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Suicide in the Middle Ages
PSYCHIATRIC WRITING WORTH READING, volume 18 • number 5 • fall/Winter (2012)
“Suicide in the Middle Ages” sounds strange. Did anyone really commit suicide then? Didn’t they all believe suicides would go to Hell if they did it? And how can we know, anyway? Let me start with the last question. Treating the “Middle Ages” as running from 500 to 1500, it is almost true to say that records on this topic are non-existent until around the year 1000. But only “almost”; and from the year 1000 records gradually multiply, with up- ward step-changes around 1100 and 1300.
The records divide into three categories, each with its own perspective. One is chronicles, and other supposedly factual narratives. These do begin before 1000, and say just enough to show that suicide was not wholly unknown even in those obscure centuries. The second category is that of legal records. These grow steadily in England and France after around 1200, and in Germany slightly later. (Italy is an exception, to be explained later.) The third category consists of religious narratives like saints’ Lives and miracle stories, which run fairly steadily throughout the Middle Ages. Because their aim is “PR” for a saint, they are particularly informative about suicide attempts, where a saint steps in to save a suicide – though a few go the ￼other way with a “Judas-type” suicide, when stubborn opposition to the saint earns this grim reward.