They were less depressed in the Middle Ages

John Bossy

  • Marx on Suicide edited by Eric Plaut and Kevin Anderson, translated by Gabrielle Edgcomb
    Northwestern, 152 pp, £11.20, May 1999, ISBN 0 8101 1632 4
  • Suicide in the Middle Ages, Vol I: The Violent Against Themselves by Alexander Murray
    Oxford, 510 pp, £30.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 19 820539 2
  • A History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture by Georges Minois, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Johns Hopkins, 420 pp, £30.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 8018 5919 0

In 1846 Karl Marx published a version of a chapter about suicide which had recently appeared in a book by one Jacques Peuchet entitled Mémoires tirées des archives de la police. Peuchet had been an encyclopedist and statistician of some distinction, and is said to have invented the term ‘bureaucracy’. He had survived the Revolution, and under the restored Bourbons had become archivist of the police records of Paris and hence a benefactor of Richard Cobb and readers of his Death in Paris (1978). The records of suicide caught Peuchet’s eye, and he had a line on it. The line was to defend suicides against the customary condemnation by claiming, like Thomas Hood in ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, that their despair was the effect of a general lack of Christian charity in the field of social relationships. He illustrated this by invoking the oppressive use of parental or paternal authority, particularly against girls, which had perhaps been encouraged by the Code Napoléon. They were victims, not of Society with a capital S but of a shortage of society, or sociability.

Marx left out the charity motif, and put a spin on Peuchet’s notion of parental hardness, making it out to be a simple consequence of the oppressive structure of bourgeois society (which should have a capital S). The two thousand or so suicides documented by Peuchet were, so Marx alleged, victims of their Society, and only when that Society had been radically transformed, and the original self-determination of the human species restored to all its members, would such symptoms of social disease be eradicated.

Emile Durkheim took account of neither Peuchet nor Marx in his celebrated Suicide of 1897, a chilly work which claimed to document ‘social facts’ without needing to recount the feelings of the individuals concerned. He broke suicides down into ‘egotistic’ and ‘altruistic’, into those who suffered from too weak or too strong (as in suttee) bonds of society, along with the famous suicide by reason of anomie, a product of the absence of rules governing behaviour. One of Durkheim’s social facts, derived from the published statistics which were his main source, was that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics.

His general idea was not so different from Peuchet’s or Hood’s, though his rebarbative language tended to conceal the point: he had a capitalised or thing-like idea of Society, and was not much attuned to thinking of it as a sum of human relations. It is true that he had room for other kinds of society than the familiar Thing: he spoke of ‘religious society’, ‘domestic society’, ‘political society’ as constituting social groups, the degree of whose ‘integration’ governed, inversely, the suicide rate for Catholics and Protestants, the married and single, countries at war and countries at peace. The rate is always higher in the second member of these three pairs than in the first. But talk about integration is surely a thin substitute for talking about society with a small ‘s’.

For Peuchet, Hood, Marx and Durkheim, nevertheless, suicide was something that ought to have been increasing throughout the history of Europe, and one of the supposed critical moments was the 16th-century Reformation, which is where Alexander Murray’s Suicide in the Middle Ages comes in.

The present descriptive volume is the first of an opus tripartitum. Here Murray offers the corpus of evidence, both narrative and legal, for the five hundred or more medieval suicides he has found; the next two volumes will be about attitudes to suicide: damning in the sources we may call official (The Curse on Self-Murder); complicated, we are to understand, in the more inward commentary of ‘medieval psychologists, poets and pastors’. The last volume will be called The Mapping of Mental Desolation, which sounds gloomy enough, but Murray promises a happy surprise at the end, ‘a note of hope positively heroic’. What exactly this note is, he does not tell us; I imagine that his cover picture, of the risen Christ leading Adam and Eve out of the fires of Hell, has something to do with it.

Dante’s tripartite opus is evoked here, so there is presumably a similar Christian drift to the thought that brought him to write the book: that physical improvements in life, in European life anyway, over the last millennium have not actually made people any happier; instead of the various external menaces suffered by our forefathers and mothers we now suffer from depression. Hence the – very rough – concluding supposition that people were less depressed in the Middle Ages and so less apt to commit the extreme act of depression.

Insofar as this volume represents the whole opus, what may seem expressions of faith at the beginning and end have not undermined the extreme scholarliness of its substance. It begins with a chapter on the ‘secrecy’ of medieval suicide, meaning that it was done in private and hushed up if possible, and that it may be something like nefas, not done or contaminating, to mention it. Hence the constant resort to euphemisms when it is described in the sources. The word itself, though thought up in the 12th century, did not recur until reinvented by Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th. Murray, rightly I should think, takes this to be evidence of an innate reluctance to talk about the subject at all.

Yet if they did not have the word, or that word, they certainly had the thing. There follow three solid sections recording the cases of self-slaughter Murray has dug out of chronicles, legal sources (English, French and German) and church sources – miracle stories and the like, from sermon exempla or saints’ lives. Chronicles, often with circumlocution, mention it from time to time. In the grand chronicles of the high politics of Christendom, kings and knights rush into hopeless battle or, when captured, throw themselves off their horses and down a precipice. Favourites, like Frederick II’s Pier della Vigna, bash their brains out against prison walls when they are disgraced or handed over to their enemies – this comes from the considerable collection in Dante’s Inferno, which may possibly reflect a particular vulnerability to suicide among Florentines. Joan of Arc jumps off a tower of Beaurevoir castle, where she is being held captive by the Burgundians, so as not to be handed over to the English.

In more local chronicles, a motive for recording suicides is that they, or the burial of the corpse in consecrated ground, may cause bad weather. Thus Mrs Beringer of Basle kills herself by jumping off the roof of her house, but is buried in her parish churchyard because she is held to be mad. It rains for a week, in June; people complain, and the body is dug up and thrown into the Rhine. The rain, says the chronicler, lets up for a bit and then comes down as hard as ever for twenty-four hours. The date is 1439, the author a sophisticated ‘diplomat-lawyer’ for the city; perhaps a Renaissance man.

English legal records excel in number, French in narrative detail. English courts laconically record juries’ accounts of the voluntary deaths of criminals and debtors, the rich, middling and poor, the sick and the insane. Juries, generally sympathetic to the family, are flexible about insanity, which allows a verdict of misadventure; so does describing a woman who has jumped into a ditch as having fallen off a log. In either case the suicide’s property will be saved from the King. We can, Murray says, sometimes catch suicide ‘in the act of running away’.

The juicier stories come from France, like that of Philippe Testard, a mad merchant who kept giving his money away and once, at the elevation of the Host in the Mass, lifted up his hands and said: ‘twenty-seven livres, maugre Dieu.’ Others are from the Letters of Remission granted by the King through the Court of Requests in Paris: posthumous grants of pardon to actual or alleged suicides or to the living people connected with them – the source that provided Natalie Davis with rich narrative material for her Fiction in the Archives. There are distinct signs of generosity here. In the case of Michelet le Cavelier, who, like Testard, killed himself by jumping out of a window, this time in the rue de la Ferronnerie in Paris, the court was informed, and verified, that the suicide and his wife were hard-working people of excellent reputation in the neighbourhood, and had ten children. It ruled that the husband had been out of his mind, so that the widow might keep their modest property and bury her husband properly. She was to do this without show, which, as Murray says, lets the cat out of the bag.

Last come the miracle stories. These were of course composed for edification, and it is possible to think that they were entirely fictional. Murray has two things to say against this. He holds that in the most far-out stories there is a kernel of real-life experience; and he quite often evokes the rule that a bad, meaning inartistic, story makes good history; and vice versa. On these principles, the first of which seems a little more disputable than the second, he takes us through the varieties of suicide and the occasional resurrection of the dead party through the intercession of a saint. He comes at the end to those in despair from ‘religious’ melancholy, that is, melancholy affecting monks and friars because they are desperate about their salvation. Some of them suggest the early religious experience of Martin Luther, with his scrupulousness, excessive asceticism and panic at the justice of God: we shall see in a moment what Murray makes of this.

After this mammoth journey through the circles of hell, Murray ends up with some statistics and some consequent thoughts. His statistics are so delicately and prudently done that they ought to convince anyone that suicide in the Middle Ages was indeed less common than it is nowadays. Whether it was less common than in the 16th century is a problem. There does seem to be a galloping increase after 1500 or so, but those who have written about it, like Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy in their wonderful Sleepless Souls, have thought it an optical illusion. Murray suggests that this may not be entirely so. One of his ideas is that the Reformation extended religious melancholy from monks to a swathe of the population at large. This is a well-shaped idea, and if true would tend to confirm Peuchet, Hood and Durkheim, though it is not saying quite the same thing. It is hard to see how it could be verified or quantified; and I doubt if it is right to put Calvinists, to whom it may possibly apply, in the same boat as Lutherans, who did not believe in double predestination and were quite as good at social solidarity as Catholics.

Georges Minois’s A History of Suicide is an excellent companion to Murray. Only occasionally over-confident in a French sort of way, it is learned and readable, and beautifully translated by Lydia Cochrane. It covers the ground from the classics to now, but its focus is early modern, with the emphasis less on the Reformation than on the Renaissance which, he says, produced a crisis of conscience about suicide around 1600 (thus Hamlet). Minois’s evidence is mostly literary, though he uses some of the same real-life material as Murray and has digested MacDonald and Murphy. He gives a good account of the emergence of the word ‘suicide’, though he is not aware of Murray’s 12th-century precedent.

His theme is the persistence of the defence of suicide in writers from the Renaissance onwards, to whom he is openly sympathetic. This is very natural, but he does seem a little too obviously to be aiming to justify the present practice of medically assisted suicide. His heroes are such as Donne and Hume, who both cautiously defended suicide, though both jibbed at publishing. I doubt if he is right to include among them Thomas More: the passage in Utopia where suicide is permitted with a licence from the authorities is, I think, one of More’s deep jokes. As Donne said, when he refused to go beyond general thoughts to particular cases, ‘the limits are obscure and steep and slippery and narrow, and every error deadly.’