The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gender and Suicide in Late Medieval England

John Tyler of Lincolnshire, on the 2nd of January 2016, while alone in his small apartment at night, decided to hang himself in the middle of his living room. He did this after a long battle with depression, wanting the pain that it caused to end. While it is awful that Mr. Tyler died in such a manner, his death, in our modern society, will cause no further harm to his family than the obvious emotional harm that is caused by the act itself. This would not have been the case if Mr. Tyler had killed himself in medieval England, for several hundred years prior, the act of suicide (otherwise known as self-killing) was considered a felony. If he had killed himself back in those times, Mr. Tyler's family would also have to deal with his post humanous trial for committing an act of self-killing. The punishment for this crime could be severe for his family, both economically, and then by means of damaging their reputation. This essay will explore self-killing in late medieval England, examining how it was viewed by both ecclesiastic and secular bodies. It will also aim to determine in what ways self-killing (and consequently, how it was dealt with by authorities) was gendered, both in the ratio in which women committed self-killings, and how they did so. Furthermore, it will look at the verdicts given by the juries of the time, comparing how they treated women and men in both cases of compassionate verdicts, and then in cases of harsh verdicts.

As can be extrapolated from the introduction of this essay, suicide or self-killing was not viewed with a positive light in medieval England. It was, after all, considered a felony. Felonies were one of the two types of crimes that could be committed by a person (the other being a trespass, or what we now refer to as a misdemeanor). Unlike trespasses, which would be punished with fines or other forms of lesser punishment, felonies were punished through the execution of the individual, and the seizing of their land, goods, and chattel through a process known as the corruption of blood. Felonies were predominately homicides and greater thefts (grand larceny, robbery, burglary), but suicide was also viewed as a felony—called felonia de se, or felony of the self. This negative view of self-killing is rooted deeply in Christian ideology and religious tradition, being voiced well by the Fourth Century Saint Augustine of Hippo in his, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans. In this work, Augustine paints an extremely clear picture that suicide is a great and heavy sin, and that it should not be committed, unless one is directed to do so by God, as is the case with many martyred saints. This Christian foundation of a taboo against self-killing served to influence the secular attitude toward the act. As previously mentioned above, being classified as a felony, the punishment for being found guilty of felonia de se was the seizing of all assets of the victim by the Crown. An additional punishment of being buried in unconsecrated land was also given to those who committed suicide, a punishment for the corruption of the soul that occurred due to the great sin that was brought upon the individual from committing such an evil act. Such is the punishment that was given for self-killing in medieval England, but that is only if a verdict of felonia de se is reached, which was not always the case.

In addition to self-killings being ruled as felonia de se, there were two other rulings that could be given by a jury. Medieval juries could also find that an incident of self-killing was due to misadventure (essentially, that it was an accident), or that it was due to non compos mentis (meaning that they were not responsible for their actions by means of mental instability). More specifically, the reason someone who was mentally unstable could not be found (in theory) guilty of a crime was because “(1) he did not know what he did; (2) he was impelled or forced by some inexplicable necessity; or (3) he was not capable of reason--that is, he was not in charge of himself because he lacked the faculty of deliberation." If there was a verdict of misadventure or non compos mentis, then the self-killer would not have their land, goods, and chattel confiscated—nor would they be buried outside of the consecrated ground of a church—as they would not be guilty of a felony. More on actual figures of the numbers of self-killings deemed to be misadventures and excusable by non compos mentis later though. One interesting thing to note in this discussion of felonia de se, non compos mentis, and misadventure is that on multiple occasions, legal records show that self-killings were determined to be both the result of misadventure and yet at the same time felonia de se, or were both non compos mentis and felonia de se. This shows the difficulty that medieval juries had in distinguishing between the three types of self-killing, and the difficulty that they had determining the best verdict to hand-down, for reasons that will be discussed later. Now that a general foundation is established for how self-killing was viewed, and how it was treated both by secular authorities, and then by the ecclesiastic, we can now look at how suicide differed between men and women.

In medieval England, the commission of crimes by women was disproportionately low in comparison with men, given the general equality in the numbers of men and women. This was especially true in regards to felonies. Overall for felonies—which include major theft, such as grand larceny, burglary, and robbery, as well as homicide and suicide—women made up for only ten percent of the total cases that came before courts (in one study, it was determined that women were responsible for only four percent of felonies). Now, this behooves historians to ask why this is the case. Certainly, it could be chalked up to some sort of biological determinism, in which women are inherently less violent than men. Or it could be that this disproportionate representation of women in felonious crimes is resultant of social conditioning of the time to make women more submissive and pacifistic. Both of these explanations are unsatisfactory though, as they would then mean that there would be similar rates of women committing criminal acts throughout history, which is not the case. Even during the time period, the East Midlands had rates of accusation of felonia de se that were roughly even between men and women, if not leaning toward more women committing the act. If we look at modern statistics in the United Kingdom, we can see that women made up twenty-four percent of criminal cases. Both of these numbers, then, work to discredit these hypotheses. It could be that, as medieval historian Sara M. Butler posits, that medieval juries were less likely to view women as suspects for felonious acts, seeing them incapable of doing such things as murder. This then also helps explain why women were able to get treatment that was both more compassionate then what was given to men, when compassion was shown, and that was at the same time harsher than what was given to men, when harsh judgments were given down, in the case of suicide verdicts. More on this below. I would argue that this belief that women are generally incapable of performing violent, felonious crime is still held by many today, and is at least partially responsible for the still disproportionate rates of crime between the sexes.

As for suicide, the rate of women committing this felony is much higher than with any other type of felony. In looking at 718 incidents of self-killing in medieval England, between the Thirteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries, taking from the few surviving records that exist within coroner's, eyre, and assize rolls, we can see that of the 718 incidents of self-killing, 464 were committed by men, while 253 were committed by women (this adds up to 717 self-killings, with the remaining self-killer's gender being unidentified due to damage to the record). This means that women committed thirty-five percent of self-killings, which is a stark difference between the four to ten percent of felonies in general. As to why this is the case is uncertain, and Butler, whose figures I draw off of for this essay, does not seek to answer this question. I would hypothesize that it could be due to the nature of suicide as a crime as compared to homicide or theft. Suicide is, by its very nature, a crime that does not involve others, while theft and homicide do. It could be that because of this, and because of the lack of agency that women possessed at the time, that suicide was a crime that they were able to commit far easier than other types of felonies (especially if you consider that the majority of homicides at the time, specifically in urban areas, occurred as a result of altercations in pubs and taverns after copious amounts of alcohol had been consumed).

Let us dive deeper down into the rabbit hole of conviction rates among male and female self-killers. Of the 718 cases of self-killing, 565 returned verdicts of felonia de se (or roughly seventy-nine percent, with seventy-four percent of women being found guilty, and eighty-one percent of men being found so). This is an extremely high conviction rate for a felony, as at the time, the average acquittal rate for felonies was at sixty-five percent. This indicates that medieval juries were especially harsh in punishing those who had committed suicide, perhaps due to the deep religious connotations that the act held. Some scholars have argued that the reason that so many verdicts of felonia de se were given was so that the Crown could seize the chattel, land, and goods of the offenders. This train of thought is derailed at two points, however. First, there is the issue of the high rate of acquittal (sixty-five percent) for other felonies, which would also result in the confiscation of chattel, lands, and goods to the Crown. It could be that juries were unwilling to give verdicts that took the life of an individual, and that since that was not a factor in cases of self-killing that they did not have any form of inhibition in declaring a felony occurred. However, there is still the family of the accused that must be taken into consideration, as they would most certainly suffer from the confiscation of said possessions. Suppose that is not a problem, though. In that case, you still have the issue, as Gwen and Alice Seabourne point out, that oftentimes those without any chattel, land, or goods were still found guilty of felonia de se, thus pointing toward a genuine desire to punish individuals that had self-killed. We can see this tendency to be harsh, to punish, in cases of mental instability as well.

Mental instability was considered an excuse for committing felonious acts (non compos mentis), as the perpetrator did not have mens rea, or the criminal mind. Out of the 718 cases of self-killing, there were 105 cases in which mental instability was mentioned. Of these, forty-two percent were committed by women, and fifty-eight percent were committed by men. This rate of mental instability is incongruous with the rate at which women committed suicide as compared to men (thirty-five percent of the total self-killings). This indicates that medieval juries were willing to believe that a woman could be mentally unstable at a greater degree then they ought to for their percentage of the overall amount of self-killings. It is difficult to discern as to why this is the case, though it could be do to the association between the Devil and women by the Medieval Church, and its promulgation of the idea that women could be more easily possessed by the Devil, demons, evil spirits, etc.. This can be seen with cases involving demonic possession or influence, of which there were fourteen. Of these fourteen, nine were by women, and five were by men. Sixty-six percent of the women were given a verdict of felonia de se, as opposed to just twenty percent of the men. Now, of those 105 cases of mental instability, sixty-three of them resulted in the defendant being awarded a verdict of non compos mentis (twenty-seven women, or eleven percent of all women, and thirty-six men, or eight percent of all men). This shows that medieval juries were willing to believe that women were mentally unstable, and thus not responsible for their actions, than they were for men.

Another aspect of difference in gender and self-killing in late medieval England is in instances of “phrases of afforcement.” These were phrases that were used by coroners and by grand juries in order to prevent the trial jury from showing compassion to the self-killer, by using phrases such as “at night,” “ murder,” “with malice aforethought,” “behind closed doors,” and “alone.” In the highly social time, these phrases all served to paint the self-killer in such a negative light as to make it next-to impossible for the trial jury to show compassion for them. Of the 718 self-killings, forty of them contained phrases of afforcement, and of those forty, eighteen of them, or roughly half, were in cases involving women. This shows a clear bias towards women. In addition to breaking social norms by self-killing, it could be that the reason that women were given phrases of afforcement is that women were, by committing such a violent felony, also breaking the social expectations and gender roles that are assigned to women, such as McLane believes. An example of this can be seen in the case of Joan Wynspere of Basford, who, in an attempt to abort a pregnancy with pharmaceuticals, accidentally ended up killing herself. In this case, Joan was found guilty of felonia de se. This contradicted the precedent, in which she would have been found guilty of abortion, and not of felonia de se, as her death was not intended. Butler believes, however, that this is a case in which male jurors were showing their antipathy toward “loose women,” illegitimate pregnancies, and illicit abortions. It could also have to do with her status as a single woman.

To be a single woman in medieval England was to be in a minority, and it was often looked down on by society. In addition, being a single woman also brought with it financial instability, as work was, to put it lightly, limited for women. This, along with the social condemnation that came with being a single woman, might explain why single women were disproportionately represented among self-killing women. Of the 253 women who self-killed, fifty-four percent were married, while forty-seven percent were not. However, those figures do not account for widows, who were included in the married category. Accounting for them, sixty-five percent of female self-killers were single. It also is important to note then that single women fared worse than married women.

Up until now, we have been looking at cases in which medieval juries were harsh to the accused self-killers. While this harsh treatment did account for seventy-nine percent of the incidents of self-killing, there is still another twenty-one percent that needs to be accounted for. These are the cases in which medieval juries showed compassion for the accused self-killers. Take, for example, the case of Ellen wife of Thomas the clerk of Barnwell, who awoke one night, rose from bed in nothing but her underwear, and then proceeded to walk into the nearby river and drown herself out of grief for her son that she had recently lost. The record shows that she simply drowned herself, but not that she was a felon. This case shows sympathy that medieval juries had for those women who had lost their children (which happened quite often, with high mortality rates existing for children at the time). It also showed that the jury had sympathy for her husband Thomas, who had just lost his son and wife, as a verdict of felonia de se would ruin his reputation. This compassion can also be seen with postpartum depression, which it is clear, through writings that we have from the time, that they understood. Enough of anecdotes though, let us look at raw numbers. In the case of thirty self-killings by hanging, medieval juries returned verdicts of misadventure. Now, this does not make sense if the juries were giving an accurate verdict, as one does not accidentally fall into the hangman's noose. An appropriate judgment would be felonia de se or non compos mentis. However, both of these verdicts would serve to damage either the reputation and/or the financial situation of the families that survived the self-killers. Thus, death by misadventure makes sense as a compassionate verdict. Interestingly, this compassion was gender-neutral, with fifteen men and fifteen women being granted a misadventure verdict.

These were not the only ways in which medieval juries graced self-killers with compassion. In 103 of verdicts of felonia de se, the trial jury under-appreciated the value of the chattel, lands, and goods of the guilty. In seventy-seven of these cases, the self-killer was a man. It seems that, in this, juries were attempting to be sympathetic to the wives and children of self-killers. This could be due simply to empathy and sympathy on the part of the jurors, or it could also be due to a worry that by taking all of the chattel, lands, and goods of the man of a household, that they would condemn his family to destitution, and therefore create a drain on the community. Similar concerns were had when females self-killed, and the taking of joint-property from the husband.

The last element that needs to be examined in regards to self-killing is the ways in which men and women killed themselves. Thirty-four percent of women drowned themselves, as opposed to twenty-nine percent of men. Fifty-one percent of women hanged themselves, as opposed to forty-one percent of men. Eight percent of women used a sharp tool to kill themselves, as opposed to twenty-two percent of men. It is this last figure that is of great interest in determining how men and women killed themselves in different ways. For, killing oneself with a sharp object, such as a knife, is a long, and arduous process—much longer than a death by hanging or by drowning. Moreover, the use of sharp objects to kill themselves shows a trend that men have for the use of dramatic forms of killing themselves. Take for example the case of John the Welshman of Lincolnshire, who used a knife to remove both his penis and testicles before leaving himself to bleed to death. Or the case of Thomas Nulleward, who threw himself into the cogs of a mill, crushing him. Or the case of Thomas Warner of Moulton, who died of drowning after first tying his hands and feet together. All of these are cases in which men killed themselves in far more dramatic manners than women, and serve as a representative of a larger trend of dramatic self-killing for men.

The loss of a life prematurely is an awful thing, moreso when it is done by oneself. While suicide is no longer illegal in England, during the medieval era, it was, due to a foundation of suicide being a taboo by the Catholic Church, especially in the writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Called felonia de se, committing suicide would result in the seizing of goods, lands, and chattel by the Crown, and would ultimately serve to bring the family of the individual who committed suicide into destitution, while also ruining their reputation. There were exceptions and excuses for committing an act of self-killing, those being death by misadventure (accidental) and those which were non compos menti, or rather, where the individual who killed themselves was not in the right mind when they did so. However, juries were harsh when it came to suicide, having a twenty-one percent acquittal rate, as opposed to sixty-five percent for most felonies. Suicide was also gendered in nature, and disproportionately so. On aggregate, women committed ten percent of felonies, and yet they committed thirty-five percent of the suicides, even though they made up half of the population. While there are many hypotheses as to why this is, it seems that this is due to a lack of belief that women were capable of committing such crimes, and then a lack of desire to convict them. After all, seventy-four percent of women accused of self-killing were found guilty, as opposed to eighty-one percent of men. In addition, more women were excused of their self-killing by reason of mental instability than men were (that being by percentage of those excused to the percentage of the whole of the group). Women were disproportionately singled out and given harsher treatment than men through phrases of afforcement. Single women were treated harsher than those who were married. At the same time though, women were generally shown more compassion by juries, especially in regards to mental instability. Finally, men were more dramatic in their suicides than women were. Such is how suicide was treated in medieval England and how it was gendered both in favor, and against, women.


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Sara M. Butler, "Women, Suicide, and the Jury in Later Medieval England," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 32:1 (Autumn 2006). Web. 24 June 2016.