Academic journal article Parergon

The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England

Academic journal article Parergon

The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England

Article excerpt

Art, sculpture, sermon exempla, and mystery play portrayals of Judas in the Middle Ages often give the impression that suicide was condemned as sinful and brought on by sins such as extreme despair, sloth, and pride, or prompted by the devil himself. (1) This blanket attribution of suicide to sin and demonic forces has overshadowed other medieval portrayals of the motivations for and reactions to suicide. Beyond characterisations of spiritual turmoil caused by sin or diabolic temptation, the impulse to suicide during this period was also understood as having an emotional impetus. First-person life narratives link emotions associated with crises of faith, physical illness or pain, and social shame with the suicidal impulse. (2) Bureaucratic records in the Middle Ages also show evidence of reporting suicide in an emotional frame: emotions may not be clearly named, but the context described indicates an emotional motivation to suicide. (3) These and other sources indicate that self-killing was not always understood or reported as a sin and crime to be wholly condemned. Narratives of suicide and attempted suicide in a range of textual genres leave room for nuanced explanations of this kind of death, sometimes even offering sympathy for those who killed themselves and compassion for families left behind. Indeed, Coroners' records, Eyre court rolls, and Crown writs in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England indicate that infirmity was used for its emotional resonances to both explain and respond to suicide--opening up room to contextualise this traumatic act in terms other than condemnation.

Though a handful of scholars have recently turned their attention to suicide in the Middle Ages, the emotional history of suicide has typically been sidelined. As part of a sweeping survey of suicide in medieval Europe, Alexander Murray has explicated the law on suicide in theory and practice and has discussed philosophical and religious influences on medieval attitudes towards suicide. Although Murray ventures only briefly into what he calls the 'psychological dimension' of suicide, (4) it is through this space that we can begin to see how people in the medieval past portrayed emotional motivations and responses to suicide, especially by using infirmity to describe those who died by their own hand. Indeed, for both English and French court records in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Murray finds that sickness 'was a main motive' and, further, that both courts tended to acquit those sick suicides who were also described as having an unsound mind. (5) Sara M. Butler suggests a number of reasons why a medieval English Coroners jury would have delivered a verdict of suicide. These include knowledge of local saints whose miracles were related to the suicidal impulse, the prevalence of regional folklore associated with the afterlife (including traditions of the restless walking dead), and geographical proximity to London (and therefore closer jurisdictional affiliation with the Crown), but her focus is typically on social and moral responses to suicide rather than on emotions. (6) Butler does offer some insight into the emotional responses of juries in her study of womens suicides in late medieval England: '[m]en's self-killings did not frequently draw strong emotions from jurors; womens, on the other hand, were more likely to elicit extreme responses, ranging from compassion to censure'. (7) Below, however, we will see that the context of infirmity was used in English Coroners' inquests, Eyre records, and Crown responses to petitions in order also to couch emotional explanations of and responses to the suicides of men. The work of Aleksandra Pfau is focused on madness, but she has touched on the emotional implications of suicide through a study of remission letters in medieval France, showing that family members of suicides and attempted suicides themselves reported particular emotional motivations to self-killing. (8) Though their work is not directly concerned with identifying and describing the emotional contexts of suicide, Murray, Butler, Pfau, and others indicate that suicide in medieval Europe has an emotional history, and their work points to infirmity as an important component of the explanations and responses to suicide. …

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