Research Stream


Rebecca F. McNamara
Westmont College and UWA

Juanita Feros Ruys
The University of Sydney

Emotions and the Suicidal Impulse in the Medieval World

Self-killing in the Middle Ages was understood in terms beyond sin and crime or condemnation and punishment. This project analyses legal records, chronicles, and literature c.1200-1450 to elucidate the emotions related to the suicidal impulse and the reactions of others to self-killing.

Emotions and the Suicidal Impulse in the Medieval World

 ‘Nero’, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean le Meung, Roman de la Rose. Detail of miniature of Nero committing suicide with a knife. c.1380. MS Egerton 881, f. 64v, British Library.

This project claims that self-killing in medieval England was an issue that was understood beyond the terms of sin, spiritual malaise, or demonic temptation. Through analysis of legal records, chronicles, and literature in England c. 1200-1500, this project shows that people in the medieval past articulated emotional motivations to suicide in a range of contexts, from sickness and criminality, to familial loss and social shame.

What events or circumstances preceded suicide, and how might these contexts shed light on what were understood to be the emotional motivations to suicide? Extant legal records of suicide portray the difficulties of medieval life in the extreme, citing such contexts of self-inflicted death as the anguish of physical and mental illness, the fear of punishment of suspected criminals, the grief of losing a child or spouse, and the suffering of poverty. These circumstances and the emotions that were understood to accompany them are also depicted in literary portraits of suicide. The suicidal impulse or act features frequently in some medieval literary genres, but mere tropism is elided by writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and others who describe with complexity the emotions of the suicidal impulse, as well as the emotional reactions of others to suicide.

By examining a range of English secular writing, this project maps out heretofore unexamined emotional motivations and reactions to suicide in medieval England, asking how these findings fit more broadly into emotions related to impending death in the Middle Ages.


Rebecca F. McNamara, ‘Pain and Self-Killing: Making Sense of the Trauma of Suicide in Gower’s Confessio Amantis’ (article in preparation).

Stephanie Downes and Rebecca F. McNamara, ‘The History of Emotions and Middle English Literature’ (under review with Literature Compass).

Rebecca F. McNamara, ‘The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in Medieval England’. Parergon 31.2 (2014): 11‒34.

Rebecca F. McNamara and Una McIlvenna, eds., ‘Medieval and Early Modern Emotional Responses to Death and Dying’. Special Issue of Parergon 31.2 (2014).

Rebecca F. McNamara and Juanita Feros Ruys, ‘Unlocking the Silences of the Self-Murdered: Textual Approaches to Suicidal Emotions in the Middle Ages’. Exemplaria 26.1 (2014): 58‒80.