Suicidal tendencies

Wednesday 15 February 2006

Asylum, medical and legal records dating back 500 years could provide the first ever comprehensive insight into suicide in Scotland throughout the ages.

A University of St Andrews historian is embarking on a research project exploring suicide – often referred to as ‘self-murder’ – between the mid- 16th and mid-19th centuries. The project is the first of its kind examining suicide in Scottish history and will also look at northern England, comparing suicidal trends north and south of the border.

From initial investigations, Professor Rab Houston has already discovered that Scots used more violent means to kill themselves than their English counterparts.

As part of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, Professor Houston will sieve through piles of newspapers, asylum records, legal texts, medical writings and civil court suits and hopes to provide new insights into the mind of the suicidal, religion and suicide, law, punishment and popular attitudes to self-murder. He will also explore the extent to which suicide was ‘criminalised’ and the differing treatment of post-suicide bodies in Scotland and England.

Building on his recent research into mental disability, Professor Houston’s project – ‘Suicide and society in northern England and Scotland, c.1500-1850’ – aims to ask new questions on the subject and revise existing interpretations which were based on much narrower information sources.

The study will examine previous definitions of suicide throughout this time period. Suicide was either viewed as wilful self- murder ‘at the instigation of the devil’ or suicide ‘victims’ were viewed as being mentally incapacitated and therefore not responsible for their actions. The study will also look at ‘punishing the dead’ where a person who had committed suicide had their goods forfeited to the crown and suffered a ritual and public desecration of their body.

From initial studies in Scotland, Professor Houston has determined that forfeiture of a suicide’s goods took account of local needs, and sensibilities with the crown and Exchequer officials acting as a ‘social engineers’. Crown, lords, officials, community and family were all involved in re- ordering complex social and economic networks after a suicidal death.

He has also discovered, in Scotland, that the role of the devil in understanding suicide was never strong in the popular mind and that the phrase ‘at the instigation of the devil’ was a legal term of art used in England to describe culpability, rather than a literal statement of belief. Also, far from being sympathetic to the plight of suicides, Scottish newspapers of the 18th and early 19th century used them as examples of what was wrong with society at the time.

But Professor Houston believes the subject deserves greater exploration – “With a handful of notable exceptions, early modern British suicide remains a curiosity that is worth a page or a footnote in studies of mortality, mentalities or madness. As well as revising, refining and redrawing the picture of English suicide, and opening up another unstudied area of Scottish history, the project will contribute to the growing awareness of regional variations. The project will further the central question that has been the focus of my research for the last 25 years: where does Scotland fit into patterns of social development evidenced elsewhere in Britain and Europe, and what light does the Scottish experience shed on those developments?”


NOTE TO EDITORS – For more information, please contact Professor Rab Houston via email [email protected] or via Claire Grainger – contact details below.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or [email protected]; Ref: press releases/suicidaltendencies View the latest University news at

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