During a visit to the University of Essex’s Special Collections, whilst pursuing a number of early modern household books, I came across the term ‘self-murder’ in George Cheyne’s A Treatise on Health and Long Life, (London, 1787), p. 142.
Self-murder or suicide as we know it today, was not something that had previously popped up during my studies, and therefore caught my attention. It got me thinking about what this term meant to those of early modern society, and how their understanding and reactions to it mirrored or differed from ours.
There has always been to a certain extent a perceived stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, and even up until the last few decades it has not been something openly spoken about, which could explain its lack of real presence in historical literature.
In the aforementioned treatise from the year 1787, Cheyne explicitly linked the occurrence of self-murder in Britain to the high frequency of chronical distempers, such as scurvy. He suggested that the British’s inability ‘to suffer patiently the lasting pains of chronical distemper’ resulted in their opting to take their life by means of suicide. This brief mention of suicide really sets the tone, that self-murder was understood by Cheyne at least, as a weakness of character.
I wanted to know more and upon further investigation I came across Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy’s comprehensive investigation into the history of suicide, Sleepless Souls, (Oxford, 1990). They discuss how early modern responses and attitudes towards self-murder came full cycle. First hardening and then returning to a more sympathetic and tolerant view more in alignment with the ancient philosophies.
In Tudor and early Stuart England self-killing was not only a sin in the context of religion but also a criminal felony. This was due to its knock on effect within society, such as the family of a male self-murderer being unable to cope financially. This crime was taken very seriously and would be tried posthumously, with the heirs of the deceased being severely punished for their actions.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, (Surrey, 1852).
Ophelia’s suicide in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (London, 1589), although fictitious is one example that publicly illustrated how diverse the responses to suicide in the early modern period were. They were symptomatic to the legal, theological and popular attitudes of society.
Let us look at what had occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to bring about this complete transformation of opinion that MacDonald and Murphey talk about. They believe that political and religious changes have much to do with the increasing hostility towards suicide, specifically the Protestant Reformation. Protestant reformers preached that suicide was a terrible sin instigated by the devil and a crime against God. In this sense it would be easy to see why attitudes towards self-murder changed, with religion being so deeply embedded within the heart of every early modern household.
George Abbot the then future archbishop of Canterbury spoke of suicide as being the very antithesis of Christian hope, ‘a sin so grieuous that scant any is more heinous unto the Lord’. These sorts of opinions were reiterated and stressed in many other treatise, sermons and devotional works, really entrenching early modern society with this belief concerning suicide, despite the lack proofs supporting it within the bible.
A further notion regarding suicide preached by the clergy, was that self-murder actually came from God, as an act of retribution for sins committed. This argument was employed as a tool during the reformation as a way to promote one’s own church, and examples were used of Catholic persecutors of Protestants that went mad and then killed themselves.
Despite attitudes evidently becoming more hostile during the Protestant reformation, it is worth mentioning what the Catholic Church thought in regards to the act of self-murdering.
According to Catholic teaching despair was a sin unforgivable, and suicide was the consequence of extreme despair, and was therefore one of the seven mortal sins. This belief would to a certain extent, contradict the view that the reformation had as much to do with the changing attitudes towards self-murder as first thought. The Catholic association of suicide and despair is clearly depicted in Giotto Di Bondone’s Seven Vices and Seven Virtues (Padua, 1306)found in the Cappella Scrovegni Chapel.
After 1660 a greater ecclesiastical, judicial and societal leniency towards self-murder was evident, the causes are more complex than those that contributed to the earlier hardening of attitudes. Much of it is owing to the English Revolution and its after effects upon local government and legal institutions.
The abolition of prerogative courts, the fall of censorship, and the rise of the new science enlightenment philosophy, all played their parts. Many were in opposition to this relaxing of attitudes some even protested, nevertheless this was a time of cultural change and the lay persons opinions outweighed those in support of severity concerning self-murder.
The rise in literacy towards the end of the eighteenth century also enabled more to read the widely published defences of suicide, and it came to be regarded by many as a rational choice. Despite the law against self-murder not actually being changed until the nineteenth century, the use of it in court became increasingly suspended.
With suicide being ever present in our daily news as the biggest killer of men under 49, I felt it was important to see how over time attitudes to it have changed. Even in the early modern period acceptance and sympathy for the victims of self-murder won over the judicial and ecclesiastical attitudes of hostility. It is innate to sympathise with fellow human beings especially in their darkest times, nobody should ever feel ashamed or alone when suffering mental health issues.
Abbot, George, An Exposition Upon the Prophet Jonah, (London, 1600).
Bondone, Giotto Di, Desperatio, (Padua, 1306).
Cheyne, George, A Treatise on Health and Long Life, (London, 1787).
MacDonald, Michael & Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls, (Oxford, 1990).
MacDonald, Michael, ‘The Medicalization of Suicide in England: Laymen, Physicians, and Cultural Change, 1500-1870’, in Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History, eds. Charles E. Rosenberg, Janet Lynne Golden, (New Jersey, 1997).
Millais, Sir John Everett, Ophelia, (Surrey, 1852).
Mortality Analysis Team, ‘Suicides in the UK: 2017 registrations’, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2017registrations, Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/, [accessed 25/03/2019].
Murray, Alexander, Suicide in the Middle Ages, (Oxford, 1998).
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, (London, 1589).
 MacDonald, Sleepless, p. 5.
 George Abbot, An Exposition Upon the Prophet Jonah, (London, 1600), p. 132.
 MacDonald, Sleepless, p.109.