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.

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.