Suicide = Murder
The Sin of Despair:
Today, we look upon the "victims" of suicide with
compassion for the desperation that must have preceded their demise. The
Elizabethans, on the other hand, saw suicides as perpetrators, not victims.
They were guilty of the criminal offense of felonia de seipso,
or, in its shortened version felo de se -- a vile crime against
oneself. The violent nature of this particular crime, murder, was considered
all the worse because of the religious aspect of their sin. Despair was
seen as the most unforgivable of all sins and the mother of the seven
deadly sins. It was the sin that automatically excluded one from God's
grace. In addition, it was commonly held that the devil, himself, often
drove people to self-destruction. Horatio expresses this fear for Hamlet
when they see the spirit.
|What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? Think of it.
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath. (I.iv.69-78)
|Suicide was a terrible crime in Tudor and early Stuart England. Self-killing was a species of murder, a felony in criminal law and a desperate sin in the eyes of the church. 'For the heinousness thereof', observed Michael Dalton, 'it is an offense against God, against the king, and against Nature.' Suicides were tried posthumously by a coroner's jury, and if they were convicted as self-murderers, they and their heirs were savagely punished. Their moveable goods, including tools, household items, money, debts owed to them, and even leases on the land that they had worked were forfeited to the crown or to the holder of a royal patent who possessed the right to such windfalls in a particular place. Self-murderers were denied Christian burials; their bodies were interred profanely, with a macabre ceremony prescribed by popular custom. The night following the inquest, officials of the parish, the churchwardens and their helpers, carried the corpse to a crossroads and threw it naked into a pit. A wooden stake was hammered through the body, pinioning it in the grave, and the hole was filled in. No prayers for the dead were repeated; the minister did not attend. - Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls, Clarendon, Oxford, 1990. p.15.|
|Outright madness was also considered prima-facie evidence that a suicide
had occurred. Prior to the Restoration, this often led to a felo
de se verdict when a non compos mentis finding ought to have
been recorded, as we have seen. Logically, lunatics should not have
been regarded as suicides at all. Some medical men and many laymen nevertheless
believed that the utterly insane were particularly liable to kill themselves.
- Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless
Oxford, 1990. p.232.