The topic of suicide in the Middle Ages has never before been properly studied in its full social, legal, religious, and even psychological context. Part of the reason for this neglect has been the assumption that the medieval church simply told potential suicides they were going straight to hell, thus removing any possible theological interest in the topic, and that medieval people almost never killed themselves anyway. Alexander Murray, however, has discovered enough on the topic, concentrating on western Europe (excluding Spain and Scandinavia) from around 900 to 1500, for three projected volumes, of which this is the first. He warns the reader at least twice that his subject matter may prove depressing, yet he writes in a witty and engaging way, and the cover (and frontispiece), showing an energetic Christ figure leading the damned out of Hell, has to be considered upbeat. This particular book makes a major contribution to medieval studies, being moral, ambitious, and highly original, even if put together in a rather disorderly manner.
The most daunting challenge Murray faced in choosing this topic was finding suicide cases to study. This was not because they are not in the sources, because they are. But with a six hundred year span for his study and archives in half a dozen countries, it would have been impossible for him to find all these cases without spending a number of lifetimes systematically perusing all the primary sources from all these countries. Instead, he found his cases primarily through serendipity and by having friends working on other research projects notify him of any suicides they came across. The only sources perused systematically were the English eyre rolls, which gives, not surprisingly, a distinctly English flavor to his analysis. He puts a good face on the impossibility of giving an exhaustive list of all medieval suicides by asserting that what he has done is essentially statistical sampling.
Court cases were his most profitable source of information. Here, however, the coroners often used euphemisms, for suicide was shameful as well as sinful, “wrong even to speak about” according to Saint Augustine. By a close reading of several cases where the account of a death attributes it to “misfortune” or “despair,” Murray is able to reveal that these were terms with specific, if euphemistic, meanings at the time. Chronicles are much less revelatory of suicide. He suggests that this may be because chronicles, by their very nature, tended to focus on the powerful and warlike, whom he argues were preferentially likely to die in [End Page 751] battle, whether or not they fell into melancholy, thus avoiding any need to kill themselves.
With such a broad topic and so many sources, it is not surprising that Murray had difficulties wrestling his material into shape, even though he here only discusses actual suicide cases, anticipating further discussions in future volumes of the legal and theological ramifications of suicide, and of the psychological state that would produce this very final act. The volume often becomes frustrating to read because of its lack of a clear sense of organization. The Preface starts not with the history of suicide but with a contemplation of the vastness of the universe—and the extent to which the billions of stars are reflected in the billions of electronic impulses in the synapses of the human nervous system. The Introduction again starts not with suicide but in this case with the arrival of Premonstratensian canons in England in the twelfth century, a section given the heading, “Reform in the North” (p. 1). There is no Conclusion to the volume, although one would have liked to see him pull together some of the discoveries he made in describing individual suicides, which material makes up the bulk of the book. For example, men seem to have killed themselves much more often than did women; hanging was the preferred method; and by the time of the Italian Renaissance, with its glorification of a Roman past that included generals falling on their swords, suicide...