Bury the Suicide at the Crossroads: Why the Medieval Church Was More Enlightened Than They Appeared
I recently discovered the popular podcast Freakonomics. It’s a kind of educational program in the same vein as Radiolab or This American Life where interesting stories and ideas are shared in an entertaining format. One of the first episodes I listened to was called “The Suicide Paradox” and what I heard there inspired a line of thought that spread through my mind until it was filled to the point where I knew I would have to make a post out of it.
The episode dealt, as the name suggests, with suicide, and they used a fascinating hook in order to draw the listener in. They interviewed a professor who had spent much of his life living with and studying an Amazonian tribe. Early on, when he first came to the tribe, he shared with them a story that had affected his life deeply: the story of his stepmother’s suicide. However, when he was finished, he found that the entire tribe was laughing. When he asked them why they were laughing at such a tragic story they replied that it was because she had killed herself. They found the idea of someone killing themselves as ridiculous. Who had ever heard of such a crazy thing? People kill animals and sometimes kill each other, but what kind of clown would try to kill themselves? No one in the tribe had ever committed suicide. To this day none of them have. I was, of course, very interested in discovering why this tribe was in such a favorable position. Unfortunately this opening story was merely a hook; they never came back to give a satisfying answer to that question. However what they did have to say has given me a theory.
You see the episode also featured interviews with experts in suicide, and those experts, among other things, talked about the Werther Effect. The Werther Effect is named after the character in an 18th century popular book who committed suicide after his love became engaged to another. This book supposedly started a rash of copycat suicides, with young men all over Europe offing themselves in a manner similar to the book. The Werther Effect was shown to be a real phenomenon after a series of sociological studies which showed that the suicide rate goes up after a famous suicide occurs. For example, it is estimated that Marylyn Monroe’s suicide may have led to 200 more suicides in the months to come than would normally have occurred. Because of this many media outlets have a policy of not reporting on suicides, or to do their best not to glorify the act if they do report on it.
The podcast ended by discussing Hungary, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. They interviewed an old Hungarian man who has spent most of his life fighting against suicide, setting up hotlines and doing research and trying to bring the rate of suicides down to a normal level. One thing he mentioned stuck with me: he said that in Hungary suicide is considered a brave act, something courageous even.
All of this led me to think about a subject that used to trouble me about the history of the Christianity. That subject was the treatment of suicides by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. In medieval times suicide was not just frowned upon: suicide was a crime. Medieval suicides typically could not be buried in the church graveyard, or in any other consecrated ground. Sometimes their bodies were flung ignobly into a ditch. Others were decapitated before burial, or their bodies were staked to the ground. On occasion suicides were buried under a crossroad so that they would be symbolically stepped on by all who passed by. These punishments were even harsher then than they would be if instituted today: in a medieval village, where practically everyone knows each other and where weddings and funerals are truly communal events, the lack of a proper funeral and the public shame that would bring would be powerful. Everyone in town would know about the suicide, and everyone would know that it brought shame and disgrace.
When I had first learned of these practices they struck me as very barbaric and cruel. After all the person who commits suicide is typically someone who is in deep depression or sorrow. To take a person who was so troubled and sad that they took their own life and then cast such shame and disgrace on them for doing so seemed uncompassionate, liking kicking them while they’re down.
But while reflecting on the Werther Effect, it occurred to me that the Church did everything in their power to make suicide appear as unattractive as possible. To a medieval peasant suicide was never brave, courageous, or glamorous. Though suicides occurred they were not performed for the public eye. Suicide was an act that was best kept secret. Those who committed suicide typically did what they could to make it look like an accident. There was a kind of social taboo against discussing suicide, and if a great or powerful individual committed suicide it was usually glossed over in historical accounts. It was only with men who were considered evil or disgraced that suicide was stated clearly as the probable reason for their deaths.
All of this is to say that what seemed at first to me to be cruel and unenlightened practices by the church now seems to me to be terribly enlightened. We know now that suicide is a dangerous idea, and that it can spread from community to community. Every suicide that is publicized strengthens the idea that suicide is an acceptable option for those who are desperate. Even worse are the suicides that are romanticized, where those who slay themselves are considered brave or tragic or poetic. It is a proven scientific fact that communities that romanticize suicide have far greater rates of suicide than normal, and almost every movie star or hit musician that kills themselves has the potential to inspire hundreds to follow their example. And they do not have to be famous: in countries such as Micronesia or Hungary, where suicide is epidemic, things have reached the point where almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide, and because of that suicide has become more and more accepted as a common occurrence. The Amazonian tribesman who finds suicide such a novel and unheard of ideal that it inspires laughter is capable of the same amount of depression, frustration, and despair as the man from Hungary for whom suicide has become a reality of day to day life; and we see that the Hungarian is far more likely to do the deed. Once suicide is considered normal than far more people will take their lives into their own hands and end them.
So what did the Church do in medieval times? They made it clear that suicide was an aberration and a crime against God and man alike. They gave the suicide nothing but shame and disgrace. If their actions seem cruel to us then it is only because we do not understand the danger suicide represents to the entire community. Superstitious peasants in Eastern Europe occasionally staked a corpse to his coffin in order to prevent him from rising from his grave to slay the living: the Catholic Church staked the bodies of suicides to the crossroads for the same reason. They needed to prevent this person from killing others with his action. Today we look on suicide as a very personal decision: but if a despairing person decided to kill themselves with a bomb, while sitting in a public square, we would be less sympathetic of their plight. To the church, and to the modern sociologist, every suicide is a suicide bomber, casting their shrapnel to all who hear of their death. A suicide does not simply take their own lives into their hands, but the lives of those around them. In that light the actions of the Church seem perfectly justified.
We have no solid statistics for the suicide rate during the Middle Ages, as record keeping was not always accurate and most records that were kept have not survived. However Dr. Alexander Murray of Oxford found, from his study of official records from the time, that the recorded suicide rate in Essex in the 13th century was .88 occurrences per 100,000 people (though he admits that this number assumes that all suicides were discovered and recorded and is almost certainly low in that respect). In comparison the suicide rate in the United States today is around 10 per 100,000, and in countries such as Hungary it is more than 20 per 100,000. Even if the medieval record keepers of Essex recorded only 1/5 of all suicides then they would still have less than half of the suicide rate of the US. I do not think it is controversial to claim that the Middle Ages had a lower suicide rate than the modern world. I believe we have the Church to thank for that.
You can’t always tell a book by its cover.