Journal of Religion and Violence


published on October 31, 2018

Carole M. Cusack

Self-Murder, Sin, and Crime: Religion and Suicide in the Middle Ages

From around 1000 CE, evidence for suicide in the West becomes more plentiful. Sources include chronicles, legal records, saints’ lives, and other religious texts. Motivations for suicide are familiar: “bereavement, poverty, and sudden disgrace or dismissal from a high post,” and some “suicides without obvious external motive” which clerics focused on, as they viewed acedia (apathy) as demonic (Alexander Murray, “Suicide in the Middle Ages,” 3). Among Christian objections to suicide are that it deprived lords of their property, it offended against humanity, it was linked to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, and it violated the commandment “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20: 13). Religious aspects of suicide motivations and punishments are here examined in terms of victims and perpetrators. Émile Durkheim’s sociology, which foregrounds anomie, dialogues with medieval historians to argue that suicide as a sin against God outweighed secular ideas of crime, and that claims of lenience toward women and those driven to self-murder are overstated.