Suicide and Madness through the ages

Dave Evans

This is a transcript of a talk given in 2001 to an academic audience. In common with other of my academic edits presented here on Occult ebooks, the detailed citations have been removed to make it easier to read on-screen. If you'd like the original Word document with the full references, please drop me a line.


"Suicide" is quite a modern term; previously referred to in early-modern times as self-murder, and was regarded as the most mortal and horrible of crimes; being against God, against the Monarch and against the self. I am using the term "suicide" for convenience in all that follows:

A body is found hanging from a tree, at the foot of cliffs, or maybe drowned in a river… In the 21st Century this would occasion a mass of specialists appearing; medical photographers, police, forensic doctors, psychologists, coroners etc; with a lengthy investigation to follow.

Coroners in Early Modern England were not even medics, just local well-to-do local men, and the investigation consisted of hastily convening a jury to see the body in situ and then a very brief hearing to decide what happened; verdicts would often be given within hours of the death.

Many types of suicides:

  • insane
  • possessed by demons
  • self-murder
  • would-be martyr
  • lovelorn, unmarried pregnant or debtors
  • accidental
  • criminal escaping punishment
  • murder made to appear suicide

Martyrdom at the behest of God was a very rare event- the devil could wear many masks, and if someone was encouraged to kill themselves by "God" they were to regard it as a test, and resist...

Unusual deaths in Early Modern Europe were legally "tried" posthumously by a court and if found guilty of self-murder the bodies were buried facedown at a crossroads (i.e. unhallowed ground), with a stake driven through their body, to quieten their restless souls. This practice continued in England until around 1823 and was seen as a fitting end for "enemies of God's truth" who had taken their own lives.

You have to look at this and then consider stories of vampires… and the crossroads is a site of great folklore to do with spirits.

Slightly luckier cases would be buried in the northern area of a churchyard- that unconsecrated area otherwise reserved for those babies who died before they could be baptized.

Those found guilty of self-murderer automatically forfeited the usual rights to inheritance, and so their property would be passed over to the Monarch with only a gesture towards support of the relatives of the deceased; often condemning the families of the deceased to a life of poverty…

In one instance an estate of around £60 yielded only a cow worth £2 to the widow after the authorities had picked the rest of the goods for themselves. If not guilty of self-murder the normal inheritance rules prevailed… so a lot was asked of Juries…

These were usually made up of locals, who often knew the deceased very well. This is obviously not an objective way to run things.

Several possible verdicts could be reached:

  • Self-murder
  • Insanity
  • Accident
  • Natural causes
  • Murder by another person or persons
  • Misadventure
  • "Found dead" - this handicaps any attempt at producing reliable statistics; as it would often be used to hide a suicide or other socially-unacceptable death

In a study of Norwich, the rate of insanity findings increased steadily from around 6% in 1660 to 90% by 1710 and 100% by 1770. This finding short-circuited the procedure where the deceased forfeited their estate, and it is possible that this is a gradual quiet rebellion by juries to ensure that they did not themselves create a family of paupers in their own community, and may be a compassionate attempt to ensure that the relatives did not have the double burden of grief and poverty all at once.

So- "Insane" ?

Definitions of insanity are problematic- . What is and it not sane is culture and time-bound; and says as much about the society in which it is used as any medical-psychological diagnosis; "being cultural, madness can change". There was a vicious circle in Early Modern thinking that madness and sin were inextricably linked: sin led to madness, and madness caused one to sin….

It must be remembered that just as using the term "Germany" for certain parts of Europe before a certain date is invalid, so is using any technical terms about the mind for the period before psychiatry-psychology existed as sciences. It is arguable (and I agree with this) that they are still not sciences.

Early Modern "psychiatric medicine" seems to have been a mish-mash of vague religious practices (praying cures, use of sacramentals), herbalism, cunning folk (one of whom at least was able to make an amulet to prevent a suicide, bloodletting, purges and confinement, often under restraints (Midelfort cites useful records of an early modern German mental hospital; but such records are rare).

There were little or no attempt at empirical medical treatments- one, while giving a demonic cause for some illnesses seems to have anticipated genetics and the importance of disposition, both 300 years before their time. There are also a few derivative early ideas of the role of subconscious processing in mental health.

There was also the role of astrology- the moon caused lunacy, or for someone to be moonstruck; and the astrologer Goad noted various calendrical peaks of suicide, linking these to Saturnalia. That there were noticed peaks at all indicates that someone was keeping records… but numbers in Early Modern England seem to have been less than 350 per annum.

Mental illness was at least as dangerous socially as medically; as the mentally ill could often be disturbing prophets too- Midelfort also remarks that in the 1580s medicine was not YET an arm of the state.

Insanity is a standard charge leveled by the ruling elite at heretics and revolutionaries, even up to the present day- in Early Modern times it was the Methodists who were regarded as mad, and at various times belief in witches or belief that there were not witches. And in 1655 Casuabon (a doctor) declared all religious ecstasies to be due to various forms of epilepsy. (incidentally; any religious belief, firmly held, can be seen as "abnormal" mental outlook)

By refuting the role of demons in mental illness, a later somatic approach to mental illness ended up rejecting the value of religion in treatment too. Problems…

For a great view of the modern state role in mental health there is a book called Ayslums by Irving Goffman (London: Penguin, 1961; many reprints since)

I have not covered suicides in the theatre; a good dramatic device and common in Shakespeare etc. Given that much of early modern Europe village politics centred on women in disagreement then we might expect most suicides to be in this group.

An important thing to remember in any such cases is that we have records of these people only because they were unusual. They are a small number of possible suicides and/or labeled as having mental illnesses; in much the same way as the accused in witch trials have a surviving voice, albeit second- or third-hand, because of this, and there are little or no comparable records of those who did not commit suicide or have a notable mental illness.

Any conclusions drawn must bear this fact in mind; it is not a "normal" sample. Suicide and madness is a social construction that is time and culture-dependent (and still is). There is a huge political, social and economic aspect of labeling of suicide and madness, and it is important to keep asking, "who benefits?" from each use of a label

Giving any kind of a dismissive and simplistic mental health definition at this distance is unforgivable, reductionist and dangerous.

The important point of this is that the most vital witness for suicide could not be present to speak for themselves; i.e. the deceased; everything is by inference.

Dave Evans