A medieval attitude to suicide

I had always thought that suicide was made illegal in medieval times due to religious disapproval until suicidal people were finally freed from the risk of prosecution by the 1961 Suicide Act.

It turns out the history is a little more nuanced, as noted in this 1904 article from the Columbia Law Review entitled “Is Suicide Murder?” that explores the rather convoluted legal approach to suicide in centuries past.

In the UK, the legal status of suicide was first mentioned in a landmark 13th Century legal document attributed to Henry de Bracton.

But contrary to popular belief about medieval attitudes, suicide by ‘insane’ people was not considered a crime and was entirely blame free. Suicide by people who were motivated by “weariness of life or impatience of pain” received only a light punishment (their goods were forfeited but their family could still inherit their lands).

The most serious punishment of forfeiting everything to the Crown was restricted to those who were thought to have killed themselves “without any cause, through anger or ill will, as when he wished to hurt another”.

There are some examples of exactly these sorts of considerations in a British Journal of Psychiatry article that looks at these cases in the Middle Ages. This is a 1292 case from Hereford:

William la Emeyse of this vill, suffering from an acute fever which took away his senses, got up at night, entered the water of Kentford and drowned himself. The jury was asked if he did this feloniously and said no, he did it through his illness. The verdict was an accident.

We tend to think that the medieval world had a very simplistic view of the experiences and behaviour that we might now classify as mental illness but this often wasn’t the case.

Even the common assumption that all these experiences were put down to ‘demonic possession’ turns out to be a myth, as possession was considered to be a possible but rare explanation and was only accepted after psychological and physical disturbances were ruled out.

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