Suicide or accident: self-killing in medieval England: series of 198 cases from the Eyre records
By Alice Seabourne and Gwen Seabourne
The British Journal of Psychiatry, 178, (2001)
Background: Little is known about suicide in England in the medieval period. Legal records provide the best source of post-mortem data about suicides.
Method: Selected Eyre records from the reigns of Henry III (1216-1272), Edward I (1272-1307), Edward II (1307-1327) and Edward III (1327-1377) were translated and examined for details of self-killing.
Results :One hundred and ninety-eight cases of self-killing were found, eight of which were found to be accidental, non-felonious deaths. Self-killing was more common in men. Hanging was the most common and drowning the second most common method of self-killing in both males and females. Self-killing with sharp objects was predominantly a male method. Other methods of self-killing were rare. There were no reports of deliberate self-poisoning. There is some evidence of underreporting of, and attempts to conceal, self-killing from royal officers.
Conclusions Eyre records suggest that although some of the facts surrounding self-killing have changed, others have remained constant, particularly the higher proportion of men who kill themselves and the greater use by men than women of sharp instruments to kill themselves. We discuss the description and understanding of psychiatric states by medieval English Eyres, particularly in terms of the perception of the mental states that accompanied suicidal actions.
The evolution of ideas about suicide in a legal and historical context should be relevant to psychiatry today. Examining historical records allows us to explore early attitudes towards suicide and the demographics of suicide in this period, adding to a longitudinal perspective of mental illness and self-killing.
Suicide in medieval England was both a religious and a secular concern. This is a particularly important time in the evolution of the common law and legal ideas about intent and responsibility, and is the earliest period from which central, official records on suicide are available. Self-murder was a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church, penalised by prohibition of burial in consecrated ground and also confiscation by royal authorities of the goods of the deceased and the implement used to commit suicide (the deodand), whether it belonged to the deceased or not.