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Reviewed by:
  • From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe
  • Allan Ingram
Jeffrey R. Watt , ed., From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). Pp. ix, 240. $39.95.

This book has a wide brief and, as the title suggests, an ambitious hypothesis. In ten essays, the contributors cover "the period stretching from the Renaissance to the Romantic era" in terms of "dramatic changes in the judicial treatment of, popular attitudes toward, and frequency of suicide" (8). The spread of nations, moreover, runs from Britain in the west (two essays here), through the low countries, France, Germany (two more, one dealing with Saxony and the other with northern Germany), north to Sweden, as far east as Hungary, and back via Switzerland to Spain in the south. Although the picture that emerges certainly has some consistency of features, one cannot help retaining some doubts about the validity of such consistency when the evidence being adduced has inevitably to be extremely selective, both within national cultures and within the time span of some three hundred years.

Jeffrey Watt, while never specifically acknowledging this vital weakness, nevertheless comes close to doing so in calling his brief introduction "Toward a History of Suicide in Early Modern Europe"—the Eliotesque construction giving away that this preface is not to be a rigorous argument based on any substantial body of evidence but rather some pieces in a pattern that others, laboriously following on behind, might find useful in filling in the gaps. Because only four of the eight pages of "Toward a History" actually cover the issues of an approach to the study of suicide in various cultures of the past—the remaining four summarize each essay in turn—we begin the first essay little wiser about what a history of suicide might look like. [End Page 630]

That said, there is much of interest here, and a great deal of it is based on genuine archival and primary source research. Paul S. Seaver's essay, "Suicide and the Vicar General in London: A Mystery Solved?," which is largely to do with petitions for burial within the capital in the first three decades of the seventeenth century, is (apart from a rather decorative use of Hamlet) solidly grounded in the arguments put forward in those years; so too is Arne Jansson's piece on "Suicidal Murders in Stockholm," covering case histories and their judicial outcomes over a wider period, from the early seventeenth into the eighteenth century. (A "suicidal murder" is named as such when a murder is committed solely because the murderer wishes to be put to death but wants to avoid the family stigma and possibly the divine punishment awaiting those who commit suicide. A murderer, so the thinking goes, has time to repent prior to his legal execution, while a person who commits suicide dies with the crime itself.) These two essays contain fascinating material and suggestive conclusions, as do many other essays in this volume.

The governing hypothesis of the collection, from sin to insanity, is a clear and plausible one: as societies became on the whole more secular, and as the study of medicine became more interested in individuals and their experiences, attitudes toward suicide gradually shifted from a religious base to one that sought to discover explanations from the victim's mind. As this shift proceeded, institutional and even church responses moved accordingly, though of course more slowly. The reader is frustrated with the need to know more about motivation—frustrated partly because, inevitably, much evidence of states of mind simply does not exist, and partly because we ourselves cannot enter the minds of individuals from earlier periods and cultures. It would be interesting to know, for example, of the cult of manly self-sacrifice that prevailed in medieval Hungary, and its influence on the masculinity of Hungarian nationalism, but we cannot regain that perspective. As we read, over and over, of individual lives brutally and suddenly ended by their own hand, the overwhelming question is the human one: why? Particular contributors, certainly, attempt to go further toward helping the reader understand. Vera Lind does so in "The Suicidal Mind and Body: Examples...


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