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.

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.


Research notes: Suicide in Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin historiography

In the past few weeks I have been finishing a chapter in my book that deals with the representation of suicide in medieval Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin literature. Adoption of Christianity around 1000 in Norway and Iceland also indicated that the Scandinavians adopted the Latin alphabet and became familiar with Latin literature. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Icelanders and Norwegians were active in producing translations of Latin hagiographical literature, biblical texts and religious texts as well Latin histories. Some of the translations were even produced before the flourishing of the other, more popular saga genres (at least from the perspective of modern scholars), i.e. Sagas of Icelanders, Íslendingasögur, and Kings’ sagas, konungasögur, took place.

First of all, “translation” may be a problematic term here as the translators of Latin texts were more like part-time writers who could comment on the contents of the text, make adjustments to it, correct things they thought were erroneous, or add or delete material according to what they found fitting. The cultural context mattered: the texts needed to be understood by their Nordic audience. Consequently, some aspects perhaps needed some further explanation whereas some were thought irrelevant and, as a consequence, were not translated. As a result, Old Norse-Icelandic translations were not direct translations but sometimes closer to adaptations. Some of the “translations” were also closer to compilations since they could be based on several Latin originals.  (See e.g. Barnes 1977; Kalinke 1985; Würth;  Glauser 2007 [2005]; Kalinke 2011).

Although there are things to consider when studying Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin literature and it can be questioned whether they offer any material for the study of medieval Scandinavian suicide, I find studying them important as they may reveal something about the interaction between foreign influences and indigenous ideas concerning suicide. The Old Norse-Icelandic culture as the receiving culture offered the language and words for the translation and representation of suicide in the Latin original and the worldview of the transmitting culture reflected in the Latin text. Some things expressed in the Latin originals had corresponding discourses in the receiving culture, some perhaps did not. Even so, Old Norse-Icelandic translations could then influence suicide discourses in medieval Iceland. They could offer new discourses, that is, new ways to speak about and communicate about suicide. (See also  e.g. Larrington 2015 on emotion discourses.)

Literature may also influence the action and behavior of individuals in real life. For instance, although limited availability of certain instruments also limits their use in committing suicide (e.g. availability of poison, weapons etc.), suicide methods described in literature may also influence the methods used in real life. Consequently, methods described in translated literature could also “form powerful cultural memes” and as a consequence of their repetition in literature, could form “models that people have tendency to follow”. Therefore, even in medieval context and similar to modern concerns about celebrity suicides, for instance, copy-cat behavior could occur. (Miettinen 2015; Lester 2009; Mesoudi 2009; Soo Ah Jang et al. 2016). For instance, it has been suggested that already in late antiquity and in the Middle Ages, hanging and strangulation was frequently linked with suicide (Murray 2000), and the suicide method appears among the most common ones, together with drowning, also in early modern Sweden (Miettinen 2015). Naturally, finding the right instruments, such as ropes or water, may have been fairly easy, but the use of the method hanging, for instance, may also have been promoted by the infamous suicide ascribed to Judas in one tradition, which was widely known in the Middle Ages, and the popular imagery associated with his death, represented e.g. in church art. (Miettinen 2015; Murray 2000; Schnitzler 1996; Schnitzler 2000).

In the chapter that I have been finishing I did not concentrate on the models and methods of suicide that may have influenced the behavior of people per se, but I examined the attitudes towards suicide as reflected in translated literature. I found following the ideas presented by Jacques Le Goff and applied by Alexander Murray in his remarkable study of medieval suicide (1998, 2000) of examining anomalies very fruitful for my study. One particularly interesting anomaly is the death of Nero the Emperor in medieval Old Norse-Icelandic sources. In the Latin tradition Nero wishes to die and tries to stab himself, but as the wound is not lethal and his enemies are approaching, his companion strikes the lethal blow.

In the Old Norse-Icelandic versions of the story, however, nothing is said about Nero’s suicidal aims or his assisted suicide. According to this version, Nero does not commit suicide. This notion is highly interesting since fairly many of the suicides of the remarkable Ancient men and women known in Latin historiographies, such as Pilate or Anthony and Cleopatra, were recited also in the translations. Therefore the compilers of these Old Norse-Icelandic translations were not silent about suicide per se.

Somebody might claim that Nero was an irrelevant character in the eyes of medieval Scandinavians and that his suicide was excluded for that reason. What makes the absence of Nero’s suicide in the sources particularly intriguing in light of that claim is, however, that Nero’s role as the persecutor of Christians who commanded St Peter and St Paul to be executed must have been well-known in medieval Scandinavia.

In the chapter of my forthcoming book and in an article that presents a case study of Nero I will discuss the suicide anomalies I have found in Old Norse-Icelandic translations. The anomalies are few, but remarkable, and reveal traces of an indigenous view of suicide that differed from the teachings of the Church.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: Suicide in Old Norse-Icelandic translations of Latin historiography.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 7 February 2017. <  >


Works cited

Barnes, Geraldine. 1977. The riddarasögur: A Medieval Exercise in Translation. Saga-Book 19 (1974–1977), 403–441.

Glauser, Jürg. 2007 [2005]. Romance (Translated riddarasögur). In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 372–387.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 1985. Norse Romance (Riddarasögur). In Carol J. Clover & John Lindow (ed.): Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide. Islandica xlv. Cornell University Press: Ithaca & London 1985, 316–363.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011. The Introduction of the Arthurian Legend in Scandinavia. In Marianne E. Kalinke (ed.), The Arthur of the North. The Arthurian Legend in the Norse and Rus’ Realms. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages 5. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 5–21.

Kalinke, Marianne E. 2011. Sources, Translations, Redactions, Manuscript Transmission. In Marianne E. Kalinke (ed.), The Arthur of the North. The Arthurian Legend in the Norse and Rus’ Realms. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages 5. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 22–47.

Kanerva, Kirsi (an article, forthcoming). Attitudes towards Suicide in Medieval Iceland: the Case of Nero the Emperor.

Kanerva, Kirsi (a book, work in process). Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia.

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

Lester, David. 2009. Memes and suicide. Psychological Reports 105 (2009) 1: 3–10.

Mesoudi, Alex. 2009. The Cultural Dynamics of Copycat Suicide. PLoS ONE 4 (2009) 9: e7252 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007252

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.

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

Schnitzler, Norbert 1996. Der Tod des Judas. Ein Beitrag zur Ikonographie des Selbstmordes im Mittelalter. In Mundus in imagine: Bildersprache und  Lebenswelten im Mittelalter. Festgabe für Klaus Schreiner, ed. Andrea Löther, Ulrich Meier, Norbert Schnitzler & Klaus Schreiner. Munich: W. Fink, 219–245.

Schnitzler, Norbert. 2000. Judas‘ Death. Some Remarks Concerning the Iconography of Suicide in the Middle Ages. The Medieval History Journal 3 (2000) 1: 103–118.

Soo Ah Jang, Ji Min Sung, Jin Young Park & Woo Taek Jeon. 2016. Copycat Suicide Induced by Entertainment Celebrity Suicides in South Korea. Psychiatry Investigation 13 (2016)1, 74–81.

Würth, Stefanie. 1998. Der Antikenromanin der isländischen Literatur des Mittelalters: eine Untersuchungen zur Übersetzung und Rezeption lateinischer Literatur im Norden. Beiträge zur nordischen Philologie 26. Basel: Helbing & Lichtenhahn.

The sources used in the project

In this project, the source material used consists of vernacular sources produced in the twelfth to fifteenth-century Western Scandinavia, comprising sagas related to medieval Icelandic pre-history and contemporary twelfth and thirteenth-century history (Íslendingasögur, Sturlunga saga compilation i.e. samtiðarsögur, fornaldarsögur), mythographic sources i.e. Eddic poetry, religious and hagiographical sources, such as the stories of eleventh- to fourteenth-century Icelandic bishops and their miracula (byskupasögur), translations of medieval European romances (riddarasögur) and translations of Latin literature (Antikensagas), as well as medieval Icelandic and Norwegian laws.

At this point of my research it is already possible to note that the sources are not silent about suicides per se. However, the data used does not easily provide us with material for quantitative studies, such as examination of actual suicide rates, whose results would be comparable to modern suicide statistics – the reliability of which has every now and then been questioned, as suicides can be underreported and misclassified for socio-cultural reasons, and errors and inaccuracies that are attributable to other factors, such as the experience of the examiner, their work circumstances and so on, may also affect the certification of death (see e.g. Burrows & Laflamme 2007; O’Carroll 1989; Sainsbury 1983).

The surviving data does provide material for qualitative studies, however, such as finding about what people thought about suicide, whether they viewed suicide negatively, neutrally, or even positively in some contexts, and so on. As various different saga genres and legal texts are used as sources it may be possible to find several voices that speak of suicide, and several discourses that were available for the writers of these texts. These discourses offered a language to the writers and their audience; how people could speak and tell of suicide, how they portrayed the suicide in literature, how they enabled certain perspectives from which they could be viewed, but also restricted the ways in which suicides could be depicted according to norms of the day.

Although the surviving material used here was mainly produced by the lay and ecclesiastical elite, certain special characteristics of medieval Icelandic society give reason to expect that these sources too can be scrutinized for evidence of norms regarding, attitudes towards and conceptions of suicide held by medieval Icelanders in general. Medieval Iceland was a rural and peripheral culture, where there were no towns or villages, only farms. In medieval Icelandic society, there was relatively little social differentiation and specialization. Everyone did subsistence farming work, and farm workers and landowners or chieftains lived in the same households. Therefore, although signs of the elite’s need to follow European courtly ideals and distinguish themselves from the ordinary folk can be found already in fourteenth-century sources, different social groups did interact closely on the farms. Social elevation did not depend entirely on the status of the family of birth, but also on personal capabilities and characteristics. Since both churchmen and laymen wrote sagas, the literature was not monopolized by the ecclesiastical elite. As a result, the boundary between the ’high’ and ’low’ was not always rigid, and the sources may reveal conceptions that were held among most of the medieval Icelandic population, which presumably never exceeded 70 000 during the period under scrutiny.


Works cited

Bagerius, Henric. 2013. “Romance and Violence. Aristocratic Sexuality in Late Medieval Iceland.” Mirator 14 (2013) 2: 79–96.

Bagge, Sverre. 2013. “From Fist to Scepter. Authority in Norway in the Middle Ages.” Authorities in the Middle Ages. Influence, Legitimacy, and Power in Medieval Society, ed. Sini Kangas, Mia Korpiola & Tuija Ainonen. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture, 12. Berlin & Boston: de Gruyter, 161–181.

Burrows, S. & L. Laflamme. 2007. “Determination of Suicide in South Africa: Medical Practitioner Perspectives.” Archives of Suicide Research 11 (2007) 3: 281–290.

Clover, Carol J. 1985. “Icelandic Family Sagas.” Old Norse-Icelandic Literature. A Critical Guide, ed. Carol J. Clover & John Lindow. Islandica, 45. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 239–315.

O’Carroll, P. W. 1989. “A Consideration of the Validity and Reliability of Suicide Mortality Data.” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 19 (1989) 1: 1–16.

Sainsbury, P. 1983. “Validity and Reliability of Trends in Suicide Statistics.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 36 (1983) 3–4: 339–348.

Þorláksson, Helgi. 2005. “Historical Background: Iceland 870–1400.” A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, ed. Rory McTurk. Oxford: Blackwell, 136–154.