Especially between citizens, considering their work routines and religious beliefs.
Was depression even considered a disease back then?
It’s impossible to calculate the rate at which medieval people in the Latin West killed themselves or tried to. First, for the usual reasons–lack of records, bias of records that do survive in favor of focus on specific groups, the sketchily-drawn nature of calculating medieval demographics in general. Equally important, however, are the immense social, legal, and Christian religious consequences not just for the ones who killed themselves, but for those staring numbly at their loved one’s body. While we can’t say “how commonly did medieval people kill themselves,” it is evident that suicide was not only a common problem for survivors, but became an even bigger emotional burden over the course of the Middle Ages.
The central drumbeat of any examination of suicide in the Christian Middle Ages must be: suicide was a sin. And not just any sin, but an absolutely, fundamentally unforgiveable one. It was understood that the act of self-murder was the last thing that a person would do; there was no time for confession and absolution. No cleansing purgatorial fire awaited those who killed themselves: they were eternally bound to hell. As early as 570, Gregory of Tours writes that the body of a nobleman who had killed himself was taken to a monastery by his survivors, but the monks could “not put [him] among the Christian dead, and no Mass was sung for him.” The refusal of burial with the Christian community in consecrated ground is an earthly symbol of the theological belief that the count was separated from the Christian community in the afterlife.
This story shows us two further things. First, the intimate relationship of suicide and death means the theology of suicide was doctrine that wrapped itself around every level of Christian society. Even if not every single person over a thousand year span was excited to hear every last sermon or could recite the Paternoster (prayer) without prompting at their goddaughter’s baptism, everyone dealt with death, whose aftermath was the domain of God and the Church.
Second, it shows the desperation of the count’s family. They still took his body to the monastery even knowing he had killed himself, holding out some shard of hope for his soul, that the holy men might still be able to help. Already in the earliest years of the Middle Ages, we witness the desperation of the survivors.
The fallout of this desperation–even a generalized sadness of pious writers upset at the consignment of *any* soul to hell–permeates the medieval source record on suicide. As with Gregory, it’s not that suicide isn’t mentioned. We hear about it in monastic chronicles: a 12th century monk and prior of Le Dale monastery named Henry fell in love with a local woman and, officially absent from his house to earn money for it, moved in with her. When his affair was discovered and he was forced to return to the convent, “Taking guidance from the Devil he got into a hot bath and opened veins in both arms; and by way of spontaneous, or rather foolish, death he put an end to life.” From late medieval England, we have cases mentioned in coroners’ rolls: A man sentenced to sit in the stocks overnight is found dead in the morning, having stabbed himself.
Miracle stories attached to saints and shrines describe people who attempted suicide, maybe even appeared to have killed themselves, but were (literally) miraculously revived: a young woman was raped repeatedly by her uncle, who forced her to have an abortion each time she became pregnant. The third time, she did so directly, by ripping open her stomach with a knife. But when she cried to the Virgin Mary–here as both mother and *mediatrix*–Mary healed her external as well as internal wounds, and the woman took vows in a Cistercian convent to spend the rest of her days in praise of Mary/out of sight of mainstream society. And fictional literary sources talk of suicide, too: Boccaccio’s *Elegy of Lady Fiammetta* describes a woman who decides to kill herself by jumping from a tower, because the people who find her body won’t be able to tell whether it was suicide or an accident.
But in these stories, a clear pattern emerges: an emphasis on secrecy, privacy, and shame. A traveler who drops back from the group; a nun who barricades herself into a room for “private prayer” but slips out the window. Fiammetta (who is ultimately rescued) wanted to camouflage her death as an accident; the noblewoman in Gerard of Frachet’s miracle tale hid herself away in the aftermath.
This only increases as one moves up the social scale in considering cases. Although typically we’d say the source record is *radically* denser for religious and the upper class than the small but growing middle class and peasants, with suicide this is not so. Alexander Murray, who composed the most important study of suicide in the Middle Ages (and to give you an idea of the weight of this project: he only ever made it through two volumes of a planned three before it was too much), instead says we must look to “whispers”.
The sources ideologically and personally closest to a named noble or royal will shy away from mentioning suicide or suicidal ideation; those further removed in time and alliance will be less reticent. One example of this in operation is the possible attempted suicide of Henry IV, 11th (mostly) century Holy Roman Emperor. A lot of chronicles discuss his wars with the pope and his own son. But it is only one account, by known opponent Bernold of Constance, who includes this detail:
> He betook himself to a castle and there remained without any regal trappings. He was in a state of extreme dejection and, as they say, he tried to give himself over to death, but was prevented by his men and could not bring his wish to effect. *(trans. Murray)*
While the modern reader will recongize circumstances of deep depression and suicidal desire that feel all too familiar, there is an even darker angle in play. A given “mental illness” is of course a name attached of a web of symptoms that frequently travel together, manifesting slightly differently in all cases; but even the concept of *illness* is a cultural-scientific attachment. *Tristitia*, *acedia*, *melancholia*, and their fellows in medieval writings appear to aligns with different manifestations of what we call major depressive disorder today. But in the Middle Ages, they were sins. Even before one stepped onto the tower window ledge or threw the rope over the rafters, sorrow over worldly matters like *your own son leading an armed rebellion against you, nbd* was a sin that divorced you from other people and from God. It’s not an accident that so many accounts of suicide attribute the act to possession by the devil or the influence of demons, and describe the victim’s diabolical fear or behavior in the days or years beforehand.
It’s no wonder, then, that even an anti-Henry partisan like Bernold can only bring himself to write “As they say” (*aiunt*). It’s a common pattern. Dante Alighieri refused to identify thirteenth-century king Henry Hohenstaufen as one of the inmates of the seventh circle of hell in *Inferno*, despite rumors to the effect he was among those violent against themselves. It’s not agreement or disagreement with this decision that is picked up by commentators, it’s the *debate*: “but others write,” hedges Bevenuto da Imola, and “if this is true.”
There was good reason for those left behind to be cautious. As laws and legal systems coalesced over the course of the Middle Ages, death by suicide came to have extensive legal consequences for one’s heirs (and whatever a grudge against the dead, might not be good to antagonize the living). Laws permitted or mandated the “ravage” of the property of someone who committed suicide: that its, its seizure by the lord or city rather than passing down to one’s heirs. This could extend all the way to the home that a house-owner’s family was *still living in*, throwing them onto the street.
A 1280 case from England illustrates these laws in action. Upon the death of one of his tenants, a lord had claimed it was suicide and thus her property reverted to him. Her heirs had sued to get the property back, claiming his “presumptions” were (a) wrong and (b) even if they were right, presumptions weren’t strong enough to be evidence of suicide. Notably, the judge ruled in the lord’s favor because one of the ‘presumptions’ was the dead woman’s threat to do something to shame her friends. Suicide was shameful for the immediate victim, but it also smade victims of the survivors who had to deal with public shame and material loss in the midst of private grief.
Capt_Blackadder: Okay. Firstly it is difficult to answer your question in any meaningful way as so many of the records from this time period are obviously not existent. However some records of this time period have survived and they do illuminate some information on suicide in this period. One of the best records of this period was called the Eyre. This was a travelling judge who went around the counties of England during the 12th to the 14th Century.
So what do these records reveal about suicide in this time period?
The best study into this topic covers around 1272 – 1300 because these are some of the best kept records for this time period. In this time period a total of 198 cases were recorded of self killing. Now some of these were found to be an accident for example one man fell on his own sword and it was originally recorded as suicide but was later revised to an accident.
Here is an example of what a suicide looks like in the records
““William de Wedmore, vicar of Chryriton hanged himself in his own home in the same village. The verdict was suicide. And Walter de Wedmore and John his brother(s) buried the said William without view of the coroner and took his chattels, value 34s so they are to be arrested. Afterwards they came to court and the sheriff let them go.” (Eyre of Somerset 1280)”
So what does this verdict tell us? Firstly people had good reason to want to hide a suicide if someone did kill themselves because suicide was a crime and the punishment was your goods were forfeit to the crown. Now this explains why in these 192 cases the vast majority are hangings which are very easy to prove was suicide. There are no examples of some poisoning themselves and only two examples of someone throwing themselves off a high point which is a common way of committing suicide today.
Now onto the statistics. If you assumed that the Eyre actually recorded all suicides and was accurate then with the estimated population of the area you got a result of .88 Suicides per 100,000 people and by way of comparison the current US rate is 13.26 per 100,000. Now it is clear that the Eyre would in no way cover all suicides but I would feel it is possible that Medieval Suicide rates were actually lower then modern times but this is really pushing a modern day statistics framework on records that in no way are complete.
In reality all this data really says is a few things.
1 Suicide in the Middle Ages was more common in men then women, which remains true to this day.
2 Very few of the records give any indication of a mental illness. Here is an example of one that does.
Thomas, son of Henry Robekyn of Brandon, in a frenzy (habens frenesium) cut off his left foot with an axe and then his left hand, in the house of the said Henry, his father, in Brandon, and the following night he died from this. The first finder and four neighbours came and are not suspected. The jury, asked if they suspect anyone else of this death say no and say that the said Thomas straight after the deed came to his senses (reddit’ ad sensum proprium) and had the last rites of the church before he died. So the deed was done through loss of sense and not feloniously. So the judgment is accident.” (Eyre of Norfolk 1286)
3 Middle Class people are over represented in this very few extremely poor people are recorded an no one of noble rank is included either. This could be because no one cared about a destitute person because they had no money to forfeit to the crown. As for the nobles it could be seen that they had the money and the connections within their small villages to hide any suicide from the view of the crown.
So in conclusion the suicide rate for Medieval England cannot come close to been accurately estimated and the best we can say is it appears that it might have been lower then modern times.
Suicide in the Middle Ages. Volume I: The Violent against Themselves Alexander Murray
Suicide in the Middle Ages Volume II, The Curse on Self-Murder Alexander Murray
Suicide or accident – self-killing in medieval England Series of 198 cases from the Eyre records ALICE SEABOURNE, GWEN SEABOURNE The British Journal of Psychiatry Jan 2001, 178 (1) 42-47; DOI: 10.1192/bjp.178.1.42
on1879: It’s very difficult to establish how frequent suicide was in the medieval era, let alone the particular cause. If we look at medieval England as our source we can see why this is so complicated.
Essentially ‘self-murder’ was a crime not only in the eyes of god but in the realm of law also. This meant that those found to have committed suicide were not just banned from being buried in consecrated ground but also were subject to some pretty intense legal ramifications. If the suicide was found to be felonious then their land and property was confiscated, even the tool used in the suicide was forfeited, and should the person survive their attempt they could be sentenced to death. This meant that suicide fell under the realm of the judiciary, and our best records come from the Eyre records (a travelling judiciary court in medieval England). These records record the rulings as to whether a ‘self-murder’ was criminal or not and offer us a glimpse into this realm.
One study into “Suicide or accident – self-killing in medieval England” by A & G Seabourne focuses on 198 of these cases and the judgements rules btbthe Eyre courts. They found that of these 198 cases 188 were deemed as felonious but the other 10 were not. It’s interesting because the 10 cases which were deemed not criminal are all situations in which an illness diminished their responsibility.
““Thomas, son of Henry Robekyn of Brandon, in a frenzy (habens frenesium) cut off his left foot with an axe and then his left hand, in the house of the said Henry, his father, in Brandon, and the following night he died from this. The first finder and four neighbours came and are not suspected. The jury, asked if they suspect anyone else of this death say no and say that the said Thomas straight after the deed came to his senses (reddit’ ad sensum proprium) and had the last rites of the church before he died. So the deed was done through loss of sense and not feloniously. So the judgment is accident.” (Eyre of Norfolk 1286)”
We see that cases like this seem to focus on what would now probably be considered mental illness. The other cases, where fault is assigned seem could be assigned as more ‘situational’
“William de Wedmore, vicar of Chryriton hanged himself in his own home in the same village. The verdict was suicide. And Walter de Wedmore and John his brother(s) buried the said William without view of the coroner and took his chattels, value 34s so they are to be arrested. Afterwards they came to court and the sheriff let them go.” (Eyre of Somerset 1280)”
The issue with these records though, is that firstly they are infrequent. Courts may only visit a jurisdiction every 7 years and secondly they are only the court records, the coroner’s record does not generally survive. So essentially we only have part of the story and it is hard to really know how influences, such as their heavy workload or the influence of the teachings of the church, would have affected the suicide rate.