Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

From Sin to Insanity. Suicide in Early Modern Europe

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

From Sin to Insanity. Suicide in Early Modern Europe

Article excerpt

Early Modern European From Sin to Insanity. Suicide in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Jeffrey R. Watt. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2004. Pp. xii, 240. $39.95.)

Practices and attitudes related to suicide provide historians with rich sources of information on past mentalities. From Sin to Insanity, a collection of essays edited by Jeffrey Watt, builds on the thesis that the period between 1500 and 1800 saw a "dramatic change" in the "attitudes toward and experiences surrounding voluntary death." During the eighteenth century, the perception of suicide shifted. From a sinful and criminal act attributed to diabolical temptation, it became medicalized, caused by melancholy, mental illness, or personal problems. Verdicts of insanity became more prevalent. Harsh punishments such as confiscation of property, burial in unconsecrated grounds, and desecration of corpses decreased. The ten essays in this collection illustrate the leniency of the courts in regards to the bodies and goods of those who committed suicide, a change that was less the result of prominent thinkers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu and more the result of a growing belief "that sentences against the bodies and estates of suicides harmed only innocent survivors." The evidence used consists mostly of court records. The emphasis is placed on the social, legal, and cultural history of suicide. If the argument is not new and is reminiscent of, for example, Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy's Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England, it is broadened here to include various regions and periods. From Amsterdam, Budapest, London, Stockholm, and Geneva to Paris, amongst others, the book finds its richness in the fact that it explores new territory and suggests regional diversity in the attitudes of early modern Europeans while illustrating broader trends of the period. …

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