Research notes: women, emperors and supernatural things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Works cited

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

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

Sagnagrunnur. A geographically mapped database of Icelandic folk legends.

Sigríður Sigurðardóttir. 2012. ”Solveig from Miklabær.” In Stories from Glaumbær [trans. David Gislason]. Skagfirðinga Heritage Museum Booklet no XVII.  Byggðasafn Skagfirðinga, pp. 23–29. Electronic document, available at

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


Research notes: military suicide in sagas

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2014. Disturbances of the Mind and Body: Effects of the Living Dead in Medieval Iceland. In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe, ed. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa & Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Gendered suicide: the methods

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

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

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

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

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


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: the methods.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 28 September, 2017. <   >


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.

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.

Research notes: suicide and empathy in medieval Iceland

The annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH) was held this year in Umeå, Sweden (26–29 June, 2017). The general theme of the year was “Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn – Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History”. In the conference, I presented a paper on suicide and empathy in medieval, ca. 13th and 14th-century Iceland. Some of the points of my paper are summarized below.

By the thirteenth century, Icelanders had been at least nominally Christian for about two hundred years (the official Conversion took place around year 1000). It is probable that by then, they also had some idea of the Christian view of suicide. It would have been known at least by the clerical people that Christian theologians regarded suicide as a morally reprehensible deed (see e.g. Murray 1998; Murray 2000). From the early twelfth century onwards, the Icelandic Church law stated that those who committed suicide should not be buried in the churchyard, unless they expressed in some way that they repented their deed. In 1262 Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and after that, the Norwegian king introduced the Icelanders a new law code in 1280, known as Jónsbók. In this new law, suicide was explicitly criminalized for the first time in Iceland. Confiscation of property was declared as punishment.

Therefore, medieval Icelanders were aware that in Christian, and later also in legal context, suicide was considered a morally culpable deed. Laws may have affected their views of, norms concerning and attitudes towards suicide. These norms, views and attitudes may also have influenced their tendency to feel empathy for the suicide. However, as I argued in my paper, people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide may also have depended on their views of what emotions, such as empathy, are and how they operate, in other words on their theory of emotion. (For theories of emotion, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

“Empathy” is a fairly new term even in the English language (see e.g. Verducci 2000 and “empathy” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and as far as medieval Iceland was concerned, there was no word for the concept. However, the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s experience and feelings was expressed, for instance, with words for sympathy and compassion (e.g. íhugi, várkunn, samharman, meðaumkan, sampíning, brjóstbragð), which implied that the person shared, minded and was conscious of the other one’s feelings and experiences and could find their actions excusable, and was emotionally moved by the other one’s pain and sorrow, or could feel pity for them.

What is interesting is that words that explicitly indicate shared or same sorrow and pain, or being moved by the other one’s suffering, were used – according to the recordings of the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose/ Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, which records the vocabulary of Old Norse-Icelandic prose writings, and the Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson – only in sources that are of religious nature and of clerical origin.

In medieval Christianity, compassio had positive connotations. It had spiritual meanings and was linked to imitatio Christi, imitation of Christ, and accordingly, was a way to Christian salvation. (See e.g. Moyn 2006, 399.) The empathy-related words in Old Icelandic sources that can be linked with clerical origin presumably had similar positive connotations. The representation of compassio in these Old Icelandic texts may also have been linked to didactic purposes: they taught and encouraged behavior that was thought to be proper for a good Christian.

However, that’s not the whole story. Medieval Icelanders did not consider all emotions positive, and some of their views were not immediately influenced by Christian and European influences. Grief and sorrow, for instance, were considered detrimental to one’s health. Excessive grief could lead to death. Grief and sorrow could also make an individual vulnerable to the influences of the supernatural forces and agents, which could then harm the individual in many ways (more on this porous body schema, see Kanerva 2013; Kanerva 2014; Kanerva 2015; on sorrow and vulnerability to the influence of the demons and evils spirits in the European context, see also Caciola 2000, 77–78 and 80).

This medieval Icelandic understanding of emotions was part of the context where empathy-related emotions such as compassion and sympathy would have been felt. Although compassion was apparently considered a positive emotion in clerical contexts, in lay view compassion could be regarded as potentially harmful since it could involve experiencing the same sorrow that was felt by the one who was pitied, as the words for compassion and sympathy imply (e.g. samharman, which literally meant “same/shared sorrow”). Feeling the same sorrow and sharing the grief with the individual for whom compassion was felt, could make the empathetic person more vulnerable to the influence of the supernatural forces. Accordingly, feeling empathy was not construed as good for one’s own well-being in all contexts. Such a view may also have influenced people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide and Empathy in Medieval Iceland.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 30 June, 2016. <  >


Works cited

Caciola, Nancy. 2000. Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession and Communal Memory in the Middle Ages. In The Place of the Dead. Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 66–86.

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1957. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2013. “Eigi er sá heill, er í augun verkir.“ Eye Pain in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur. ARV – Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 69 (2013), 7–35.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2014. Disturbances of the Mind and Body: Effects of the Living Dead in Medieval Iceland. In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe, ed. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400). Turku: University of Turku.

Moyn, Samuel. 2006. Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity. History and Theory 45 (2006) 3, 397–415.

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.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Verducci, Susan. 2000. A Conceptual History of Empathy and a Question it Raises for Moral Education. Educational Theory 50 (2000), 63–80.

Research notes: suicidality of heroic females

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Works cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Heroic death? The case of seppuku

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Heroic death? The case of seppuku.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 27 April, 2017. <  >


Works cited

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

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

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