June 21, 2009

Suicide in the Middle Ages: Volume 1 The Violent against themselves

Suicide in the Middle Ages is not easy to detect. Societal stigma and legal prohibition meant that families and friends were eager to conceal a suicide rather than reveal it. Alexander Murray in his history of suicide in the medieval period therefore sets himself a harsh and possibly impossibly exacting task: to summarise the levels and types of suicide and compare them to modern suicide rates and early modern ones. This task is one that he partially succeeds in performing- and yet what he does has to be seen against the context of an evidence base that omits to record suicide more than it exagerrates its incidence. Murray is conscious of this problem and his book, unusually, is not divided by theme or by chronological period but by type of source. He suggests that there are three basic sources that record suicide in the Middle Ages: the historical chronicle, the legal text and the religious memoir. These three sources have different characteristics and their authors different interests- none of them are interested per se in suicide as a topic in the way that a modern psychologist might be- but all of them were interested.

If Murray's history is led by its sources, then one of its most interesting aspects is what it tells you about those sources. So for example, he writes clearly and interestingly about the distinction in the volumes of legal sources that he comes up with. Most of his legal sources come from the English Coroner's roles and judicial eyres- the coroner, an office created by the crown, and the eyre, where a judge was sent to a county to make sure that local justice and national justice were the same, were both creations of a mighty royal power. English absolutism (if I may be forgiven for the anachronism) was the source of a fertile legal record which contains the majority of Professor Murray's cases. French courts though too yield up records to him but the different nature of the powers of the French crown- governed largely by the fact that it had within it a dukedom that was held by another King (Normandy)- mean that the record in France is very different. It is largely twofold- the legal records of Abbeys attempting to preserve their jurisdictions and that of the French crown, seeking to entrench a right of appeal to Paris in its remote comital provinces. In Italy and Germany the distinct nature of politics there means that legal records are those of towns. Ultimately the structures of medieval monarchy- the fact that the property of the suicide went to the crown- and the differing interests of those courts whose records survive in protecting or defeating the powers of the crown govern their explicitness about suicide. Even there though the information reported is only the information that the court deemed interesting: Murray's frustration is evident when he records that an English court was more likely to report the value of the items used to commit suicide than the motive itself.

Clerical records are sparcer but give more in the way of motivations- chronicles seek to deny that suicide existed at all (save for in the cases of the parvenu). Professor Murray's thorough examination of his sources is too his credit- as is what he finds there. He finds story after story of medieval suicide- much of which shines a fascinating light on attitudes and mores within the period and countries that he anatomises. For example there is the story that Caesarius of Heisterbach tells about a nun who fell in love, refused permission by the sisters to leave the order, 'driven by her grief' she died by jumping down a well. Murray evaluates these sources rigorously- for instance he argues that bad stories are better than good ones if they are placed in a clerical account to prove an argument. A 'bad' story that does not fully suggest the moral or suggests it alongside other elements may be evidence that the monk in question was using a real moment, too good a story which fits the moral too well may suggest that the writer was elaborating too much. Murray finds time to make excursions into medieval social history in general- commenting for example that stories about miracles took off as government fell away, particularly miracles about the capture and punishment of criminals. He writes as well perceptively about the Judas myth and the way that that presented a useful hook for writers to hang suicide upon: Judas Iscariot was a type of suicide that others could resemble and that reminds us of the importance of scripture in even forming the accounts that we are left. Also interesting is the way that he beleives that women are hidden in our sources: how much more shocking than suicide was a suicidal woman.

Murray's last two chapters cover what might be said about the statistics of suicide in the Middle Ages. Based on the judicial eyre of Essex in the 14th Century he comes up with a tiny figure of suicides per head of population- 0.88- a figure which he admits is unrealistically low and maybe because of the tendency of the justices on eyre to ignore reporting on a whole county, concentrating on the major roads alone instead. He does bring some interesting detail to bear though- for example about the time of suicide and how it tied into the sequences of harvest and crop yield. One fascinating thing is that he draws out the methods of suicide and suggests that methods of suicide have remained constant as proportions of overall suicide figures- or at least did from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century- with something like 50% of suicides being hangings for example. Ratios of suicide to homicide are fascinating: Murray implies that the ratio was very low in the Middle Ages- though also suggests that that may be deformed (what better way of suicide for a knight than charging recklessly into battle!) Furthermore using evidence from the 16th Century and 20th Century Italy, he suggests that suicide may rise with intrusive government. He plucks sex ratios as well from his evidence- suicide ratios seem to be fairly constant with relation to sex until the modern era, with more men dying than women by a ratio of about 2 or 3 to 1, that only now seems to be changing (perhaps a cost of sexism is increased male suicide?). There are interesting points to the statistics- but you cannot help feeling that the samples are too small. There are for instances only 100 suicides for which we can know the occupation of the suicide. Family data has to be deduced from who was the first person on the scene to find the suicide and so on.

These flaws are not Murray's but flaws within the evidence. Overall this is a fascinating book. It is of course the first in a trilogy and to some extent judgement should be withheld until the rest of the trilogy is complete- but this is a good begining. As to another important concept which Murray does not fully explicate- he begins his volume by stating that suicide may have risen in the modern era and hoping that the medieval sources might tell us why. He does not really and probably cannot actually answer that question- even though he suggests (against much current scholarship) that suicide as well as reporting of suicide rose into the sixteenth century. It is also worth noting here Murray's style: he is one of the most charming guides to the landscape of the forlorn that I have ever come across. As a historian he combines erudition, passion and obvious wit- so much so that it is easy to forget the flimsy evidential basis upon which he has to rely. This is a fascinating and important book- the general conclusions are interesting, but it is the anecdotes, the faces in the crowd of suicides that Murray necromances from the grave that I will remember. Last and most important amongst the lessons Murray has to teach is perhaps one that we often forget, that the people of the past were people and that the costs and perils they faced were as real as ours.


James Higham said...

You've made a rod for your own back with this one, Tiberius.

Gracchi said...


Anonymous said...

You're right. This is a fine book which communicates an author, a lifetime's interest, a secret and a culture. Hard to ask for more.

I watched him write some of it one evening waiting for a tutorial. He wrote from within himself, not from the notes that he had taken. I think it's rare these days for an author to let himself speak in academic writing. That's what makes this refreshing.

Gracchi said...

Anonymous- I agree entirely. I have to say I am very envious of you having been taught by Murray- he sounds like someone whose interest and thinking about the middle ages would be absorbing. I think its the combination I see between the author speaking in the writing and the visible movements of his mind, and the fact that this is an impressive work of scholarship. It is both thrilling and thoughtful- a good combination!

edmund said...

it sounds a great book must read it.

I have to say that the evidence strikes me as even more problematic than you suggest. In particular for all we know at least in parts of medeival europe there may have been a deep fear of suricide- which may even mean that eve nassuming the level was massivley underrated has it's limits!

I thought the weakness of the French kings predated the unity of the Crown of England and the duke of Normandy-seems to have very little power over Acquataine Anjou etc as well from what little i know (untill 13th century and in some ways beyond then!)

the strongest one sounds like the proportion of types.

is there anyoe in the world today where the surice rate is that low-or is a level of 1 just absurdly (as opposed to suspicously) low?

Rumbold said...

Excellent piece Gracchi. Maybe the gender difference (i.e. male suicides have only risen recently) could be explained by a point that you made earlier in you piece, namely that men had the option of dying in battle, or in a duel, or even in a brawl.