Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England

August 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was talking about this short review I had to write back in 1996 for a grad class on early modern English social history with Dunja and she thought that due to the subject matter that I should post it here.  It was originally a 2.5 double-spaced page review, so keep that in mind when reading it.  It was a fascinating book, I recall, but also a frustrating one, as my review notes.  Too bad it costs nearly $200 for the hardcover edition.

Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls:  Suicide in Early Modern England.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1990.

In this book, MacDonald and Murphy attempt to explain the cultural attitudes regarding suicide.  They split the book into three parts.  The first part, 1485-1660, examines the rise in felo de se, or intentional and rational self-murder, suicide convictions.  The second section, 1660-1800, notes a drop in felo de se convictions and a sharp rise in non compos mentis, or mentally deranged, verdicts on suicide.  The last section deals with the interpretations of suicide.  The authors state in their introduction that they intend to take a longue durèe approach toward studying this period, thus explaining why the focus of this book spans over three centuries.

The structure of the book, in my opinion, could have been better.  It appears that the authors focus too much attention on the suicide conviction rates than they do on the actual reasons for committing suicide.  While most of this information is useful, the various reasons why England was considered by many Europeans to be the suicide capital of the world in the eighteenth century is put off until the very last section.  Although the authors do explain why la mort à l’anglaise (p. 308) became known as such, this information could have been better used if it had been dealt with in the opening chapter.

In discussing the rise of suicide convictions and the resulting popular treatment of the corpses (burial at the crossroads with a stake driven through the body), MacDonald and Murphy note that the conviction rate was over ninety-five percent between 1485 and 1660 (p. 16).  In their explanation for this rise of suicide trials and the sentence of felo de se, Murphy and MacDonald argue that the Tudor regime instituted stricter laws regarding suicide, equating it with other felonies.  This meant that the felon had to forfeit his property, which the State then controlled (p. 16).  There were individuals, mostly churchmen, who the Tudor government authorized to seize these properties and to use them as they saw fit (p. 25).  The problem with this argument is that those with the richest properties, namely the nobility, were the ones most likely to be acquitted of intentional murder (p. 129).

While MacDonald and Murphy do an excellent job of tying in political reforms with popular attitudes regarding suicide, their emphasis on the “secularization” of suicide is slightly misleading.  They argue that before the mid-seventeenth century that suicide was considered to be caused by sin (p. 19).  They theorize that around 1660, when the Restoration signaled the decline of Puritanism, that popular attitudes toward suicide became less harsh.  They also note that although the penalty for suicide was still there, conviction rates dropped drastically in the next century.  They argue that religious views had shifted to the point where suicide could be removed from its earlier association with the devil (p. 157).  The problem with this argument, as the authors themselves note, is that there was still in the eighteenth century a strong minority, especially among Methodists, who still clung to a religious interpretation regarding suicide.

While the two authors do a good job of discussing the shift in popular attitudes toward religion, their section on the interpretations regarding suicide could have been handled better.  I believe that they should have gone into greater detail in their explanation for motives behind committing suicide.  Although they do state that monetary reasons were a primary motive (p. 270), they do not explain adequately the reason for the high rate of youth suicide, even though they note that 430 out of 1001 reported suicides in England from 1485-1714 were committed by those younger than the age of twenty-four (p. 251).

MacDonald and Murphy also neglect to discuss in great detail the formulation of suicide notes.  What do these notes mean and why were they written?  The authors theorize that suicide notes ought to be viewed as essays in persuasion, thus explaining the similarities in suicide notes, but they do not really correlate this with the rise in literacy rates during this period.  This section, like the others, leaves one to wonder why these suicides occurred the ways they did.  MacDonald and Murphy do not explain why suicides occurred in the book, and this lack of explanation makes their arguments regarding the meanings behind suicide weaker.

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