Medieval records show that attitudes to suicide have changed little
By Ceridwen Dovey
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In 1254, Walter Beche of Essex, England, drowned himself in a well. Four men later testified to a jury that Beche had killed himself “for fear because he thought that they would seize him on suspicion of theft”. The witnesses were “quit” of any charges of murder, and the jury passed a judgement of felonia de se – “felony of the self”.
The details of the coronial inquest into this suicide and many others are collected in extant medieval legal records: mainly coroners’ rolls dating back to 1194, when the Office of the Coroner was established in England, and rolls kept by superior Eyre (Crown Justice) courts. Dr Rebecca McNamara, a medieval scholar at the University of Sydney, has spent hundreds of hours in the UK’s National Archives at Kew, identifying and translating from Latin records of 550 cases between 1200 and 1500 in which a ruling of felonia de se was passed. Looking closely at the language used by juries, coroners and Eyre justices, McNamara is piecing together how people of that time responded to suicide as part of her Australian Research Council–funded project on the history of emotions.
In medieval England, any sudden, unnatural or suspicious death was investigated by the county coroner (usually a knight or landholder). He would call a jury of 12 men “good and true” from nearby villages, and it was these community members who were responsible for carrying out the coronial inquest. They took note of where and when the body was found and who the “first finder” was, measured any wounds, and then passed a judgement of murder, mischance (infortunium) or felony of the self. The stakes were high – “self-murder” (the term “suicide” did not come into common usage until the 17th century) was considered a crime and a sin, and a felonia de se ruling came with harsh penalties for the deceased and their family: the body was refused proper burial, and the Crown confiscated the deceased’s “goods and chattels”, including the value of the “deodand”, or death-causing object (such as a knife, or a rope and beam), a practice thought to be a vestige of earlier Anglo-Saxon cleansing rituals.
McNamara has found numerous slippages in the legal language of these texts that hint at the emotions associated with suicide in medieval culture. Though coroners were not legally required to state why somebody killed themself, there is textual evidence that coroners’ juries felt obliged to provide some explanation of the deceased’s actions.
For example, McNamara has found many instances where illness, both physical and mental (though the two were closely linked in the humoral medicine model of the time), was used to explain somebody’s suicidal impulse. Take the case of Geoffrey le Wodeward of Bedfordshire, in 1273:
Before prime on 28 April, le Wodeward, who had been ill for 9 days with the hot sickness, rose from his bed in Thurleigh as well as he could, went from the house into his courtyard in a frenzy, stood by a well, and through the sickness and by misadventure he fell in and drowned.
The jury declared this mischance, but later the higher Eyre court reviewed the findings and for reasons unknown ruled it felonia de se, even though in cases of madness, the court was supposed to make a ruling of mischance. For a death to be judged felonia de se, the deceased had to have been of sound mind. But there wasn’t consistency in this regard, nor in distinguishing between long-term madness and the short-term “moral sickness” often associated with possession by the devil. There are instances where deaths that seem clearly to be suicides were ruled as mischance, without any mention of unsound mind on the part of the deceased. McNamara speculates that the juries in these cases were attempting to spare the families of the deceased shame and destitution.
Even at a time when the legal framing of suicide as a crime was heavily influenced by religious beliefs that self-murder was sinful, people were understood to have killed themselves for many of the same reasons as they do today. Mental illness was the most common explanation, but other cases refer to an unwillingness “to endure further bodily pain”, or state the deceased acted “in weariness of life”, for fear of punishment for a crime, out of grief (such as in the case of Ellen, wife of Thomas the Clerk, who drowned herself in Cambridge in 1372 after the death of her son), or due to economic hardship (such as in the case of Richard, lay vicar of Huntingdonshire, who drowned himself in 1286 after his master had “taken his chattels to settle his arrears”).
The role played by coroners has changed dramatically over time, especially since suicide was decriminalised in England and Australia in the mid 20th century. Yet the question of intent is just as thorny for today’s coroners as for their predecessors. There is no legislative requirement in any Australian jurisdiction for coroners to state explicitly in their findings whether the deceased intended to end their life. A recent influential article in the Medical Journal of Australia on underreporting of suicide deaths found that 29% of coroners nationally choose to omit reference to intent. When somebody takes an action that causes their death, a coroner will describe the general circumstances of death, but not always make an explicit finding on whether it was a suicide. As a result, the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures on suicide (which are largely compiled with reference to coronial findings) are inaccurate.
In response, the Coronial Council of Victoria, whose members include medical and legal professionals as well as community and police representatives, recommended in June that the coronial legislation on finding of intent be standardised across Australia, and that the Coroners Act 2008 (Vic) be amended such that “when a coroner finds a death under investigation to be caused by an action of the deceased, the coroner make a further finding of intent, based on the evidence”, choosing from four options: intentional self-harm, suicide, the deceased not having the capacity to recognise that his action would cause death, or “unclear”.
Suicide is no longer a criminal offence, but the stigma associated with it from medieval times is still very much present, and the taboo against openly acknowledging the varied reasons people commit suicide, or even trying to understand our cultural and emotional responses to suicide, is strong. Coroners have traditionally been caught between their responsibility to the public – to record suicide deaths as accurately as possible so that appropriate preventive measures can be undertaken – and their sensitivity to the needs of families of the deceased, who often actively resist or challenge a finding of suicide.
The Coronial Council of Victoria acknowledges these competing responsibilities, but takes the view that “one of the primary roles of the Court is to promote public health and safety … [therefore] accurate identification of suicide should take priority”. Its position is that underreporting suicide at a national level is more harmful to all of us than knowing the truth, even if that might be more painful for those directly affected. “The complex nature of the medieval response to suicide throws into relief the complicated issues we still face today,” McNamara says. “It has always been difficult for societies to deal with suicide.”