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). (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, 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. 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. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/suicide-or-no-suicide-examining-the-cause-of-death/ >
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.
 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.
 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.
 Also in medieval Iceland, monasteries had a position as important healing centres and hospitals. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir 2008, 2010a and 2010b.