A suicidal monk in a medieval Icelandic miracle story

As Alexander Murray has pointed out (2000, 189–244), although the Church considered suicide a very bad deed the subject ‘suicide’ and especially the question why suicide was wrong was not that vigorously discussed in theological writings until in the thirteenth century. What interests me, naturally, is how quickly the Christian view of suicide as a sinful act was adopted in Iceland where the process of Christianization had begun around year 1000. We do know that hagiographies and miracle stories, which also included some stories about suicides, were among the first Latin texts that were translated in Old Icelandic. Many of them were translated already in the twelfth century. Some scholars have also suggested that hagiographical literature was not read (or in an aural culture: listened) only by clerical people, but that lay people as well could have found the stories fascinating.

What makes the medieval Icelandic hagiographical literature interesting is that it contains stories that clearly enhance a view of suicide as a sinful deed. For instance, the miracles of St Mary, which were based on Latin originals, tell of a monk who was tempted to commit suicide every time he was alone:

There was yet another brother who was often incited by the old cunning devil to kill himself, so that whenever he was alone, in a secret place or going to bed, whenever he traveled in a ship or walked on high bridges, and whenever he was in such a condition that he had the place and opportunity to cause himself a lethal harm, the devil was near and incited him to commit that wickedness. And if he saw a hidden razor knife, sword or a rope, or other similar things, he [the devil] said: “See, now there is available both a place and a weapon that you can kill yourself with. Now do that, don’t hesitate. Now do it as soon as possible, that, which will happen anyway, and which you cannot escape.”

When the brother was once so terribly betrayed that he had nearly expressed his willingness to commit this crime, God immediately saw to him in the sweetness of his forgiveness. The monk recovered his senses so that his mind regained its wit, and he made with his hand the sign of the Holy Cross, and praised the Lord with his mouth and soul. He now immediately returns to the choir to the other brothers that he had left in a suicidal state. And he thanks the one he owed to, that is, God, for his mercy.

The same enemy appeared to him another time, however, and said: “You work and hope for help in vain, because your soul and body have been given under the power of the devil.” Then the unclean spirit disappeared because the brother threatened him with the sign of our Savior and spoke: “You have been a liar ever since you were created, and you don’t adhere to truth.”

Quite often this betrayer troubled the brother greatly with similar temptations as has been said before. The monk presented some brothers a solemn wish that they would remember him in their prayers, so that he would be granted God’s and his mother’s, Mary’s, mercy and forgiveness. Our Lady, who always helps sinful people and all those who call her for help, appeared in her abundant kindness to one of the maidens who was in the monastery and said: “I want to help this monk in his misery because he took sound advice when in many occasions he shared that burden of his that he did not manage to carry alone, which is so heavy that it cannot be carried with human strength only, and when he asked the others to pray for him. I love him for his faith, good deeds and holy prayers.” The earlier mentioned brother was free of all his temptations from then on and he was never again troubled by the attacks of the devil.[1]

It is not known when the miracle stories of St Mary, which are based on Latin versions of the saint’s miracles, were actually translated in Iceland. In Unger’s edition, the excerpt cited here originates from an early 18th-century manuscript AM 635 4to, but the story itself and its Old Icelandic translation are apparently older. There exists a saga of St Mary, known as Maríu saga, which is based on several Latin originals (e.g. gospels of Matthew and Luke, Antiquitates Judaicae by Flavius Josephus, the apocryphal gospels Liber de ortu beatae Mariae et infantia salvatoris and De nativitate Mariae, and works by e.g. Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great). The saga was presumably written in the first half of the thirteenth century, possibly by Kygri-Björn Hjaltason (the bishop of Hólar since 1236, d. 1237/1238). It seems possible that the hagiographical saga and the miracle stories would have been somewhat contemporary, although the miracle stories may also have been transmitted separately from the saga. Such manuscripts that contain both the saga and the miracles also survive, however. It is therefore possible although not certain that collections of the miracles of St Mary were in circulation in Iceland in the beginning of the thirteenth century, but whether the excerpt above was part of the earliest collections is uncertain. New miracles were added to the collections during the centuries, and new versions of one story could appear in different manuscripts. (Heizmann 1993, 407–408; Wolf 2013, 231, 236–238.) Therefore, it is possible that the story of the suicidal monk would not have been known by twelfth-century Icelanders, but it may well have circulated in thirteenth and fourteenth-century Iceland.

Accordingly, the miracle story presumably did not influence the ideas of medieval Icelanders at the early stage of their Christianization, but the didactic exemplum may have been more widely known in fourteenth-century Iceland where suicide had by then already been criminalized (in Jónsbók law from 1281). It should also be borne in mind that the translations made in medieval Iceland were often not “translations” per se but closer to adaptations: the text could be based on several different originals (like Maríu saga), and the translator was simultaneously a part-time writer in that s/he could comment on the contents of the text, make adjustments to it, correct the bits s/he thought were erroneous, or add or delete material according to what s/he found fitting, to adapt the text to the medieval Icelandic cultural context, even though Latin originals were often more literally interpreted that e.g. French romances.  (See e.g. Barnes 1977, 403–405; Würth 2007 [2005], 164–165, 167; Gropper 2011, 50; Wolf 1993, 7.)

Some details in the story of the suicidal monk appear quite interesting as they may reflect norms and ideas that thirteenth and fourteenth-century Icelanders held as possible, correct and appropriate, and seem to follow the ideas that were widespread in medieval Christianity as well. For instance, as was common in European thought, the devil – the Enemy – is represented as the instigator of a suicidal act. (Murray 2000, 191.) Similar to medieval suicides in general, committing suicide and suicidality appears in the story as an act that requires privacy; it is committed in secret, not in public, to avoid interference. (Murray 1998, 22–27.) The story also gives a fairly detailed account of various suicide methods available for medieval Christians (reminiscent of the methods used in medieval Europe in general, see Murray  1998, 403–413) and places where the deed could be committed: when travelling by sea or walking on high bridges, with knifes, swords and ropes, “or other similar things”. The question remains, whether and to what extent stories such as the one discussed here caused new suicide memes to appear, which were then copied in a culture that was receiving the influences.


How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “A suicidal monk in a medieval Icelandic miracle story.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 28 February, 2018. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/a-suicidal-monk  >


Works cited

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

Grobber, Stefanie. 2011. Breta sögur and Merlínússpá. 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, 48–60.

Heizmann, Wilhelm. 1993. Maríu saga. In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.), Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 407–408.

Maríu saga = Unger, C. R. (ed.) 1871. Mariu saga: Legender om jomfru Maria og hendes jertegn. Christiania: [s.n.].

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.

Wolf, Kirsten. 1993. Alexanders saga. In Phillip Pulsiano (ed.), Medieval Scandinavia. An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 7–8.

Wolf, Kirsten. 2013. The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose. Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press.

Würth, Stefanie. 2007 [2005]. Historiography and Pseudo-History. In Rory McTurk (ed.), A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 31. Malden: Blackwell, 155–172.


[1] Sa var enn annar brodir, er optliga var med slægd hins gamla fianda til þess eggiadr, at han veitti sialfum ser dauda, suo at huar sem hann einn samt var, i leyniligum stad eda hatt uppkominn, for hann á skipi eda um háfar bruar háfar bruar, ok huar sem han var, suo at honum var stadr ok færi til at veita sialfs sins lifi skada, var fiandinn nærr honum eggiandi hann at fremia þessa ohæfu. Se hann ok leyniliga hárknif, suer eda reip eda nockurn þess hattar hlut, sagdi hann: ”Se nu er til bædi stadr ok þat uopn, er þu matt þig drepa med, ger nu at þui ok duel eigi, ger nu sem skiotazt þat, er þo skal fram koma, ok þu matt eigi undan komazt.” Sem brodirinn ward einn tima suo hormuliga suikinn, at hann hafdi naliga samþyckt þessum glæp, sa gud þegar til hans med sætleik sinnar myskunnar, ok huerfr hann aptr til sins hiarta takandi aptr sitt vit, ok gerdi fyrir ser med sinni hendi mark hins helga kross, iatandi gudi med munni ok hiarta. Hann ferr nu þegar aptr i chorinn til annarra brædra huadan hann hafdi med skadsamligri reikan brott geingit. Ok þackar gudi, sem skylldugt var, sina myskunn. Se samin ouin vitradizt honum þo annan tima syniliga ok sagdi: ”At þarflausu starfar þu eda uæntir þier hialpar, þuiat þu ert med ond ok likama gefinn i valld dioflinum.  Suo huarf ohreinn andi brott, þuiat brodirinn ognadi honum med marki vors lausnara suo segiandi: ”Þu ert lyginn fra upphafi þinnar skapanar ok stodt eigi i sannleikinum.” Sa suikari onadadi hann optliga miok med fyrr sagdri freistni. Hann bad med mikilli aluoru nockura brædr, at þeir mintizt hans i sinum bænum, at hann mætti fa nadir ok myskunn af gudi ok hans modur Maria. Wor frv, er iafnan hialpar syndugum monnum ok ollum þeim, er til hennar kalla, med nogleika sinnar milldi, vitrazt einni iungfrv, þeiri sem inni var lukt i klaustri, ok sagdi: ”Ek vil hialpa þessum munk i sinni vesold, þuiat hann tok hialpsamligt rád, þa er hann skipti i sundr i marga stadi þeiri byrdi, er hann orkadi eigi einn samt at bera, er suo er þung, at eigi færr mannligt afl borit, ok þa sem hann bad fyrir ser bidia, elskar ek fyrir sina tru, god verk ok helgar bænir.” Fyrr sagdr brodir var þadan af frials af allri sinni freistni ok war alldri sidan onadadr af umsatum diofulsins, at hit milldazta fyrirheit guds modur fylldizt. Maríu saga, 877–878.



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. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/09/28/gendered-suicide-the-methods/   >


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.