

Carmichael, Ann G. 2017. Registering Deaths and Causes of Death in Late Medieval Milan. In Death in Medieval Europe: Death Scripted and Death Choreographed, ed. Joëlle Rollo Koster. New York: Routledge, 209–236.

Dubois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fenger, Ole. 1985. Selvmord i kultur- og retshistorisk belysning. In Skrifter utgivna av Institutet för rätthistorisk forskning grundat av Gustav och Carin Olin, serien II: Rättshistoriska Studier: Elfte bandet, edited by Stig Jägerskiöld, 55–83. Stockholm: Institutet för rättshistorisk forskning.

Finsen, Vilhjálmur. 1852. Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, I. Kjøpenhavn: Det nordiske Literatur-Sámfund.

Fix, Hans. 1993. Laws. 2, Iceland. In Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia, edited by Phillip Pulsiano, 384–385. New York & London: Garland, 1993.

Groot, Roger D. 2000. When Suicide Became Felony. The Journal of Legal History 21 (2000)1: 1–20

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015a. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400), School of History, culture and Arts studies, University of Turku.

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

Lárusson, Ólafur.  1960. Lov og ting: Islands forfatning og lover i fristatstiden. Translated by Knut Helle. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.

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

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.

Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir. 2008. Skriðuklaustur Monastery. Medical Centre of Medieval East Iceland. Acta Archaeologica 79 (2008), 208–215.

Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir. 2010a. The Tip of the Iceberg. The Material of Skriðuklaustur Monestery and Hospital. NAR 43:1 (2010), 44–62.

Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir. 2010b. Icelandic Evidence for a Late-Medieval Hospital Monastery. Excavations at Skriðuklaustur. Medieval Archaeology 54 (2010), 371–381.

Vandekerckhove, Lieven. 2000. On Punishment. The Confrontation of Suicide in Old Europe. Leuven: Leuven University Press.


[1] According to Groot’s study (2000), however, suicide became felony first by the 1230s in England, and application of this new rule included that all suicides, whether they were insane or sane, male or female forfeited their chattels and “suffered escheat of realty”. Before this time there are indications of forfeiture of suicides in the 1170s, but, according to Groot 2000, in between there “is no record of that practice until again occurring until 1221.” Groot 2000, 13.

[2] There was no established profession of a “doctor” or “physician” in medieval Scandinavia. Nevertheless, it is probable that there were men and women who specialised in curing people – healers – long before the advent of Christianity in the North. Dubois 1999, 98–100; Kanerva 2015a, 108.

[3] Also in medieval Iceland, monasteries had a position as important healing centres and hospitals. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir 2008, 2010a and 2010b.

The importance of knowing the cause of death

As I discussed the naming of suicide in medieval Iceland in my previous post I began to wonder whether ‘suicide’ was considered such an irrelevant concept that no special term was needed for it. A special term also has to do with the categorization of things; a death either is a suicide or is not. This categorization has to do with the cause of death and the question whether knowing the cause of death would have been considered (ir)relevant information in medieval Iceland.

From the modern perspective, knowing the cause of death of someone we know, of even those whom we don’t know is found important, if not for the sake of the statistics, then at least for the sake of the family, the relatives, the official. We want to know whether the death has been a natural one, an accident, or perhaps caused by some medical ailment, or is inflicted by someone or something, perhaps as a result of some intentional and malevolent acts, for instance. We long for explanations.

As we go back in history, to the pre-modern period, for instance, we discover that the cause of death would influence the burial place (whether the deceased was to be buried in the churchyard or outside of it, or disposed of somewhere else), and even the status of the deceased in the Afterlife. In the medieval context, for instance, suicide could be a sin that ruled out any hope of the salvation of the soul, and the restless souls of the suicides were sometimes expected to return and haunt the living, at least in popular thought, if not in ecclesiastical texts. (See e.g. Butler 2007, 434; Signori 1994, 34–40; Murray 2000, 23–28, 471–474, 476–479). Consequently, it may have been found essential to know the cause of death in order to be prepared for such posthumous activity and to be able to perform proper rituals to prevent it since – as may be expected, at least if we trust medieval stories – the dead would not always be so polite to the living if they transgressed the border between this world and the otherworld.

I will write more about medieval Icelandic conceptions of the dead who return posthumously later in another post (I have also discussed whether suicides were expected to return posthumously earlier in my article in the Thanatos journal, available here). At this point, however, I will concentrate on inquiries concerning the cause of death, and whether such information – i.e. whether the death was e.g. an accident, a consequence of illness, or inflicted by others or by the deceased him or herself – was regarded as important, even necessary in the medieval Icelandic context.

Based on earlier studies, we do know that in medieval and early modern Europe in general the cause of death was considered important information not only by the Church and the society who were interested in the state of the soul and the final resting place of the deceased, but also by secular rulers. The interest of the latter was also reflected in the legal praxis. Considering e.g. early modern Sweden, from the legal perspective, a death could be natural, but also unnatural. If the death was unnatural, it was also found important to discover whether the death was criminal, e.g. a homicide – or later also: a suicide. (See e.g. Miettinen 2015, 256–257.) In Europe in general, suicide became a legal felony during the medieval period. The attitudes that contributed to this change were naturally connected to the views of the Church of suicide as a sin, and as the interests of the Church and secular authority became intertwined in late medieval Europe, the last mentioned became responsible of the execution of both the verdicts of the ecclesiastical and secular authority (inquisition being one good example of this: clerical inquisitors were responsible for the actual inquisition, but as the object of the interrogation had confessed he or she was often handed over to the secular authority for punishment). (e.g. Miettinen 2015)

Medieval Iceland remained a Commonwealth[1] until 1262–1264 when the Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and king’s officials started to take care of the execution of the law in Iceland. During the Commonwealth period, the Icelanders had already a legal system that consisted of regional courts (þing) that met at regular intervals to solve disputes, and the General Assembly (Alþingi) where the most powerful Icelandic leaders known as goðar legislated and judged, presided by the lawspeaker, lögsögumaðr, who recited the law. In the collection of laws from the Commonwealth period (930–1262), Grágás, suicide was not yet considered a crime, although as far as the interests of the Church were concerned, the section of Christian Law in Grágás mentions that certain dead people, e.g. outlaws, those who had not been baptized, people banned by the bishop, and, unless they repented their deed: suicides, (see Grágás, 12) should not be buried in the churchyard. In medieval Iceland, suicide was criminalized first after the Commonwealth period, in the Jónsbók law decreed by the Norwegian King in 1281. (Jónsbók, 41–42; Ólafur Lárusson 1960, 83; Fenger 1985.)

As a consequence of the new decree, it was undoubtedly found important to clarify whether a death was an accident, a suicide, a homicide or a natural one. However, even before 1262–1264 knowledge of the cause of death must have been found essential by medieval Icelanders. According to medieval Icelandic law, manslaughter always needed to be reported, for instance to the closest neighbors, since killing somebody secretly was regarded as a murder and was therefore a more severe offense, on of the vilest acts. In practice, if a man was killed the killer had to pay compensation, whereas if somebody was murdered and the killer remained unknown, the chances of compensation were few. Consequently, from the perspective of the people, the Church and the law (which in the Commonwealth period perhaps reflected the views of the Icelandic society, and only later, after submitting to the Norwegian king, also the views of the Norwegian reagent), medieval Icelanders had the motivation to investigate the cause of death, should the death not be natural.[2]

As a murder was a more severe crime than manslaughter, it is possible that the possibility of suicide in particular was carefully considered in medieval Iceland. After all, as Alexander Murray (1998, 22–27) has noted, suicide in general has been considered a private act, conducted in secrecy, without the others seeing or noticing. Common for medieval suicide in the European context, in the light of the sources used by Murray, was also the attempt to conceal the act afterwards (again, I will return to that issue in my later posts), for instance by members of the family or community, especially if the suicide had been a popular and well-liked person. Therefore, suicide had some things in common with killings committed in secrecy, i.e. murders. Witnesses were important, but eye-witnesses were rare. In fact, it is even possible that finding a suicide could be risky, as one could become a suspect him or herself – had the deceased committed suicide or was s/he killed by the person who found him/her was a question that may have been asked in some cases. Riikka Miettinen (2015, 150–152), for instance, has pointed out that in the early modern Swedish context, where suicide was a legal felony the moving of the corpse without permission by the official was strictly forbidden as it could be considered tampering of the evidence and protecting the criminal or charged of murder.

So, it is probable that knowing whether a death was suicide or not would have been considered important in medieval Iceland already during the Commonwealth period, as the information affected the burial place and gave answer to the question whether somebody was entitled to compensation and who would pay it. After Jónsbók had been taken into use, it is possible that at least some potential suicides were investigated more vigorously by king’s officials in Iceland, as the punishment for the felony included confiscation of property and thus meant income for the Crown.


Works cited

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

Fenger, Ole. 1985. Selvmord i kultur- og retshistorisk belysning. In Skrifter utgivna av Institutet för rätthistorisk forskning grundat av Gustav och Carin Olin, serien II: Rättshistoriska Studier: Elfte bandet, edited by Stig Jägerskiöld, 55–83. Stockholm: Institutet för rättshistorisk forskning.

Grágás = Finsen, Vilhjálmur (ed.). 1852. Grágás: Islændernes lovbog i fristatens tid, I. Kjøpenhavn: Det nordiske Literatur-Sámfund.

Jónsbók = Ólafur Halldórsson  (ed.). 1904. Jónsbók. Kong Magnus Hakonssons lovbog for Island vedtaget paa altinget 1281. Køpenhavn: S. L. Møller.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Court. University of Tampere, 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.

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

Ólafur Lárusson.  1960. Lov og ting: Islands forfatning og lover i fristatstiden. Translated by Knut Helle. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.

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.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “The importance of knowing the cause of death.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 12 December 2016. <  >


[1] Iceland was inhabited from ca. 870 onwards, and the Commonwealth period is said to have started ca. 930.

[2] Concerning the outlaws, their cause of death must have been to some extent irrelevant, as the outlaws could be killed by anyone, without any expectation of legal consequences or requirements of compensation.