Category Archives: Middle Ages

(documented 1519-1621)



  1. Codex Chimalpopoca (1570)
    The Death of Quetzalcoatl
  2. Letters from Mexico
         (Hernán Cortés, 1519-20)
  3. General History of the Things of New Spain (The Florentine Codex)
    The Festival in the Month of Tóxcatl
    The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of the Years
    (Bernardino de Sahagún, c. 1565)
  4. Monarchia Indiana
    Chimalpopoca’s Victory in Death
          (Juan de Torquemada, 1609-15)
  5. In Defense of the Indians
    The Significance of Human Sacrifice
    (Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1548-1550)


  1. Popol Vuh
    History of the Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque
    How the People Obtained Fire
    (dictated in K’iche’, c. 1554-1558; Francisco Ximénez, c. 1701)
  2. An Account of the Affairs of Yucatán
    Ixtab: Goddess of the Gallows
    (Diego de Landa, c. 1570)


  1. Natural History of the West Indies
    Suicide on the Death of the Chief
    (Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1526)
  2. La Historia General de las Indias
    Suicide, Smallpox, and the Arrival of the Spaniards
    (Francisco López de Gómara, 1552)
  3. History of the New World
    Suffering at the Hands of the Spaniards
    (Girolamo Benzoni, 1565)



  1. The Incas
    The Burial of Wives
    (Pedro de Cieza de León, 1553)
  2. Natural & Moral History of the Indies
    Of Superstitions They Used to the Dead
    (José de Acosta, 1589)
  3. The Extirpation of Idolatry in Peru
    What Those Who Hang Themselves Really Are
    (Pablo José de Arriaga, 1621)

The Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztec and Maya, the peoples of the Caribbean Islands, and the Inca of South America, were among the many cultural groups inhabiting the western hemisphere at the time contact was established between the Americas and Europe; there are still some 170 indigenous tribes speaking distinctive languages in Mexico alone, and 31 different Mayan languages and groups. Some groups among those who had migrated across Beringia into North America had continued to move south into Central and South America, eventually establishing large and sophisticated cities and empires. Among the major sites were Tenochtitlan (the Aztec, or Mexica, capital in the location now known as Mexico City), Palenque (one of many major Mayan city and temple complexes), and Machu Picchu, now believed to have been the summer capital of the Inca empire. About a fifth of the global population lived in the Americas at the time of contact with Europeans, and although estimates vary widely, the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca populations all clearly numbered in the millions at the height of these civilizations.

Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492. Despite popular assumptions that the native inhabitants of the New World were conquered by the sword and the cross, especially by Spanish conquistadores interested in gold and in military domination and Jesuits engaged in religious conversion, most of the indigenous populations were killed by European disease—smallpox, measles, typhus, plague, influenza, malaria, and yellow fever—diseases to which New World populations had never been exposed and had no immunity. Entire peoples in the Americas were virtually wiped out, like the Caribbean group known as the Taino living on Hispaniola, where Columbus had landed in December of 1492. Most other indigenous populations were reduced to remnants of their original numbers, in many places an 80–90% decline. The so-called Black Legend blames Spanish cruelty and injustice for the decimation of the Indians and, in doing so, identifies a major factor in the catastrophic population decline in the New World and the destruction of once-powerful pre-contact civilizations. Other factors, including famine, collapse of the ruling class, intergroup warfare, and other forms of social upheaval, are still under debate as contributors to these societies’ eventual collapse even before the arrival of the Spanish, but it was disease that took the greatest toll.

Whether practices of human sacrifice contributed to the collapse or were practices of these societies that marked their zeniths, the archeological remains of the Mesoamerican cultures provide extensive records of practices related to suicide, including bloodletting and autosacrifice, self-immolation, live burial of wives and retainers, decapitation, and—especially among the Aztecs—heart sacrifice. The art and architecture of the Formative, Classic, and Post-classic periods of these cultures, including those like the Maya with highly developed iconographic systems, show that death-producing practices were a central part of pre-contact life.

What accounts for these practices is still a subject of dispute. Michael Harner’s thesis, promulgated in the late 1970s, that human sacrifice and the associated institutionalized cannibalism among the Aztecs were a product of protein scarcity—caused by seasonal crop failures, the depletion of wild game, and the lack of domestic animal food sources in a region that, though itself fertile, was surrounded by poor farmland—has not been supported by the evidence. Human sacrifice in this and other cultures, according to a more recent examination of the evidence by Michael Windelman, is associated with high population density, population pressure, and war for land and resources; human sacrifice may also play a role in ideological integration. Nevertheless, whatever the background ecological and social explanation of human sacrifice, the degree to which these practices should be understood as suicide or suicide-like actions depends in part on the motivation with which they were undertaken and the way they were understood by those involved in and subject to these practices—that is, the degree to which they were perceived as self-initiated, and whether they were involuntary, socially required but not desired, or elective. It is also a function of the extent to which the religious violence of human sacrifice was, as David Carrasco modifies René Girard’s claim, the “public heart and soul of the sacred.” Determining this is a considerable challenge in these cultures, since easily interpretable primary narratives do not survive.

Although extensive archeological and anthropological research has expanded contemporary knowledge of indigenous cultures, most of the textual sources about pre-Columbian life come from the accounts of the European conquerors, missionaries, and explorers who first came into contact with these societies. These early accounts, a number of which are presented here, are clearly influenced by the assumptions and biases the Europeans brought to their observations, yet they do provide some idea of indigenous cultural beliefs and practices concerning suicide before these societies succumbed to conquest and disease. It is the records of Spanish conquistadores and priests like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (selection #8), Hernán Cortés (selection #2), Bartolomé de Las Casas (selection #5), and Bernardino de Sahagún (selection #3), often reporting oral testimony from native informants, that constitute the vast majority of extant eyewitness accounts. Of course, it can hardly be supposed that these texts give a fully accurate account of native beliefs and practices about suicide unaffected by cultural influences from Europe; they have clearly been filtered through European eyes, especially as influenced by the Spanish Inquisition. Some—like the distortion of the indigenous understanding of the various parts of the body as having different energies into the concept of a unified soul—were comparatively modest, and some—like Diego de Landa’s account of the “goddess of the gallows,” Ixtab, who especially favored suicides by hanging (selection #10)—were, it is claimed, an outright fabrication. Yet because these accounts were filtered through a set of European religious and cultural assumptions that were quite different from those of contemporary assumptions—at that time, Western thought saw suicide primarily as crime and sin, rather than, as in modern times, the consequence of mental illness and psychopathology—it may be easier to arrive at an informative view about these cultures than modern ethnopsychology permits. Furthermore, stark reductions in the populations of the New World meant severe cultural disruption brought about by both the destruction of records and the interruption of oral traditions. The early accounts presented here, although often strongly biased and grossly exaggerated, provide in some ways the closest available access to pre-contact views, since after contact and exposure to a newly dominant group, a population will adopt new forms of explanation. Thus, these early sources provide our closest look at these cultures’ views of suicide and related practices in sacrifice. Much of what we might now describe as suicide in these cultures was not apparently viewed as problematic then, and certainly not conceptualized in the same ways.

Most of these early accounts, colored by assumptions about the superiority of the Europeans and the inferiority or savagery of the native inhabitants of the Americas, as well as about the truth of the Catholic faith and the idolatrous nature of native religion, emphasize the bizarre character of the religious and cultural practices of the peoples described, especially when those involve bloodletting, suicide, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. In contrast, a few early observers, notably Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican friar and then bishop known as the “Protector of the Indians,” emphasized the cruelty of the Spanish and other European invaders. In his sympathetic Defense of the Indians (selection #5), directed against “the persecutors and slanderers of the peoples of the new world discovered across the seas,” Las Casas viewed indigenous practices like bloodletting and human sacrifice as evidence, in theological terms, of probable error resulting from genuine but misguided religiosity on the part of indigenous peoples.

The Selections


The Aztecs, or Mexica, invaded the valley of Mexico around the 13th century a.d. after the 12th- century decline of the resident Toltecs, eventually settling on an island in the western part of Lake Texcoco and establishing the twin (and often rival) cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco around 1325. The name Aztec refers to their traditional place of origin at Aztlán. The Aztecs, one of the last waves of Nahua migration from the north, like many other groups in the region, spoke a dialect of Nahuatl; Nahuatl languages are still spoken in central Mexico by about 1.5 million people. Aztec society was both militaristic and agricultural, emphasizing cycles of birth and death; their cities were built around immense ceremonial complexes of temples.

Human sacrifice, for which the Aztecs are known, predated the rise of the Aztecs and had religious importance throughout Mesoamerica. The murals of Teotihuacán, the great metropolis of the pre-Aztec Classic period, show that sacrifice of the heart was a particularly important ritual. Heart sacrifice is depicted explicitly in one Teotihuacán mural in which two coyotes are shown extracting the still-beating heart of a deer; these animal figures represent human capacities. Aztec sacrifices corresponded to important dates in the cycle of the sun calendar or to astronomical events like eclipses. Architectural structures at the Templo Mayor (now excavated and visible in Mexico City) display banks of skulls of sacrificial captives, and in one offering cache can be seen the skeletal remains of 42 children sacrificed to the rain gods. Noble women and slaves were also sacrificed, and the “flower wars” with neighboring groups were conducted for the purpose of obtaining captive warriors for sacrifice.

The Spaniard Hernán Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico on April 22, 1519. Two years later, Cortés, having won over the Tlaxcala–who were engaged in a flower war with the—as allies, stormed Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco. Although the Aztecs did keep pictorial codices, the extant records were burned twice, once by the ruling elite of Tenochtitlán and once by the Spanish missionaries eager to eliminate references to a pre-Christian past. Each time these records were destroyed, new histories arose to take their place.

Selection #1 is taken from one of these new histories, the Codex Chimalpopoca. It recounts Aztec mythology about the earlier Toltecs, the historic inhabitants of Tula whom the Aztecs revered as the ancestors of their rulers. Tolpiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, whose lifetime is dated in the Codex with a year count employing four names, Flint, House, Rabbit, Reed, and 13 numbers, at 817–895 a.d., is said to have been conceived when his mother Chimalman swallowed a piece of jade. The narrative describes Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s life, how he abolished human sacrifice, and was driven into exile by his rivals, including the god-sorcerer Tezcatlipoca. Quetzalcoatl is deceived by the sorcerer into drunkenness and then incest with his sister; in remorse and political weakness, still pursued by the sorcerer, Quetzalcoatl immolates himself in a sacred bonfire, his soul rising to the heavens to become Venus, the morning star.

In addition to Quetzalcoatl, Aztec religion recognized two other major deities, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc; human sacrifice was often performed to these and lesser gods. Among the Aztecs, human blood was believed necessary to sustain and renew the world and often involved heart sacrifice. Hernán Cortes, in his first and second letters, dated July 10, 1519, and October 13, 1520, respectively (selection #2), in which he described the culture of the indigenous people whom his forces had conquered, portrays the Aztec practices of human sacrifice vividly, arguing that the repugnance of these practices justifies the imposition of Christianity, if necessary by force. Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan friar who had arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1529, describes ceremonies of human sacrifice prepared for in a particularly elaborate way. Sahagún’s General History of the Things of New Spain, also called The Florentine Codex (selection #3), is regarded as a reliable source of information about Aztec culture in part because he learned the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and could interview native speakers who knew no Spanish and nothing of Spanish culture. Sahagún’s informants also replied to his questions in hieroglyphic paintings, some of which are still extant. In addition, Sahagún painstakingly cross-checked his accounts among multiple sources. In the second part of selection #3, from Book 7 of The Florentine Codex, Sahagún relates the Aztec myth of the creation of the sun and moon. Two deities, Tecuciztecatl, the privileged god, and Nanauatzin, who is poor, attempt to sacrifice themselves on a pyre so that they can become the sun of our world. Tecuciztecatl, who goes first, shrinks back from the fire four times and thus becomes only the moon; Nanauatzin lets himself burn without hesitation and instead becomes the sun. When the new sun and moon have not moved in the sky, the other gods, except one who must be forced, decide to sacrifice themselves too in order to give the sun power. However, the gods’ sacrifices are not enough, and Ecatl, the wind god, having sacrificed the other gods, must still drive the sun and moon across the sky. In the other part of selection #2, also from The Florentine Codex, Sahagún describes how youths were chosen to be sacrificed to the god Tezcatlipoca in annual festivities occurring in the spring month Tóxcatl: a young man with an unblemished body was prepared for sacrifice for a year before the festival and worshipped as the image of the god before his ultimate death, climaxing in removal of the heart and subsequent decapitation at the summit of the temple steps.

Human sacrifice did not always involve individual attention: in some ceremonies, war prisoners were ritually sacrificed, singly or by the thousands; it is claimed that somewhere between 10,000 and 80,400 persons were sacrificed at the inauguration of the great temple, the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, in the year 1487 a.d., only a few decades before the arrival of the Spanish.

To varying degrees, victims of the various forms of sacrifice were unwilling, willing, or eager to play this role. Central to Aztec belief was the notion of indebtedness, the belief that because the gods had sacrificed themselves in creating the earth and the human beings who inhabited it, human beings were obligated to repay the debt by sacrificing themselves in return. Offerings of incense, food, flowers, animals, tobacco, and so on were made to the gods, but it was human blood that nourished them—especially the sun—and would enable the sun, rain, processes of growth, and other natural forces to continue to support human beings. Self-sacrifice, thus, was a sort of exchange, the repayment of the created being’s great debt, and was rewarded by going to live with the Sun, the Moon, or other deities in their diurnal courses or other natural processes. Thus, to sacrifice oneself or be sacrificed was a privilege, not a penalty. Many of those sacrificed are said to have gone to their deaths without fear, knowing they would live again with these gods—but others had to be dragged to the places of sacrifice.

Suicide could also be seen as preferable to being killed. In his Monarchia Indiana (selection #4), Juan de Torquemada (c. 1557–1624), a friar and respected recorder of Aztec history, reports that the third king of Tenochtitlan, Chimalpopoca, having been defeated by his relative, the Emperor Maxtla, first attempted to sacrifice himself and finally hanged himself to escape the indignity of death by starvation in a cage, thus achieving victory in death.

Of particular interest is Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Defense of the Indians (selection #5), in that he attempts to employ Catholic theology with its emphasis on the centrality of sacrifice to God to examine human sacrifice as evidence of the religious devotion, rather than depravity, of the indigenous peoples. “The greatest way to worship God is to offer him sacrifice,” he writes, “every man owes God more than his life.” Las Casas says he understands indigenous practices in this way, even if they are misguided in the gods to whom they are addressed. They are not grounds for waging war against these peoples.


The religious overtones present in most Mesoamerican accounts of suicide are even more explicit in the European depictions of Maya civilization. The Preclassic or Formative Period of Maya civilization began in the third millennium b.c. and lasted to approximately 300 a.d., eventually giving way to the Maya Classic Period, c. 320–909 a.d., a time characterized by the formation of distinctive scientific and cultural achievements, including an extraordinarily sophisticated calendar and system of astronomical prediction. At its height, the domain of the Mayan groups extended throughout southern Mexico, the Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and western portions of El Salvador and Honduras. As among the Aztec, death-producing practices were numerous. Mayan stelae at ritual centers like Toniná, for instance, show the sacrifice of defeated kings and war captives; glyphs at Yaxchilán depict decapitation and autosacrifice; and murals at Bonampak show the capture and torture of captives for sacrifice. Reliefs of the ball court at Chichen Itza show players being sacrificed; it is thought that these were the defeated players, although some sources claim they were the winning players. Vase paintings at Palenque also illustrate human sacrifice. Ritual objects for sacrifice recovered in excavations include highly decorated knives and special bowls for holding just-extracted human hearts. As Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller have argued, while in recent history, the Maya were assumed to be nonviolent in comparison to the Aztecs, in fact, war and human sacrifice were central to Mayan religion and culture throughout the Classic period.

Mayan religion identified its gods with the natural world, especially forces that affected agriculture. According to the Popol Vuh creation myth (selection #6), dictated in K’iche’ Mayan to Dominican friars in Guatemala between 1554 and 1558, and later rediscovered and translated into Spanish by Francisco Ximénez, the gods fashioned human beings from maize dough so that humans could worship and sustain them. The Mayan universe was divided into several parts: the heavens, containing 14 layers, of which the earth was the lowest, and the underworld, which consisted of nine layers. The Maya were also said to believe in the immortality of the human soul, though this may not have been a unified concept but rather one shaped by European interpreters. As among the Aztecs, the sacrifice of human blood was seen by the Maya as necessary for the sustenance of cosmic order; indeed, as Schele and Miller put it, “the very existence of the universe depended upon the willingness of human beings to sustain the gods with their blood offerings.” Human blood, the nourishment of the gods, was essential to keep the sun in its course and to prevent it from sinking below the world forever. Bloodletting rituals also formed an important part of Mayan culture, involving piercing of the tongue, earlobes, and genitals, as a public institution and means of gaining public merit and respect. The bloodletting ritual “was basic to the institution of rulership.”

The sun and moon are sacrifices themselves in Mayan mythology. The second part of the Popol Vuh (selection #6) tells the story of how, before the successful creation of humans, the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque became the sun and moon of our world. Having willingly sacrificed themselves in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, the twins come back to life with the ability to kill and resurrect themselves and others. Returning to Xibalba, the twins demonstrate their powers and convince the Xibalban lords to kill themselves, but they do not bring them back to life. With Xibalba defeated, the twins rise into the sky where they appear as the sun and moon. In another passage from the third part of the Popol Vuh, the god of fire demands that human sacrifice, including heart sacrifice, must be paid to him in exchange for the gift of fire to the community.

Diego de Landa (1524–79), a zealous Catholic Spaniard who spent most of his life in the Yucatan, claimed that Mayan belief held that wrongdoers would suffer intensely in the lowest hell, called Mitnal, while those who committed suicide by hanging, along with other good people—warriors killed in battle and women dying in childbirth—would enjoy a heavenly bliss. Suicides would be watched over by the goddess Ixtab, who, among her other roles, served as the goddess of suicide and the gallows. De Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, from which this text is taken (selection #7), provides the fullest account of the ancient Maya to have survived the early colonial period and may provide particularly direct evidence of pre-contact Yucatec beliefs, though whether it is reliable is not clear: De Landa was known for his use of torture in interrogating native subjects (“nothing can be extracted from an Indian without torture,” he said), and some scholars suggest that the Relación was written to form part of his defense in an investigation of his inquisitorial activities—hence its purpose of describing idolatrous practices among the Indians. Indeed, some contemporary scholars argue that his account of Ixtab is a fabrication designed to serve his own zealous agenda.

A figure said to be the goddess Ixtab is shown in the eclipse tables of the Dresden Codex hanging from the sky with a noose around her neck; her eyes are closed, and black circles, a sign of decomposition, appear on her cheeks. If Mayan belief recognized a goddess of suicide favorable to those who killed themselves by hanging, it might in part explain the frequency of suicidal behavior observed by the Spanish invaders. Diego López de Cogolludo (1613–65), for example, said of a man who had committed suicide that “. . . the arrogance of this Indian was such, that being so badly wounded, to avoid its being said he died at the hands of that Spaniard, he went away and in the presence of his own people he hanged himself with a liana. . . .”

Caribbean Peoples

According to early chronicles presented in the next three selections, suicide was also practiced in individual and group forms in the islands of the Caribbean, especially those now known as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti/Dominican Republic. Gonzalo Fernándo de Oviedo (1478–1557), whom some commentators have called a “man of balanced judgment,” includes examples of suicide in his Natural Historia de las Indias (1526), the first official history of the western hemisphere (selection #8). Oviedo writes that “in some of the islands” where poisonous yucca grows (“San Juan [Puerto Rico], Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola”), it was said that group suicide often occurred at the death of a chief or principal lord by means of yucca juice. According to Oviedo, those who had served the chief believed that dying with him would provide a passage to serving the master in a heavenly afterlife; if, however, the servants chose to die naturally or by some other cause, their spirits would not be granted any sort of afterlife at all.

The native inhabitants of Hispaniola were said not only to commit suicide to gain rewards in the afterlife, but also to kill themselves in order to avoid suffering in this life. López de Gómara (1511–66), a chaplain to Hernán Cortés and early historian (who never himself visited the New World), reports in La Historia General de las Indias (1552), that the native American population resorted to suicide to escape Spanish domination (selection #9). In selection #10, Girolamo Benzoni (1519–70), an Italian who combined the reports of Martire de D’Anghiera, Oviedo, and others with his own observations in the Caribbean, Central America, and Peru, insists that the native inhabitants aborted their children and killed themselves in various ways—including hanging themselves by their own hair—to avoid Spanish religion and government. Benzoni’s account has been widely repeated by those emphasizing the cruelty of the Spanish.


The Incas were originally a tribe of primarily Quechua-speaking native Americans who lived in the central Andean highlands, an area near and around modern-day Peru. In the 15th century a.d., the Incas moved into social and cultural prominence by assimilating or conquering the inhabitants of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, western Argentina, southern Columbia, and northern Chile, thus assuming control over an estimated 10 million indigenous people. Just a few decades later, they themselves succumbed to a tiny Spanish force led by the ruthless Spaniard Francisco Pizarro and to the ravages of European-introduced disease. At the height of the Inca empire, officials used a decimal system of reckoning to make census counts, keeping their records on quipus, knotted strings (a system still used by indigenous peoples in the highlands in keeping counts of their sheep and llamas), and exercised rigid control over both male and female commoners in agricultural, laboring, and military service. Although most women were allowed to marry and lead ordinary domestic lives, some—those of particular beauty and health—were chosen as young girls to undergo special training and were either assigned to the temple of the sun, given to nobles as secondary wives, or sacrificed on ritual occasions.

Several early accounts of Inca practices involve ritual funeral suicide. In the first of these selections (selection #11), Pedro de Cieza de León (1520–54) describes the manner in which, when a man was entombed, his favorite wives, his servants, his property, and a “great quantity” of food and drink were also buried with him. While it is not clear whether the deaths of the wives and servants are to be described as voluntary—they were clearly heavily socially controlled—Cieza de León also reports that some women, fearing they would not find a place in the tomb with the wives who were buried alive, hanged themselves by their own hair. In selection #12, Joseph de Acosta describes the funeral of the great Inca emperor Huyana Capac, the father of Atahualpa, at the time the Spaniards conquered the Incas: at this funeral, more than a thousand people were put to death in order to be buried with the dead ruler. “. . . [T]‌hese that were appointed to death,” says de Acosta, “held themselves happy.” As with the Aztec and Maya, this description suggests a death-producing practice short of self-initiated suicide, but involving willing subjection to death. In the final selection, #13, yet another Jesuit, Joseph de Arriaga, describes a case of suicide in a way that reveals the tensions between Inca and Spanish culture: the Incas, he says, hold those who hang themselves as “more than human,” for which reason, he speculates, they commit suicide so easily; but the Spanish regard suicide as a shameful act and attempt to discourage it by burning the corpse of a victim as an example.

It can hardly be supposed that accounts of pre-contact native beliefs and practices in Central and South America made by European soldiers and missionaries are not shaped by these invaders’ antecedent views about suicide, but these accounts do suggest that Europeans encountered strikingly different attitudes about suicide in the New World.

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Filed under Americas, Central and South American Indigenous Cultures, Central and South American Native Cultures, Indigenous Cultures, Middle Ages


from Lecture on Homicide
Commentary on [Thomas Aquinas]    Summa Theologiae 2A 2AE, Q64, A.5


Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican theologian and writer on a wide range of topics, was one of the most influential thinkers in 16th-century Catholic Europe. Born to a Basque family in Burgos, he became a member of the Dominican convent of San Pablo in about 1504. From 1509 to 1523, he studied and lectured at the University of Paris, returning to Spain to teach at the College of Saint Gregorio at Valladolid. In 1526, he secured the most honored academic position in Spain, the prima chair of Theology at Salamanca University. Despite his considerable originality, Vitoria published none of his own works, and most of his original lectures have been lost, surviving only in notes taken by students.

To Vitoria, theology included the study of all things under divine, as well as natural, law; he strove to create a moral philosophy compatible with natural law theory by interpreting the works of Aristotle [q.v.] and Thomas Aquinas [q.v.]. Vitoria has been variously called “the father of international law” and “the founder of global political philosophy,” thanks to his conception of a “commonwealth of the whole world” (res publica totius orbis), though his position may be closer to the traditional jus gentium, the law of nations, than to modern international law. Vitoria’s most influential writings deal with papal, civil, and monarchical power and the ethics of Spanish colonization in the Americas, especially with respect to the rights of the native population. Vitoria is also credited with restoring theological studies in Renaissance Spain through his writing and teaching. He inspired the next generation of Spanish jurists and theologians, including Soto, Molina, and Suárez. He died in 1546 after a long period of suffering.

Vitoria’s two principal types of works are his lectures to students (preserved through their notations) and a series of relectiones, formal lectures annually delivered to the entire university and preserved in manuscript form. Vitoria’s work in both categories formed the most extensive commentaries on suicide up to that time. This collection includes his Commentary on Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q.64, a.5 of Thomas Aquinas and his subsequent relectio “On Homicide” (lecture delivered 1530, published 1557), which explores many of the same arguments at much more substantial length. Vitoria employs the same argumentative format that had been used by Aquinas–beginning by stating the conclusion, then adducing arguments against the conclusion, and only then rebutting them to confirm the conclusion. Vitoria’s argument, which begins with a sustained exploration of natural human inclination, analyzes a variety of cases that may seem to challenge Aquinas’s position against taking one’s own life (among them, failure to defend oneself against lethal attack, sacrificing one’s own share of bread to save another, leaping from a lifeboat to save the others in it, submitting to capital punishment when one might escape, killing oneself to avoid sexual violation, and the like), and then asserts Vitoria’s answers to these objections. Particularly important are specific cases, like that of Samson, which pose challenges to the accepted theological view that suicide is always wrong. Vitoria’s central concern is with the intention under which an act is done: Suicide is never licit if the intention is to kill oneself. However, one may lawfully kill oneself as a foreseen, though unintended, consequence of another intended act: Samson pulled the temple down on the Philistines, whom he intended to kill, but also on himself, whom he did not intend to kill, although he foresaw that his death would occur. In an argument that would become ubiquitous among Christian theologians in the context of suicide, Vitoria appeals to Aquinas’s principle of “double effect,” a principle used in medical ethics to distinguish between palliation and physician-assisted suicide: The physician gives a dying patient opiates to relieve pain, foreseeing—but not intending—that the drug may also hinder respiration and cause the patient’s death. Vitoria uses double-effect reasoning in examining whether one has an obligation to try to prolong one’s own life, to avoid all but the healthiest foods, to drink wine instead of water if one would live ten years longer, or to use expensive medicines in terminal illness.

Francisco de Vitoria, “Relectio De homicidio,” in Relecciones Theológicas del Maesro Fray Francisco de Vitoria, ed. P. Mtro. Fr. Luis G. Alonso Getino, vol. III, pp. 97-152 [Latin text], pp. 203-228 [Spanish text]. Madrid: Imprenta La Rafa, 1935. Tr. Michael Rudick.
Francisco de Vitoria, Relection On Homicide & Commentary on Summa Theologiae IIa IIae Q. 64 (Thomas Aquinas). Tr. John P. Doyle. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1997, pp. 169-185.



 . . .The first proposition: Just as it is always sinful to commit suicide, so is it often a counsel, and sometimes a commandment, not only to suffer death patiently, but also to submit to it freely . . .

The first proposition is that suicide is sinful because contrary to natural human inclination, and to act against natural human inclination is a sin; therefore, suicide is a sin. The major premise is evident. Not only human beings and other animate creatures, but even objects resist their dissolution, employing the powers they have to preserve themselves in their natures, as is shown in Aristotle, De generatione 2. . . . That it is sinful to oppose natural human inclination has been well affirmed and is admitted by all. For if this inclination tends always to the good and the virtuous, and never to evil, then it must be sin to oppose it . . . But some respectable authors, especially commentators on Aristotle, think it wrong to claim that natural inclination leads always to the good and virtuous; they argue rather that nature and natural inclination, on the one hand, and grace and law, on the other, are opposed to one another.

In the first place, they argue that human desire naturally tends toward the good, but that this good is pleasure, and what is pleasurable is not always virtuous.

Second, they argue, on the authority of Aristotle, Ethics 2, that true virtue is achieved through strenuous effort, and if virtue is achieved naturally, then no strenuousness is required, since nature does not incline us to effort. In that sense, nature may incline to the opposite of virtue, that is, to evil, since good deeds are difficult. They find that virtue is not necessary for men to seek happiness and avoid misery.

In the third place, there are theologians who hold that sudden impulses in both the human will and the human appetite tend toward ill, hence nature inclines toward evil.

Fourth, it is argued that the only, or at least the main reason our first parents were endowed with the sense of rectitude was in order that their carnal appetites be bound within the limits of duty and be obedient to the rational will and divine law, for if there were no human capacity to oppose nature either by reason or obedience to divine law, then reward and punishment would make no sense.

Fifth, according to both virtue and divine law, human beings are obliged to love God more than they love themselves, and to prefer the common good to their personal good. Charity is not to seek one’s own good, according to St. Paul, yet human beings naturally love their own goods. Moreover, it is hard to love God more than oneself, because, as was pointed out earlier, human beings seek to preserve what is their own. Hence nature tends against charity and God’s law.

Sixth, desire is a natural inclination. If this is innate, then natural inclination is desire, and desire does not obey reason, but rather tends in the opposite direction. Hence natural desire leads to evil, which is proven by recognizing that the object of carnal desire is pleasure, which is for the most part contrary to virtue and God’s law. Therefore, natural desire leads to evil.

Seventh, bodily urges tend to sin, as the theologians claim, following Peter Lombard, Sentences 2. Urges of this kind are nothing if not natural, and the natural human faculties are destitute of primal rectitude, according to those who cite the same passage in this theologian. Therefore, innate human faculties lead to sin. Consider a man who acts purely according to nature, that is, without a sense of right and wrong; he will by that very condition incline to evil, as he is moved by a bodily urge.

Those who favor these arguments add the testimony of scripture. First they cite the words of God in Genesis 8:21, “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” which shows the proclivity of human nature for evil. Next is the Lord’s statement in Matthew 26:41, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” which the Apostle, Galatians 5:17, explains: “the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh.” Again, in Romans 7:23: “I see in my members another law.” . . . It is clear from all of these that the desires of the flesh are evil, opposed to the spirit and to the law of God. Desires of the flesh, if all experience them, are natural, and so natural human inclination leads to sin and evil. Aristotle in Ethics 2 observes that human beings are naturally desirous, and must work to save themselves from what their nature most inclines them to. This is cited by St. Thomas, ST II-II, q.166, art.2.

Such are the arguments used by these authors to support their case, whence derive their quarrels with nature. Some call her a cruel stepmother, others an enemy, others a wicked provider, still others the parent of evils . . . And from this comes the opinion that human beings in their nature can do nothing but evil. There is no error more odious and harmful to mortals than to hold that all human acts are sins and deserving of eternal punishment unless the mercy of God turns them into venial sins, which is one of the dogmas of those who admit no human worth. . . . Now I will argue in favor of natural human inclination . . .

In the first place: Natural human inclination originates immediately from God; therefore, it cannot be an inclination toward evil. Initially we note that since God is the author of nature, he is also responsible for what follows from nature, including natural inclination. To use the words of Aristotle, whatever gives form gives the consequence of form. God alone, then, is the author and cause of human inclination. We can prove the consequent. A natural motion or a motion from nature is attributed to its generator, that is, its author, which is the explanation that satisfied Aristotle in Physics 8, followed by many reputable philosophers. For heavy and light have their qualities from their generator, they do not move by themselves, but necessarily derive their motions upwards or downwards from their generator. Thus if man is by nature inclined to evil, then that inclination and the consequent motion toward sin must be imputed to God, which, in a word, is an impious thought. Surely, if the downward motion of a rock or the upward motion of fire were sinful, then there is no doubt that the sin would be attributed to God rather than to the qualities of weight or lightness which have their inclinations from God. Similarly, if it is sin to desire happiness, the sin would be not attributable to man but to God, who constituted man’s nature such to desire happiness naturally. It can be proven validly that an act is not sinful if it proceeds from the natural inclination provided to human beings by God . . .

The second proposition: To kill oneself violates the commandment in the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20, Deut. 5), and is therefore a mortal sin. So argues St. Augustine in De Trinitate 1, to prove that suicide is unlawful. But to show more clearly the force of this argument, it is necessary to examine what precisely is forbidden by the commandment, for it does not explicitly say it is wrong to kill oneself . . . How absolute is the commandment? In many cases it is lawful to kill, hence we properly ask what sorts of killing the commandment forbids. Some interpret the commandment as absolute, a prohibition of killing any person, whether a criminal or an innocent, whether by public authority or private. But in divine and general law, exceptions are recognized, as when a murderer is justly condemned by a magistrate. But it has been claimed that the power must be granted by God according to scripture. It is commanded that one who kills is to be killed (Levit. 19), hence the judge who condemns a thief to death violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” A king would not be empowered to kill criminals, had God not made homicide and certain other crimes the exceptions. According to this argument, in no case may public authority take life except in those cases where divine law expressly allows it, whence the opinion that the death penalty for an adulterous woman or a simple thief is impermissible. The former case is allowed in the Old Testament, but the Lord revoked this in John 8, when he said, “Woman, they have not condemned you. Neither do I condemn you.”

Against this it is argued that that which is lawful and in itself a good is not condemned by divine commandment, and there are cases in which to kill another is in itself good, as to kill in self-defense, which is not forbidden by the commandment not to kill. Nor is it necessary to make exceptions from a rule if these were not meant to fall under the rule. Killing a thief who comes in the night does not fall under the commandment and so is not an exception to it. In the law of Moses it was sometimes lawful to kill and sometimes not. . . . And I may ask, before the law of Moses, was it not legitimate to kill a blasphemer or a homicide? If not, it would be against the principle that what is not permitted by natural law is never permitted. For neither the law of Moses nor the law of Grace dispenses with natural law. Much is allowed under natural law that is forbidden by the law of Moses. If natural law allows the condemnation of an adulterous woman, it does so not as an exception to divine law. Therefore some claim that the commandment forbids only the killing of the innocent, and the words in Exodus 20:13 are explained by the passage in Exodus 23:6, “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.” But against this is the fact that a private person who kills either a criminal or a just person violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” . . .

The commandment no more forbids killing by public authority than it does killing by a private person. Another question is whom it is lawful to kill and under what circumstances, and further, to whom is permission given to kill, since on occasion it may be a wrong on the part of public authority.

A person may be killed in two ways. One way is by deliberate intention, as when a judge condemns a malefactor to death. The other way is unintentional. I do not mean by this only an accidental killing, but also a voluntary one in which the killer seeks some end that might be achieved without the killing, as in self-defense or the killing of a night thief whom one would not kill if he could defend himself otherwise. . . . Only homicide in conformity with natural and divine law is lawful for a polity, through its magistrates and rulers responsible to the polity. This is stated by Paul in Romans 13, “he who is in authority . . . does not bear the sword in vain . . . he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer.”

I do say that private persons are always forbidden to kill another intentionally, because they are not authorized to protect the public welfare. Finally, I conclude that all other intentional homicide is forbidden by the commandment, whether for a public or private person, except in the permitted situation where the life OF? a criminal is harmful to the polity. About unintentional homicide, whether in defense of self or of the polity, there is dispute . . .

From the above discussion, it appears plain that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” makes suicide unlawful. Because no one is allowed to be judge of himself, neither does anyone have public authority over himself, taking one’s own life is never permissible, even if one deserves death as one harmful to the polity.

Third proposition: To kill oneself injures the polity, and is therefore sinful. . . . A person, because human, is to the community as a part is to the whole. The suicide, then steals from the community what properly belongs to it.

Fourth and final proposition: killing oneself violates the precept of charity, and so is sinful. As argued above, one is obliged to love oneself no less than one is obliged to love one’s neighbor. To kill a neighbor is contrary to the charity owed him, and so to kill oneself is contrary to the charity owed oneself.

. . . the first objection to these arguments is based on the claim that no one can wish to kill himself, at least not on purpose and willfully; therefore, it is false to claim that some sin or crime is involved. In the first place, as Aristotle maintains and we accept, the human will cannot desire anything other than the good for itself, but non-being or ceasing to be is not a good, but rather an evil, so no one can wish to kill himself. To this, it is not a satisfactory answer to say that since the soul is immortal, at least the best part of him who kills himself does not cease to be. This answer might be valid for one who has no hope of a subsequent life, and so would not take his present life. But history gives us examples to the contrary. And the impossibility of not wishing to be happy is clear, as argued by Augustine, City of God 17. Whoever wishes to exist wishes his happiness, and he cannot be happy without existence. Hence no one can wish not to be, and, consequently, no one can wish to kill himself.

Second objection: It is argued that suicide harms no one, and so is not sinful. The first assertion is true, since the suicide does not will to harm himself, and so no harm is done. That the polity is injured is not a sufficient answer, at least where one may commit suicide with the state’s permission, as is the custom in some nations. And it is clear that one who wills to give up temporal goods harms neither himself nor his community, as, for example, if one kills his horse . . . In any case, temporal goods are more important to the commonwealth than one person’s life. So, suicide harms neither the person nor the community.

Third objection: If one is attacked by a robber and cannot save his own life otherwise than by killing his attacker, he may lawfully let himself be killed. But the same commandment that enjoins us not to kill enjoins us to defend our own lives if we can; thus one who does not defend himself would violate the commandment against suicide.

Fourth objection: Consider the case of two persons in extreme necessity; they have but one piece of bread, enough to sustain the life of only one of them. One may allow the other to have it, and he therefore counts as a suicide.

Fifth objection: A servant and a king are shipwrecked; they have a raft or a board large enough for only one. It is lawful for the servant to throw himself in the sea with no hope of survival, in order to save the king’s life. In this case, it is lawful for him to commit suicide.

Sixth objection: A man condemned to die of starvation may lawfully refuse to eat bread offered to him. This is clearly lawful, in that he merely submits to the sentence passed on him.

Seventh objection: Given an opportunity to escape, a man condemned to death may refuse it and await execution, thereby compassing his own death.

Eighth objection: A man condemned to death by poison may lawfully drink the poison himself.

Ninth objection: During plague times, one is permitted to visit friends despite the danger of death.

Tenth objection: It is permitted to undertake sea voyages despite the obvious danger of death.

Eleventh objection: Military service and participation in bullfights are permitted, although there is danger of death. Therefore, suicide is permitted.

In the last three cases, the principle is the same; the commandment generally forbids killing another and exposing oneself to the peril of death.

Twelfth objection: It is permissible to shorten one’s life through fasting, minimal nourishment, and the rigors of an austere life, which amounts to taking one’s own life. The conclusion is supported by the words of St. Jerome, “It matters little how long or short a the time destruction requires.” It is well known that the life span in monasteries is shorter than in the outside world.

Thirteenth objection: One under the threat of death is not obliged to ransom his life with large sums of money or his entire patrimony; therefore, one is not obliged to save his own life. Likewise, if someone needs a certain medicinal herb, like Pontus root, to save his life, but must give up his kingdom to get it, he is not obliged to do so.

Fourteenth objection: It is always permissible to submit to a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater. Evils like infamy and shame are much worse than death, and so at least to avoid these, it is permissible to choose death by suicide.

Fifteenth objection:   It is hardly evident that suicide is impermissible, since many persons reputed to be wise were unaware of the prohibition and were respected for their choice. At least these might be excused, who thought themselves acting more bravely and more praiseworthily by taking their lives, as did Cato, Brutus, and others.

Sixteenth objection: We read of certain holy women who, condemned by a persecuting tyrant to be burned to death, threw themselves into the fire. So it is permissible to kill oneself.

Seventeenth objection: Samson, Saul, and, in the books of Maccabees, Razis and Eleazar killed themselves. Not only are these acts not condemned in scripture, but Samson is numbered among the saints by the Apostle in Hebrews 11 and Eleazar is praised (1 Maccabees 6). The same argument applies to the virgins who escaped Roman abuse by throwing themselves off the Aquiline Hill into a river.

Much both useful and pleasant to hear can be adduced to answer these arguments, but the shortness of time constrains me to do so in few words.

For the first objection, we must recognize that the object of the will is not always a true good. Since an object does not excite the will except through the perceptions, the will does not concern itself with whether the object is a real good or is merely thought to be a good. To kill oneself may be thought a good, although it most certainly is not. This would not prevent someone from being ignorant and wishing to kill himself, his error being in the belief that it is good for him. But since this escape shows only that it is possible to wish in error not to be and to kill oneself, I say next that one may without error still wish not to continue his existence. We must, however, note that although something may be a good in itself, it may by circumstance become an evil, just as, to the contrary, something evil in itself can in certain circumstances become a good. The determination to end one’s existence may be absolutely bad, but to put an end to wretchedness, as a motive, may not only be believed a good, but in fact may be a good. And as much as existence is in itself a good, it may not only be thought an evil if conjoined with some evil circumstances, but may in fact be an evil. Whence I conclude that those who suffer terribly may wish for nonexistence without being in error. Although their existence is absolutely a good for them, yet if their situation is that of the most extreme wretchedness, this is truly an evil for them and nonexistence might be better for them than to exist in such misery. Speaking of Judas the traitor, the Lord makes this clear by his words, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). Some take this passage to mean that it were better Judas had not been born, not better that he had not been conceived or been in existence. But I do not think Christ referred to the difference between being born and being conceived in the sense of being in itself, but said specifically it were better for Judas not to have existed at all than so to perish. Thus Sirach 30:17, “Death is better than a wretched life.” Sufferers are not in error, but perfectly sensible in wishing not to be. This will suffice to answer the first argument, but it may be added in confirmation that all human beings necessarily desire happiness, which they cannot have if they do not exist. Hence it follows that they necessarily wish to live, and cannot wish their nonexistence. There are many ways to counter this argument, but for the present I will say that no one can truly desire that which he knows he cannot have, and so will not seek means to pursue what he cannot hope to attain. Whence sufferers firmly believe they will never be happy in the future, and so will wish not to exist, as existence is the only condition in which to achieve happiness. At the same time, sufferers desire to be happy, desire to avoid the miseries they cannot escape, and consequently desire not to be.

For the second objection, we note the difference between human life and material objects. Man is truly a master in that he may at will make use of all of them. The Lord placed everything under his subjection, and so man is not obliged to preserve temporal goods, but may, as he wishes, keep them or not. Hence to kill one’s own horse or burn down one’s own house is an injury to no one. But man is not the master of his own body or his own life; God alone is the Lord of life and death, and inasmuch as man is in a special manner the servant of God, by killing himself he kills the servant of another, thereby injuring God, from whom he accepted the gift of life as something to use and hold, not to throw away. And as one who kills another person is subject to punishment, even if that person asks for his death, for he is not himself master of life or death and has no power to take his life, so he who kills himself is subject to punishment. Cicero cites the words of Pythagoras, that mortals are not entitled to desert their posts in life unless ordered to do so by their ruler or their commander.

For the third objection, nearly all agree that a person is obliged to save his life when he may lawfully do so, but I say that not only in this case, but in many others, one may preserve one’s life by lawful means, but is not obliged to so. I have no doubt that, if a man is attacked by a robber and cannot save his life otherwise than by killing him, it is a counsel of perfection for him to let himself be killed, for the robber in his state would be damned if killed. The following case is proof: If a Christian is attacked by a pagan in solitary place only because he is a Christian, he may defend himself against his assailant lawfully and with no stain on his faith, but no one will doubt that it would be a work of virtue for him to suffer death patiently as testimony of faith. A second proof: Christ could lawfully have defended himself against the tyrannical Jews and gentiles who persecuted him to death; therefore, one is not obliged to preserve one’s life, even lawfully. Likewise, the eleven thousand virgin martyrs who died for Christ; we are not told that they were unable to defend themselves lawfully, and they might have fought against their tyrannical foes, just as today Christians do so when they fight pagans. Whence I do not doubt that in most cases martyrdom is good counsel and many martyrs delivered themselves to death without being obliged to do so. This accords with the Apostle’s words, “Do not defend yourselves, beloved, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19), and to the Lord’s, “I say unto you, resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39). This was the error of Jews whom the Lord condemned for believing it was unworthy to suffer injury with patience. Therefore, it is to be considered that, although man is not the master of his own body or his own life as he is of other things, he nevertheless has some ownership of and right over his life, because bodily harm injures not only God, the supreme lord of life, but also injures the man himself. So, although he has the right of self-defense, he may laudably give up the right he has in his own body and patiently allow himself to be killed. It might be objected that everyone is obliged to defend an innocent life if someone tries to take it by violence, as God requires one do for a neighbor: “Save those who are being taken away to death; cease not to save those being dragged to destruction” (Proverbs 24:11). Whence he who, when he can, fails to save an innocent from the hands of an attacker is guilty of homicide. From this it is concluded that a man is more obliged to save his own life than that of a neighbor: if he must defend his neighbor against a malicious assailant, then he must also defend his own life. To the antecedent I say that it is not certain that one must defend a neighbor’s life in all instances. If a Christian offers himself to a persecutor in order to promote the faith, even when not forced to do so, other Christians may rescue him lawfully and without scandal, but I do not hold that they are obliged to do so. Therefore it is not a categorical truth that everyone must defend an innocent life, even if they may do so. The Lord rebuked St. Peter for wishing to free Him from the Jews (John 18:11). Against the consequent, I say it does not follow. If I am obliged to defend my neighbor’s life, I am obliged to defend my own. But, as said above, I may relinquish my own right, but not the right of my brother. The example is clear. It is certain that I am not held to the defense of my temporal goods. “If anyone would have your coat, give him your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). Thus if I can, without peril to myself, save an innocent man’s temporal goods from a robber, it is certain that I am obliged to do it. In the same sense, if I cannot save my own life, I cannot not defend my neighbor’s life.

With respect to the fourth objection, there are many doubts about whether it is permissible to sacrifice one’s life for a private person, and while many prefer to say no to this, for my part, as I have suggested above, I hold it to be most probably praiseworthy, and it is praised in that passage where the Lord says, “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 16:12), not differentiating between private persons and public. Also in 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” John is not speaking only of our neighbors’ spiritual good, for he adds, “If anyone has worldly goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart, how does God’s love abide in him?” In the Song of Solomon 8:6, “Love is as strong a death,” because it makes one die for his friend. In Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for her.” And further on (5:28), “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” and then, “Let each of them love his wife as he does himself” (5:33). In Ethics 9, Aristotle says it is of the highest virtue to suffer death for friends, and even higher for a son to ransom his father rather than himself, and it is virtuous for the son to give his parent the bread he needs for himself. If he may in this case of a father’s extreme necessity give his life for his father, then surely he may give it for a friend. Thus I concede that, in the case proposed in the objection, one may indeed give bread to another even at certain danger to one’s own life. But there is a serious difficulty to this argument. Take the case of a son, his father, and a stranger, all in extreme necessity, but the son has one piece of bread. May the son neglect his father and give it to the stranger? This would be against the rule of charity, but it does not meet the objection. The son has the right to save himself with the bread, but if he relinquishes his right and gives the stranger the bread, he does no injury to his father, because the latter had no right to it. But I deny the consequent. The son may keep the bread for himself, or he may cede his right to it, but if does he gives it up, he may not give it to whom he will, but is obliged by the rule of charity to sustain his father, not the stranger. Because the bread belongs to the son, the father has more right to it than the stranger.

And this applies to the fifth objection. I hold in that case that the servant, though he is sure to die, may relinquish the raft or board, not only because it is praiseworthy to do so for a king, but as well for any friend or neighbor, as Lactantius, On justice 5.18, forcibly comments, “What would a just man do if he found himself in the jaws of a wild horse or on a board in a shipwreck? I think he would be more reluctant to kill than to die, though people will say, it is folly to save another life at the cost of your own, even to do it for friendship’s sake is judged foolish.” He goes on to discuss this most eloquently. To sacrifice your life for a friend is indeed folly for this world, but it is wisdom before God.

To the sixth objection, I say the man is obliged to eat. Thomas (ST II-II, q.69, art. 4) says that if he does not, he kills himself because he is obliged to use all means to preserve his life that are not forbidden by his judge, and the judge did not and could not prohibit him from eating the food offered. He condemned the man to suffer death, not to kill himself. It is clear that eating is not contrary to the sentence; therefore, it is not the punishment specified if the condemned man refuses to eat. And so if he can eat, as in this case he can, he is obliged to do so.

I deal with the seventh objection as I did with the sixth. The man is obliged to escape, since remaining in prison is not the punishment mandated by the judge. At a minimum, I maintain that the conviction applies to him whether he is a prisoner or at liberty; besides, whether the offender sins against the judge or against the imprisonment, he is a sinner in either case, whether he escapes or not.

For the eighth objection, I do not see why it needs to be denied. Other punishments may be decreed for criminals, so why may taking poison not be authorized? If there are other just punishments, but the only one that can be proposed is drinking poison, then it cannot be impermissible to drink the poison. If one is condemned to be hung, it is lawful that he ascend the scaffold, and if he is to die by the sword, he may expose his jugular vein, for he is not more the worker of his own death than another. But if it is claimed that such a punishment may not be applied, then it follows that it is unlawful for the condemned to drink the poison mandated by a tyrant, but neither would it be lawful to climb the scaffold or expose the jugular voluntarily. But this is not entirely certain. No one is obliged to inflict punishment on himself, only to be punished. Thus it seems that punishments may not be imposed if they require the cooperation of the condemned.

The ninth objection may be dealt with through the solutions to the fourth and fifth. If my friend needs my help, or my care in his sickness, or my advice in a case of conscience, I do not doubt that I may assist him, even if there is danger to myself. But if there is no need of my help, it appears I should not, for it would be a temerity to expose myself to grave danger for no purpose, although it is a worthy purpose to keep love and faith with friends. I would not condemn the wife who put herself at peril to care for her sick husband during a plague, even if this duty was of no use to him other than as consolation to him as he died.

For the tenth and the eleventh objections, we observe that, to know what is permissible in this case, we must know not only the circumstances at the specific time, but more importantly, also what generally obtains in such situations, and not emphasize the private good or ill more than the public and communal good or ill. Seafaring, even when dangerous, is good and useful for the community. Great benefits result for the commonwealth when there is intercourse among the peoples and regions, both in peace and war. There would be a loss of public good if the danger of storms deterred men from seafaring, since seldom or never is it possible to sail without danger. The same can be said of military service, for the commonwealth must have soldiers to defend the country; without exercises, they would be useless in war. There are certain military exercises that incur little danger, such as horsemanship and many others necessary to soldiers, but others carry great dangers, to the point of being impermissible. But even if there were no exercises with great and grave danger, we must not omit to mention warfare itself. A smaller temporal ill is to be tolerated in order to avoid a greater, like the loss of one’s country if a tyrant occupies it or if the winning army slays many more of the opponents because they are not as well trained as an army should be.

To the twelfth objection, I say that is never lawful to shorten one’s life, but . . . the difference between shortening a life and simply not prolonging it must be considered. Also to be considered is that, if a person is obliged not to abrupt his life, still, he is not obliged to use all lawful means to prolong it. It is clear that if one learns that the weather in India is milder and healthier such to make him live longer than he would in his own country, he is not obliged to sail to India, neither must he move from one city to another more healthy. Nor does God ask that we have a care for long life. Similarly with foods; some are improper because harmful to a person’s health, and to eat them would be to kill oneself. I speak not only of poisons, but also of other noxious foods like fungi, raw or acerbic herbs, and such like. Some foods may be less healthy than others but do not endanger life, like fish, eggs, and water. We ought, I think, to observe common experience. Many more youths die of luxurious excesses than from penitential fasts; gluttony kills more people than the sword. From all this, I conclude that it is not lawful to shorten one’s life by eating unhealthy foods. But neither is a man obliged to eat the best foods . . . Nor must he drink wine if a physician tells him he would live ten years longer on wine than on water. Drinking water is not lethal, nor does it shorten life; it simply does not prolong it, but one is not obliged to prolong life. This applies to the healthy and strong, since there are foods that are unhealthy and harmful to the ill that would be good for the healthy. Hence it is not lawful for the ill to eat them. . . .

The argument applies to the thirteenth objection. As I said, a person is not obligated to use all means to preserve his life; it is enough if he uses only the moral and appropriate means. Thus in the case proposed, I do not believe that a man must give up his entire patrimony to save his life. If there is a remedy for his sickness, the one who denies him that remedy is a homicide. From this we infer that if someone is terminally ill, and a certain expensive medicine might prolong his life for some hours, or even some days, he is not obliged to take it; it suffices if he takes only the usual medicines, and he is any case moribund.

For the fourteenth objection, I say that life itself is the greatest good, greater than temporal goods like glory, honor, and fame. It is said that a man will give all things he possesses for life, for all these things are arranged to serve the purpose of human life. Whence Solomon says, “Have a care for your good name, for this will remain for you longer than a thousand treasures.” He does not compare a good name with life, but with treasures. And in another passage he says, “A good name is better than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1)   “There is no wealth better than health of body” (Sirach 30:16). I hold, therefore, that it is not permissible to sacrifice one’s life for fame or glory. Hence it is not only the suicide who sins gravely, but also those who, without good cause, put themselves in serious danger for human glory. Aristotle says that death is the greatest of evils (Ethics 3).

In all these fourteen objections, we must note that the question of whether someone can willfully and actively kill himself is not treated, but only the question of the reason that lies behind the act. Therefore, they can prove nothing against the conclusions I have proposed. I concede only that they do not kill themselves with the intention to kill themselves. None of the deaths in these arguments, whether lawful or not, is suicide in the sense that I accept, that is, the suicide orders himself to die and the order entails the statement, “I wish to die.”

Hence the most crucial issue lies in the fifteenth objection. Could Brutus, Cato, Decius, and numerous others who killed themselves have been innocently ignorant of the fact that such a killing is unlawful, since they all believed it to be the best and most noble death, and were praised for it by men reputed to be wise? I respond by pointing out that there is the same issue with other divine commandments. There are many divine precepts which were by the pagans, and still are today, not unknown but ignored, such as those concerning fornication or the revenge of injuries, in which we do not suffer under an invincible ignorance, but we admit with St. Paul, “God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts,” and they committed all evil deeds, malice, fornication, homicide, etc. (Romans 1:24ff.). And to excuse such things is the wisdom of this world, but folly before God. The natural light of reason can teach that it is unlawful to commit suicide, because the philosophers most zealous of virtue taught this, as is evident from Aristotle (Ethics 3), who said that to kill oneself is not a courageous deed, but a cowardly one, in that the suicide cannot bear the rigors of life, and from Cicero: Why take my own life when I have no cause to do so? Why choose mistreatment? Although this may sometimes be wise, it is true wisdom neither to desire death nor to fear it.”

For the final objection concerning Samson, Razis, Saul, and some others, we cannot say the same of all. It is necessary to excuse Samson, whom Paul lists among the just. Whence Augustine says Samson is excused for the reason that he was moved by the spirit of God, which is not speculative, but is made clear in Judges 17:28, where we are told that he asked God to restore his original strength so he could be revenged on his enemies. There is another solution: He did not kill himself intentionally, but he wished to kill and overthrow his foes, his own death being the necessary consequence of that. He might well have wished to save himself while killing the others, if this had been possible, and we may take this for lawful without needing further revelation. For who would doubt that some man in battle or defending his city can, though certain of death, perform a deed beneficial to his city and detrimental to the enemy. We read of Eleazar, who ran under the belly of the elephant he thought was carrying King Antiochus, stabbed it with his sword, and perished under its weight when it fell (1 Maccabes 6:43ff.). He suffered a noble death, for, as the scripture says, he freely sacrificed himself for his people. The deed is not rebuked; as Ambrose says in the chapter on courage in On duties, it honored Eleazar with wondrous praise. Thus Samson can be excused without recourse to heavenly inspiration. Eleazar killed himself in the same manner as Samson. But the same judgment may not be given on Saul. He was denied the grace of God, and it is not necessary to seek excuses for him. Sabellicus writes that Saul did not kill himself, but only considered taking his life. He knew suicide was sinful, and was suddenly killed by the Amalekite. This is a bad lapse on the part of Christian historians, because we read in 1 Samuel 31 that Saul fell on his own sword and died. Razis, on the other hand, may probably be excused, although St. Thomas (II-II, q.64, art. 5) does not excuse him . . .



Whether it is lawful for anyone to kill himself.

1.—St. Thomas answers that it is not. He proves this, inasmuch as it is against the natural inclination by which everyone is inclined to love himself and to keep himself in existence. He proves it, second, because [a person killing himself] does injury to the republic of which he is a part. He proves it, third, because a man is not the master of his own life in the way in which he is the owner of other things. For God did not give him life for any other reason but to live rightly, because God is the master of life and death. Hence, one who kills himself does injury [to God]. Therefore, he sins. Fourth, he argues, because it is against the charity by which everyone is obliged to love himself. One, therefore, who would kill himself, would commit mortal sin. The only doubt is whether one killing himself would be acting against this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”   For, as we have said, only one homicide is lawful, viz., the killing of a condemned pernicious man by public and not private authority. Since, therefore, one killing himself, even though he might be pernicious, would be doing so by private authority, it follows that he would be acting against that command, not to kill, and that he would consequently be committing a mortal sin. Therefore, it is not lawful to kill oneself.

2.—Nevertheless, there are some arguments against this conclusion — with respect to which we should first note that this conclusion of St. Thomas can be taken in two ways. First, is it to be so understood that it is not more lawful to kill oneself than to kill another, in such way that we do not extend it further [for one than the other]; but just as in some cases it is lawful to kill another, is it also lawful in some case to kill oneself? But it can be understood in a second way, by extending it most generally, viz., that in no case and in no way is it lawful to kill oneself. In which sense, then, is St. Thomas understanding it—in the first or in the second way? I answer that he understands it in the way that all say it is true, that is generally, so that in no way is it lawful for anyone to kill himself. And understanding the conclusion in this sense, there are against it several arguments to prove that in some cases it is lawful to kill oneself.

The first argument is as follows: It is lawful to prepare for death, and indeed to exhort another to kill oneself. Therefore, it is lawful to kill oneself. The consequence is clear from Paul saying that not only are they deserving of death who do evil, but also those who consent to those doing evil. The antecedent is proven: because we read of Vincent and many other martyrs that they exhorted others to kill them.—Oh, you will say that these others were prepared to do so.—Certainly, it would not be lawful for me to move another to kill me, even though he would be prepared to do so. Again, [the antecedent] is proven also because as a matter of fact [martyrs] did kill themselves. For it is said of St. Apollonia that, escaping from the hands of her oppressors, she hurled herself into the fire that was prepared for her. And this was not only lawful but honorable. Therefore, in some cases it is lawful to kill oneself.

The answer is that it is lawful—indeed, what the martyrs did was not only lawful, but it was also laudable that they exhorted others, etc.—But against this [it seems unlawful], because they consented in the sin of those oppressors.—I deny that. Indeed, they were dissuading others from killing Christians, and when they saw that this was gaining nothing, they admonished those others to kill them. Nor were they on that account consenting in the sin of those people, since the saints themselves were not doing this in order to move those others to evil, but in order to show and prove the truth of faith. For, in any event, they themselves were going to suffer, and that exhortation was only non-resistance.

3.—A second argument is: It is lawful to shorten one’s life; therefore, it is lawful also to kill oneself. The consequence is evident from St. Jerome: it makes no difference whether you kill yourself suddenly or over a long time. The antecedent is proven, since it is lawful to lead an austere and ascetic life by which one may come close to death. Indeed, it is lawful that someone shortens his bodily life through penance and abstinence. For it is lawful to eat and drink only bread and water; and, still, by so doing, one’s life is shortened; therefore. And if you say that such a one is not aware that he may shorten his life, I say that this is nugatory because he knows it well. And I stipulate that he knows that, and still he is acting licitly: therefore. Again, the same antecedent is evident, because Carthusians, even though they have been warned by a physician that they will die unless they eat meat, can both lawfully and knowingly not eat meat: therefore.

I answer, that just intentionally to shorten one’s life is a mortal sin. However, it is very lawful to shorten it in an incidental way by eating fish as a matter of abstinence, since of itself it is good to eat fish. And whatever may follow from that is lawful, even a shortening of life, for the one abstaining does not intend to shorten his life, but rather intends to do penance.—Butagainst this, [he does intend to shorten life] because he will become sick.—I say that I am well disposed toward him, because in eating that fish he is exercising his right, that is to say, it is lawful for him to eat it, since God created fish to be eaten. Thus, with regard to the Carthusians, I say that it is lawful for them not to eat meat, because they are exercising their right, inasmuch as they are eating foods which the Lord gave men to eat. It is not, however, lawful to eat poison or “something corrosive,” for the Lord did not give such to men to eat. But neither is it only by eating meat that death is held at bay, since there are other more healthful medicines and more fitting foods. Therefore, anyone can lawfully shorten life in that way. And I understand this when such a person is not noticeably aware that he is shortening it. Thus, if he were to see that he would be feverish from eating fish, then it would not be lawful for him to eat fish and shorten his life; but otherwise it would be lawful. So also if someone is sick in this country, he would not be obliged to go to another country, because it would be enough that he live in a country that is habitable. However, where someone would be living in a most austere and unusual way, for example, never consuming anything but bread and water, with the result that he would shorten his life, perhaps it would not be lawful. Or, again, eating only once a week would not be lawful. But this should be done in the usual way of good men, in such manner that death would follow unintentionally rather that intentionally.

4.—The third argument is as follows: It is lawful to hasten death, not only in an accidental way, but also by intention. Therefore, the solution of the previous argument is null, and consequently it is lawful to kill oneself. The antecedent is proven from St. Apollonia. For when the fire was prepared before her, although the executioners wanted to persuade her to abandon the Christian faith and to join their sect, she hurled herself into the fire. But this was killing herself intentionally; therefore. The question, then, is whether this was praiseworthy.

Some want to say that she acted rashly in not waiting for death to be inflicted by an oppressor, but that she was excused by her ignorance—so that it was not lawful and laudable to throw herself into the fire, but she should have waited for others to throw her in, and that she was excused by ignorance. But it is better to say that the Divine law is plain and fair and does not employ sophisms. Thus, I say that God is not looking for sophisms and occasions of sin in order to condemn people. Therefore, I say that it was lawful and laudable that she would hurl herself into the fire and not wait for them. The reason is that she was going to die [anyway]. For what matter that she, about to die in an hour’s time, might wish to hasten death before that? Therefore, that she should die now or an hour from now matters nothing with respect to God. Hence, we should be certain that she acted laudably, and that she did not cooperate in her own death, since that was already decreed by her oppressors. We read much the same about blessed Vincent, who did not wait to be thrown into the fire, but threw himself in—which was certainly a laudable deed, done to show both strength of soul and that he was voluntarily suffering for Christ, when he was about to die. Thus, if someone who is about to be hanged puts the rope around his own neck, he is not committing sin.

5.—But from this argument another doubt arises: whether it is lawful for one condemned to death to anticipate his executioners by taking poison, for which kind of death he has been condemned, viz., that he take poison—at least among the Athenians for whom it was the custom that poison be given to felons. It seems that it would not, for it would not be lawful to cut one’s throat, and so neither would it be lawful to drink poison.

I answer that it would first be necessary to see whether those laws about giving poison are just; and if they are, it is certain that it would be lawful to drink it. Since, therefore, that law existed not among barbarians, but within a well ordered republic, we can say it was lawful for him to drink poison when he was condemned to death.—But the opposite seems true: because such a person is actively killing himself.—I answer that, especially in a moral matter, it is necessary to look for equity and not to resort to sophisms. Therefore, I say that it makes no difference whether he is active or passive, for he would be as much a killer whether he is passive or active. This is clear: for if that man were to wait on a falling millstone, he would be working toward his heath just as if he were to take that stone upon himself and kill himself. So, when the law is just, it does not matter whether I, with my own hand, take poison and drink it, or that someone else pour it into my mouth. Thus I say that, if among the Athenians Socrates was justly condemned, he did the right thing in drinking poison. So, if someone were condemned to be thrown into a river, “which would drown dim,” this now can be said: it does not matter whether he waits to be thrown or that he throws himself. If you say the opposite, namely, that in no way is it lawful to be active and drink poison, you ought to say that no one should submit to any punishment until it is inflicted upon him by others. But it is better to speak in the first way.

6.—The fourth argument: Someone in dire necessity can lawfully give bread, which he needs to preserve his own life, to his father, or even to his neighbor, for instance, to a king suffering a similar necessity. But because of this he is killing himself; therefore, it is lawful for someone to kill himself.

I answer by conceding the antecedent, that it is lawful to give to another bread which I need in order to avoid death. But I deny that this is killing oneself, for such a one is not killing himself intentionally, but by accident through helping a neighbor. Hence, whatever may follow is lawful, since he is not intentionally killing himself. Indeed, it pains him greatly to die and be unable so survive.

7.—From this a doubt arises. Let there be, for example, twenty of us in a shipwreck, in such way that a lifeboat which can hold only ten, is sinking. Would it be lawful for ten to throw themselves into the sea so the other ten might be saved? Alternatively, lots may be cast among the whole twenty in the lifeboat with the chance that the lot falls on those ten. Then if they throw themselves in the sea, it is lawful; but this is to kill themselves; therefore.

In answer, some say that if they keep strictly to their own rights, it is not lawful to throw themselves in the sea, but they should wait for others to throw them in. It seems [however] that the others would [thus] certainly do injury to them; therefore, I say that by consent it is lawful for them to throw themselves in. Particularly, if in that situation they are slave and master, it is lawful for the slave to throw himself in to save his master. It would be the same if they are son and father, or a private man and a public person. Therefore, I say that it is lawful for those ten to cast themselves into the sea in order that the other ten be saved. This is clear, for just as it is lawful for me to throw myself into the sea in order that my father not perish but be saved, so therefore in that case it is lawful for the ten to throw themselves into the sea in order that the others be saved, because to destroy life is a temporal, and not a spiritual, evil.

8.—Furthermore it is argued: If someone is condemned to hunger, as for instance if someone is confined “in a cistern, and they feed him very little,” so that in this way his life will be shortened, then, when he has been justly condemned, it is lawful for him, even if he has bread, not to eat it. This is clear: just as it is lawful for him to patiently bear that sentence, so it is lawful for him to do this. And in doing so, he is intentionally killing himself. Therefore.

The answer is that although it is usual to speak to this in different ways, I, however, would prefer to think that he is obliged to eat. For by the sentence he has not been condemned to not eating; because if that were the case, then the sentence would be sinful which would say that though he had food he should not eat. And since in the sentence there is only a condemnation to hunger, it seems that if he has bread, he is obliged to eat, and thus he is acting badly in not eating. Nor is there similarity between this case and the others, for in the other cases, whether they do it or not, that is, whether they throw themselves into the sea or not, they will still without doubt die. But in this case that is not so, because if he does not eat, it is certain that he will die, while, on the other hand, if he eats, he will not die; and therefore, he is obliged to eat.

9.—But there is doubt about someone in prison who is condemned to death—even though he might be acting rightly to flee, still, is he obliged to flee if he can? It seems that he is, for, otherwise, he is cooperating in his upcoming death. About this we will speak below, but for now I say that even though it is lawful to flee, he is not, however, obliged to do so, even if he sees the prison door open. And this is not to kill himself, but rather to patiently bear the sentence imposed upon him for his crime. Moreover, through this it is possible to answer many other arguments, such as the common contention that because it is lawful to navigate with the risk of death, it is therefore lawful also to kill oneself. This is proven, because to place oneself in danger of killing another, and to kill that other, are judged to be the same. To this I reply by distinguishing the antecedent. It would not be lawful to sail, in face of an obvious and imminent risk, on a private enterprise in order to increase one’s family fortune. But it would indeed be lawful to sail for the good of the republic, v.g. that the community be saved, or for the Faith. Moreover, it would be very lawful to sail on private business, in face of reasonable danger—that is to say, it is lawful to sail when that danger is of the ordinary kind without which there can be no sailing—for, otherwise, trade and commerce would perish. [Furthermore, it is lawful] inasmuch as in that case [those sailing] intend a lawful thing, namely to increase their family fortune, and they are not looking for death.

And in reply to the common argument, which is: “It is lawful to engage in military exercises, such as jousts and tournaments,” although there is danger of death in them; therefore …”—I say that those exercises are useful for the republic in order that its soldiers act vigorously in war for the good of the republic. But neither is there in this any obvious danger of death, for only rarely and by accident does death follow. Hence, I say that these exercises are lawful, when they do not entail an imminent danger of death. And the same is true of bull fights, for if they entail danger it is by accident.

And in reply to the argument “If some rich man is a captive, and he is not willing to give anything to be saved from death, it seems that he is cooperating in his death; therefore”—the question is whether he is obliged to give something in order not to be killed? The answer in no, and therefore he is not intentionally killing himself. Certainly, he does not want to die, and it is not he who intends anything unlawful, for the deed will be imputed to another and not to him.

10.—Finally, it is argued: In order to avoid mortal sin, it is lawful to kill oneself. For example, if someone were to solicit a virgin, who knows for certain that she will consent and sin mortally, it is lawful for that virgin to kill herself in order to save herself from mortal sin, since it is less to suffer a corporal loss than a spiritual one. Therefore, it is lawful for her to kill herself.

The answer is that it is not lawful for her to kill herself, because if she consents, it will be of her own free will. Therefore, I say that for this reason it is absolutely unlawful for a man to kill himself, because the fact that he will sin follows from human malice and he could avoid it. Hence, the death of the body is never necessary in order to avoid mortal sin. Therefore, I say first, that it is never lawful for anyone intentionally ([saying] that is, “I will to die”) to kill himself. Second, I say, that accidentally it is indeed lawful—as when someone intends something lawful, if death follows from it, it is not a sin, because he was not intending death. For example, if from the fact that I go to help my father death comes to me, I am acting in a lawful way.

11.—With regard to this, it should also be noted, as St. Thomas in the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa advises, that there are two ways in which something is voluntary: in one way, formally, as when someone wills to eat or to read. In a second way, virtually, such that I do not will, but it is in my power to avoid and I do not avoid, as when I can avoid and impede death and I do not do so. And he says that in order that something be virtually voluntary, not only is it required that someone can impede it, but also that he be obliged to impede it—so that he who can impede and is bound to impede an evil, if he does not impede it, intends that evil. For example, the sinking of a ship in a storm is not voluntary nor is it imputed to one who, although he could have avoided it, was not, however, obliged to do so. But with respect to a sailor, who deserts a ship in a storm, it must be said that its sinking is called virtually voluntary, that is willed. For, although the sailor would not will that sinking, nevertheless, because he both could and was bound to avoid it, it is therefore virtually voluntary. Similarly in the case proposed, if someone is not obliged to impede death, granted he does not impede it and death follows, that death is not voluntary and consequently he does not sin. So also, when I

Again it is argued, because in I Machabees 6, Eleazar is excused, who did exactly the same thing, inasmuch as he put himself under an elephant in order to save his country. “He put himself under,” and he killed himself in order to also kill the enemy. As Augustine says, in killing the elephant, he well and lawfully killed himself. Therefore, Samson also acted lawfully.

I answer that I also think it would have been lawful for him to kill himself, even without a Divine command. But we do not doubt that Samson did that on an impulse of the Holy Spirit, for when he grasped the columns he did not have his natural strength and he prayed the Lord to restore his strength to him. Thus, it is evident that he did this miraculously from the impulse of the Holy Spirit, when by his natural strength he was unable to bring down the columns. I say, second, that even without such impulse of the Holy Spirit, it would have been lawful for him to do so. Just as it was lawful for Scaevola “to go to the camp,” because it was not intentional, so Samson, whatever would result. In this way, it can be said of Eleazar and of anyone else who has so killed himself for the republic: he should be excused.

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from Table Talk


The German religious reformer, Martin Luther, was born in Saxony, the son of a prosperous but strict entrepreneur and local politician. In 1505, Luther received a master’s degree from the University of Erfurt, one of Germany’s finest schools. According to his father’s wishes, he began to study law, but that same year, after being thrown to the ground from his horse during a violent thunderstorm, he vowed that he would become a monk if he survived. He was ordained to the priesthood in an Augustinian monastery in 1507, and in 1512, received his doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg. During this time, Luther, who suffered from depression, underwent an internal, spiritual crisis. He felt that no matter how well he lived his life, he was unable to please God. Out of this crisis was, he fashioned the essential theology of Protestantism: Faith, not good works, is the key to salvation.

In 1517, outraged by the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, or pardons that seemed to Luther to permit those who had sinned to buy their way out of punishment, he posted his famous “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. The Theses were widely distributed and aroused strong public reaction. He also published other works attacking the papal system as a whole, including his famous “Address to the Christian Nobles of Germany” (1520) and his treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). Luther was called upon to recant his views, including his denial of the supremacy of the pope, but he refused, burning the papal bull in public. He was excommunicated in January of 1521. That spring, he was summoned to the Imperial Diet at Worms; again he refused to recant, holding that his position was supported by Scripture; the Edict of Worms declared him an outlaw and banned his writings. In the next years, under the protection of Frederick of Saxony, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, a project that would prove to be of central importance to both the standardization of the German language and the consolidation of the Protestant Reformation.

Following the German Peasants’ War, the Augustinian friars abandoned the Black Cloister in Wittenberg. In 1524, it was opened to Luther, his wife Katherine von Bora, a former nun whom he married in 1525, and their six children. For the rest of his life, Luther continued to teach and write, and in 1534, 12 years after his New Testament translation, he published a translation of the entire Bible, including the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. His works also include many letters, sermons, lectures, scriptural commentaries, catechisms, and hymns. On February 17, 1546, he suffered a heart attack and died the next day.

Luther’s theology, based largely on his studies of the New Testament and St. Augustine, changed the course of Western religious history. His turn from canon law to scripture as the center of faith, the justification of man by faith, and the belief in the priesthood of all Christians tried to move the Church away from the bureaucracy of the established clergy; it established not only Protestantism as a result of the Reformation, but found further effect in the Counterreformation within the Catholic Church.

The selection presented here is a group of three short notes drawn from different parts of the so-called Table Talk (1566). Luther frequently entertained visitors at dinner, and the opinions he articulated on these occasions were often noted by his visitors. The Table Talk was later assembled from different note-takers; over the years, more than a score of men had taken notes at Luther’s dinner table. In the short notes presented here, Luther comments on the etiology and consequences of suicide, and although he attributes suicide to the power of the devil, he insists that this does not entail that the victim is damned.


Luther, Martin, Table Talk entries DLXXXIX, DCCXXXVIII, in The Table Talk or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther, tr. William Hazlitt, London: David Bogue, 1848, pp. 254, 303;  entry 222 (April 7, 1532),  in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 54.  Ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 29.


It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ‘tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Mention was made of a young girl who, to avoid violence offered her by a nobleman, threw herself from the window, and was killed.  It was asked, was she responsible for her death?  Doctor Luther said: No: she felt that this step formed her only chance of safety, it being not her life she sought to save, but her chastity.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned.  My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc. Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

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from Utopia
from A Dialogue of Comfort Against    Tribulation


Born in London, the son of a prominent judge, Thomas More was educated at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, where he studied law. His humanist philosophy was influenced by his wide reading from scripture, the Church Fathers, classical literature, and the new learning of the Renaissance, as well as by his friendship with the noted philosopher and scholar Desiderius Erasmus. More spent some years in personal debate as he considered taking the priesthood at a Carthusian monastery; by the time of his election to parliament in 1504 and his first marriage in 1505, he had decided to live as a lay Christian. After some experience with trade negotiations, he was elected an undersheriff in 1510, a position that brought him recognition for his oratorical skills, as well as his impartiality and fairness in public affairs. In 1513, he began work on his historical narrative, The History of Richard III, to which William Shakespeare [q.v] is indebted, in Latin and English, and he wrote a series of Latin poems celebrating Henry VIII’’s accession to the throne.

More’s best known work is Utopia (1516), which attacks unjust economic and social conditions in Europe and depicts an ideal communal state founded upon principles of reason. The book was an immediate success; its intelligent, ironic commentary on a variety of controversial issues established More’s reputation as a leading humanist. More’s later writings include numerous religious essays defending the Roman Catholic Church against the writings of Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers and heretics.

More’s success in public and foreign negotiations led to his appointment in the royal service. In 1518, he joined the king’s council; he was knighted in 1521; and a series of honors and responsibilities led to his appointment as Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. In 1529, More was named to the position of Lord Chancellor, the realm’s highest office, succeeding Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He resigned in 1532, in part because of ill health, but also because he saw that Henry VIII must break with Rome if he were to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. He refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, which would impugn the pope’s spiritual authority and grant the king authority over the English church, and was charged with high treason. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535; his head was displayed on the London Bridge. He was canonized in 1935.

In the selection from Utopia, More outlines the place of suicide in a rational, non-Christian society; it might be described as “encouraged suicide” for the hopelessly ill—but only after full medical care has been provided. Suicide in hopeless or terminal illness is never to be forced; suicide without official approval is rejected.

In A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1557), written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1534–35, More uses the form of a lengthy dialogue between an older uncle, Anthony, and his nephew Vincent to distinguish between two types of suicide, one the result of pusillanimity or cowardice, and the other the result of boldness and pride. The latter case leads to a discussion of how to distinguish the devil’s illusions from true spiritual revelations. In this discussion, More is confronting Augustine’s justification of certain Biblical suicides, such as Samson, as a response to God’s direct command; here, More raises the question of how someone who feels that he is being directed to kill himself can know whether he is being tempted by the devil or commanded by God. He is particularly concerned with the ways in which the devil exploits personality traits, determined by bodily “humors,” to instill suicidal obsessions, casting erosive self-torment into the mind of the melancholic, or self-destructive fury into the choleric temperament. The central section of the Dialogue is organized to respond to the fears itemized in Psalm 91:5, “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday,” though there is no evidence that More himself was suicidal or was tempted to suicide, even while in the Tower of London awaiting execution. To be sure, he had deliberately chosen a course of action—refusal to sign the oath that Henry VIII demanded—almost certain to lead to his death. But as Frank Manley points out, More may have been uncertain of whether his choice could be evidence of spiritual pride—the same sort of temptation by the devil that, More believed, led so many others to suicide. More’s advice for dissuading a potential suicide from the act, in which he recommends both a “physician for the body” and a “physician for the soul,” shows a conception of suicide as partly due to psychophysiological causes.


Thomas More, Utopia, Book II. tr. Ralph Robinson, in Three Early Modern Utopias, ed. Susan Bruce. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 89-90; Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation With Modifications to Obsolete Language, from chapters XV, XVI, ed. Monica Stevens,, 2005, available online from Project Gutenberg text # 17075. Quotations in introduction from A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, ed. Frank Manley, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977, p. xxxii.


Of Sick Persons

The sick (as I said) they see to with great affection, and let nothing at all pass concerning either physic or good diet, whereby they may be restored again to their health.  Such as be sick of incurable diseases they comfort with sitting by them, with talking with them, and, to be short, with all manner of helps that may be.  But if the disease be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain and anguish, then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man (seeing he is not able to do any duty of life, and by overliving his own death is noisome and irksome to other and grievous to himself), that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease.  And, seeing his life is to him but a torment, that he will not be unwilling to die, but rather take a good hope to him, and either dispatch himself out of that painful life, as out of a prison or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself willingly to be rid out of it by other.  And in so doing they tell him he shall do wisely, seeing by his death he shall lose no commodity, but end his pain.  And because in that act he shall follow the counsel of the priests, that is to say, of the interpreters of God’s will and pleasure, they show him that he shall do like a godly and a virtuous man.  They that be thus persuaded finish their lives willingly, either with hunger, or else die in their sleep without any feeling of death.  But they cause none such to die against his will, nor they use no less diligence and attendance about him, believing this to be an honourable death.  Else he that killeth himself before that the priests and the council have allowed the cause of his death, him as unworthy either to be buried or with fire to be consumed, they cast unburied into some stinking marsh.



VINCENT:  Verily, good uncle, you have in my mind well declared these kinds of the night’s fear.

ANTHONY:  Surely, cousin, but yet are there many more than I can either remember or find. Howbeit, one yet cometh now to my mind, of which I thought not before, and which is yet in mine opinion. That is, cousin, where the devil tempteth a man to kill and destroy himself.

VINCENT:  Undoubtedly this kind of tribulation is marvellous and strange. And the temptation is of such a sort that some men have the opinion that those who once fall into that fantasy can never fully cast it off.

ANTHONY:  Yes, yes, cousin, many a hundred, and else God forbid. But the thing that maketh men so to say is that, of those who finally do destroy themselves, there is much speech and much wondering, as it is well worthy. But many a good man and woman hath sometime–yea, for some years, once after another–continually been tempted to do it, and yet hath, by grace and good counsel, well and virtuously withstood that temptation, and been in conclusion clearly delivered of it. And their tribulation is not known abroad and therefore not talked of. But surely, cousin, a horrible sore trouble it is to any man or woman whom the devil tempteth with that temptation. Many have I heard of, and with some have I talked myself, who have been sore cumbered with it, and I have marked not a little the manner of them.

VINCENT:  I pray you, good uncle, show me somewhat of such things as you perceive therein. For first, whereas you call the kind of temptation the daughter of pusillanimity and thereby so near of kin to the night’s fear, me thinketh on the other hand that it is rather a thing that cometh of a great courage and boldness. For they dare with their own hands to put themselves to death, from which we see almost every man shrink and flee, and many of them we know by good proof and plain experience for men of great heart and excellent bold courage.

ANTHONY:  I said, Cousin Vincent, that of pusillanimity cometh this temptation, and very truth it is that indeed so it doth. But yet I meant not that only of faint heart and fear it cometh and growth always. For the devil tempteth sundry folk by sundry ways. But I spoke of no other kind of that temptation save only that one which is the daughter that the devil begetteth upon pusillanimity, because those other kinds of temptation fall not under the nature of tribulation and fear, and therefore fall they far out of our matter here. They are such temptations as need only counsel, and not comfort or consolation, because the persons tempted with them are not troubled in their mind with that kind of temptation. but are very well content both in the tempting and in the following.

For some have there been, cousin, such that they have been tempted to do it by means of a foolish pride, and some by means of anger, without any fear at all–and very glad to go thereto, I deny not. But if you think that none fall into it by fear, but that they have all a mighty strong stomach, that shall you well see to be the contrary. And that peradventure in those of whom you would think the stomach more strong and their heart and courage most bold.

VINCENT:  Yet is it marvel to me, uncle, that it should be as you say it is–that this temptation is unto them that do it for pride or anger no tribulation, or that they should not need, in so great distress and peril, both of body and soul to be lost, no manner of good ghostly comfort.

ANTHONY:  Let us therefore, cousin, consider an example or two, for thereby shall we better perceive it. There was here in Buda in King Ladilaus’ days, a good poor honest man’s wife. This woman was so fiendish that the devil, perceiving her nature, put her in the mind that she should anger her husband so sore that she might give him occasion to kill her, and then should he be hanged because of her.

VINCENT:  This was a strange temptation indeed! What the devil should she be the better then?

ANTHONY:  Nothing, but that it eased her shrewish stomach beforehand, to think that her husband should be hanged afterward. And peradventure, if you look about the world and consider it well, you shall find more such stomachs than a few. Have you never heard a furious body plainly say that, to see such-and-such man have a mischief, he would with good will be content to lie as long in hell as God liveth in heaven?

VINCENT:  Forsooth, and some such have I heard.

ANTHONY:  This mind of his was not much less mad than hers, but rather perhaps the more mad of the twain. For the woman peradventure did not cast so far peril therein. But to tell you now to what good pass her charitable purpose came:

As her husband (the man was a carpenter) stood hewing with his chip axe upon a piece of timber, she began after her old guise to revile him so that he waxed wroth at last, and bade her get herself in or he would lay the helm of his axe about her back. And he said also that it would be little sin even with that axe head to chop off the unhappy head of hers that carried such an ungracious tongue in it. At that word the devil took his time and whetted her tongue against her teeth. And when it was well sharpened she swore to him in very fierce anger, “By the mass, whoreson husband, I wish thou wouldst! Here lieth my head, lo,” and with that down she laid her head upon the same timber log. “If thou smite it not off, I beshrew thine whoreson’s heart!” With that, likewise as the devil stood at her elbow, so stood (as I heard say) his good angel at his, and gave him ghostly courage and bade him be bold and do it. And so the good man up with his chip axe and at a chop he chopped off her head indeed.

There were other folk standing by, who had a good sport to hear her chide, but little they looked for this chance, till it was done ere they could stop it. They said they heard her tongue babble in her head, and call, “Whoreson, whoreson!” twice after the head was off the body. At least, thus they all reported afterward unto the king, except only one, and that was a woman, and she said that she heard it not.

VINCENT:  Forsooth, this was a wonderful work! What became, uncle, of the man?

ANTHONY:  The king gave him his pardon.

VINCENT:  Verily, he might in conscience do no less.

ANTHONY: But lest you might reject…these examples, thinking they were but feigned tales, I shall put you in remembrance of one which I reckon you yourself have read in the Conferences of Cassian. And if you have not, there you may soon find it. For I myself have half forgotten the thing, it is so long since I read it.

But thus much I remember: He telleth there of one who was many days a very special holy man in his living, and, among the other virtuous monks and anchorites that lived there in the wilderness, was marvellously much esteemed. Yet some were not all out of fear lest his revelations (of which he told many himself) would prove illusions of the devil. And so it proved afterwards indeed, for the man was by the devil’s subtle suggestions brought into such a high spiritual pride that in conclusion the devil brought him to that horrible point that he made him go kill himself.

And, as far as my mind giveth me now, without new sight of the book, he brought him to it by this persuasion: He made him believe that it was God’s will that he should do so, and that thereby he should go straight to heaven. And if it were by that persuasion, with which he took very great comfort in his own mind himself, then was it, as I said, out of our case, and he needed not comfort but counsel against giving credence to the devil’s persuasion. But marry, if he made him first perceive how he had been deluded and then tempted him to his own death by shame and despair, then it was within our matter. For then was his temptation fallen down from pride to pusillanimity, and was waxed that kind of the night’s fear that I spoke of. And in such fear a good part of the counsel to be given him should have need to stand in good comforting, for then was he brought into right sore tribulation.

But, as I was about to tell you, strength of heart and courage are there none in that deed, not only because true strength (as it hath the name of virtue in a reasonable creature) can never be without prudence, but also because, as I said, even in them that seem men of most courage, it shall well appear to them that well weigh the matter that the mind whereby they be led to destroy themselves groweth of pusillanimity and very foolish fear.

Take for example Cato of Utica, who in Africa killed himself after the great victory that Julius Caesar had. St. Austine  [Augustine] well declareth in his work De civitate Dei [The City of God] that there was no strength nor magnanimity in his destruction of himself, but plain pusillanimity and impotency of stomach. For he was forced to do it because his heart was too feeble to bear the beholding of another man’s glory or the suffering of other worldly calamities that he feared should fall on himself. So that, as St. Austine well proveth, that horrible deed is no act of strength, but an act of a mind either drawn from the consideration of itself with some fiendish fancy, in which the man hath need to be called home with good counsel; or else oppressed by faint heart and fear, in which a good part of the counsel must stand in lifting up his courage with good consolation and comfort.

And therefore if we found any such religious person as was that father whom Cassian writeth of, who were of such austerity and apparent ghostly living as he was, and reputed by those who well knew him for a man of singular virtue; and if it were perceived that he had many strange visions appearing unto him; and if after that it should now be perceived that the man went about secretly to destroy himself–whosoever should hap to come to the knowledge of it and intended to do his best to hinder it, he must first find the means to search and find out the manner and countenance of the man. He must see whether he be lightsome, glad, and joyful or dumpish, heavy, and sad, and whether he go about it as one that were full of the glad hope of heaven, or as one who had his breast stuffed full of tediousness and weariness of the world. If he were found to be of the first fashion, it would be a token that the devil had, by his fantastical apparitions, puffed him up in such a childish pride that he hath finally persuaded him, by some illusion showed him for the proof, that God’s pleasure is that he shall for his sake with his own hands kill himself. …

ANTHONY:  Occasion, I say, you shall not lack to enquire by what sure and undeceivable tokens a man may discern the true revelations from the false illusions. A man shall find many such tokens both here and there in divers other authors and all together in divers goodly treatises of that good godly doctor, Master John Gerson, entitled _De probatione spirituum._ As, whether the party be natural in manner or seem anything fantastical. Or, whether the party be poor-spirited or proud. The pride will somewhat appear by his delight in his own praise; or if, of wiliness, or of another pride for to be praised of humility, he refused to hear of that, yet any little fault found in himself, or diffidence declared and mistrust of his own revelations and doubtful tokens told, wherefore he himself should fear lest they be the devil’s illusion–such things, as Master Gerson saith, will make him spit out somewhat of his spirit, if the devil lie in his breast. Or if the devil be yet so subtle that he keep himself close in his warm den and blow out never a hot word, yet it is to be considered what end his revelations tend to–whether to any spiritual profit to himself or other folk, or only to vain marvels and wonders. Also, whether they withdraw him from such other good virtuous business as, by the common rule of Christendom or any of the rules of his profession, he was wont to use or bound to be occupied in. Or whether he fall into any singularity of opinions against the scripture of God, or against the common faith of Christ’s Catholic Church.…

But now for our purpose: If, among any of the marks by which the true revelations may be known from false illusions, that man himself bring forth, for one mark, the doing or teaching of anything against the scripture of God or the common faith of the church, you may enter into the special matter, in which he can never well flee from you. Or else may you yet, if you wish, feign that your secret friend, for whose sake you come to him for counsel, is brought to that mind by a certain apparition showed unto him, as he himself saith, by an angel–as you fear, by the devil. And that he cannot as yet be otherwise persuaded by you but that the pleasure of God is that he shall go kill himself. And that he believeth if he do so he shall then be thereby so specially participant of Christ’s passion that he shall forthwith be carried up with angels into heaven. And that he is so joyful for this that he firmly purposeth upon it, no less glad to do it than another man would be glad to avoid it. And therefore may you desire his good counsel to instruct you with some substantial good advice, with which you may turn him from this error, that he be not, under hope of God’s true revelation, destroyed in body and soul by the devil’s false illusion.

If he will in this thing study and labour to instruct you, the things that he himself shall find, of his own invention, though they be less effectual, shall peradventure more work with him toward his own amendment (since he shall, of likelihood, better like them) than shall things double so substantial that were told him by another man. If he be loth to think upon that side, and therefore shrink from the matter, then is there no other way but to venture to fall into the matter after the plain fashion, and tell what you hear, and give him counsel and exhortation to the contrary. Unless you wish to say that thus and thus hath the matter been reasoned already between your friend and you. And therein may you rehearse such things as should prove that the vision which moveth him is no true revelation, but a very false illusion.…

ANTHONY:  Nay, Cousin Vincent, you shall in this case not need to ask those reasons of me. But taking the scripture of God for a ground for this matter, you know very well yourself that you shall go somewhat a shorter way to work if you ask this question of him: Since God hath forbidden once the thing himself, though he may dispense with it if he will, yet since the devil may feign himself God and with a marvellous vision delude one, and make as though God did it; and since the devil is also more likely to speak against God’s commandment than God against his own; you shall have good cause, I say, to demand of the man himself whereby he knoweth that his vision is God’s true revelation and not the devil’s false delusion….

VINCENT:  Yet then this religious man of whom we speak, when I show him the scripture against his revelation and therefore call it an illusion, may bid me with reason go mind my own affairs. For he knoweth well and surely himself that his revelation is very good and true and not any false illusion, since for all the general commandment of God in the scripture, God may dispense where he will and when he will, and may command him to do the contrary. For he commanded Abraham to kill his own son, and Sampson had, by inspiration of God, commandment to kill himself by pulling down the house upon his own head at the feast of the Philistines.

Now, if I would then do as you bade me right now, tell him that such apparitions may be illusions, and since God’s word is in the scripture against him plain for the prohibition, he must perceive the truth of his revelation whereby I may know it is not a false illusion; then shall he in turn bid me tell him whereby I can prove myself to be awake and talk with him and not be asleep and dream so, since in my dream I may as surely think so as I know that I do so. And thus shall he drive me to the same bay to which I would bring him.

ANTHONY:  This is well said, cousin, but yet could he not escape you so. For the dispensation of God’s common precept, which dispensation he must say that he hath by his private revelation, is a thing of such sort as showeth itself naught and false. For it never hath any example like, since the world began until now, that ever man hath read or heard of, among faithful people commended.

First, as for Abraham, concerning the death of his son: God intended it not, but only tempted the towardness of the father’s obedience. As for Sampson, all men make not the matter very sure whether he be saved or not, but yet therein some matter and cause appeareth. For the Philistines being enemies of God and using Sampson for their mocking-stock in scorn of God, it is well likely that God gave him the mind to bestow his own life upon the revenging of the displeasure that those blasphemous Philistines did unto God. And that appeareth clear enough by this: that though his strength failed him when he lacked his hair, yet had he not, it seemeth, that strength evermore at hand while he had his hair, but only at such times as it pleased God to give it to him. This thing appeareth by these words, that the scripture in some place of that matter saith, “The power or might of God rushed into Sampson.” And so therefore, since this thing that he did in the pulling down of the house was done by the special gift of strength then at that point given him by God, it well declareth that the strength of God, and with it the spirit of God, entered into him for it.

St. Austine also rehearseth that certain holy virtuous virgins, in time of persecution, being pursued by God’s enemies the infidels to be deflowered by force, ran into a water and drowned themselves rather than be bereaved of their virginity. And, albeit that he thinketh it is not lawful for any other maid to follow their example, but that she should suffer another to do her any manner of violence by force and commit sin of his own upon her against her will, rather than willingly and thereby sinfully herself to become a homicide of herself; yet he thinketh that in them it happened by the special instinct of the spirit of God, who, for causes seen to himself, would rather that they should avoid it with their own temporal death than abide the defiling and violation of their chastity.

But now this good man neither hath any of God’s enemies to be revenged on by his own death, nor any woman who violently pursues him to bereave him by force of his virginity! And we never find that God proved any man’s obedient mind by the commandment of his own slaughter of himself. Therefore is both his case plainly against God’s open precept, and the dispensation strange and without example, no cause appearing nor well imaginable. Unless he would think that God could neither any longer live without him, nor could take him to him in such wise as he doth other men, but must command him to come by a forbidden way, by which, without other cause, we never heard that ever he bade any man else before.

Now, you think that, if you should after this bid him tell you by what way he knoweth that his intent riseth upon a true revelation and not upon a false illusion, he in turn would bid you tell him by what means you know that you are talking with him well awake and not dreaming it asleep. You may answer him that for men thus to talk together as you do and to prove and perceive that they do so, by the moving of themselves, with putting the question unto themselves for their pleasure, and marking and considering it, is in waking a daily common thing that every man doth or can do when he will, and when they do it, they do it but for pleasure. But in sleep it happeneth very seldom that men dream that they do so, and in the dream they never put the question except for doubt. And you may tell him that, since this revelation is such also as happeneth so seldom and oftener happeneth that men dream of such than have such indeed, therefore it is more reasonable that he show you how he knoweth, in such a rare thing and a thing more like a dream, that he himself is not asleep, than that you, in such a common thing among folk that are awake and so seldom happening in a dream, should need to show him whereby you know that you be not asleep.

Besides this, he to whom you should show it seeth himself and perceiveth the thing that he would bid you prove. But the thing that he would make you believe–the truth of his revelation which you bid him prove–you see not that he knoweth it well himself. And therefore, ere you believe it against the scripture, it would be well consonant unto reason that he should show you how he knoweth it for a true waking revelation and not a false dreaming delusion.

VINCENT:  Then shall he peradventure answer me that whether I believe him or not maketh to him no matter; the thing toucheth himself and not me, and he himself is in himself as sure that it is a true revelation as that he can tell that he dreameth not but talketh with me awake.

ANTHONY:  Without doubt, cousin, if he abide at that point and can by no reason be brought to do so much as doubt, nor can by no means be shogged out of his dead sleep, but will needs take his dream for a very truth, and–as some men rise by night and walk about their chamber in their sleep–will so rise and hang himself; I can then see no other way but either bind him fast in his bed, or else essay whether that might hap to help him with which, the common tale goeth, a carver’s wife helped her husband in such a frantic fancy. When, upon a Good Friday, he would needs have killed himself for Christ as Christ did for him, she said to him that it would then be fitting for him to die even after the same fashion. And that might not be by his own hands, but by the hand of another; for Christ, perdy, killed not himself. And because her husband would take no counsel (for that would he not, in no wise), she offered him that for God’s sake she would secretly crucify him herself upon a great cross that he had made to nail a new-carved crucifix upon. And he was very glad thereof. Yet then she bethought her that Christ was bound to a pillar and beaten first, and afterward crowned with thorns. Thereupon, when she had by his own assent bound him fast to a post, she left not off beating, with holy exhortation to suffer, so much and so long that ere ever she left work and unbound him (praying nevertheless, that she might put on his head, and drive well down, a crown of thorns that she had wrought for him and brought him), he said he thought this was enough for that year. He would pray God to forbear him of the rest till Good Friday came again! But when it came again the next years, then was his desire past; he longed to follow Christ no further.

VINCENT:  Indeed, uncle, if this help him not, then will nothing help him, I suppose….

VINCENT:  I think, uncle, that folk fall into this ungracious mind, through the devil’s temptation, by many more means than one.

ANTHONY:  That is, cousin, very true. For the devil taketh his occasions as he seeth them fall convenient for him. Some he stirreth to it for weariness of themselves after some great loss, some for fear of horrible bodily harm, and some (as I said) for fear of worldly shame.

One I knew myself who had been long reputed for a right honest man, who was fallen into such a fancy that he was well near worn away with it. But what he was tempted to do, that would he tell no man. But he told me that he was sore cumbered and that it always ran in his mind that folk’s fancies were fallen from him, and that they esteemed not his wit as they were wont to do, but ever his mind gave him that the people began to take him for a fool. And folk of truth did not so at all, but reputed him both for wise and honest.

Two others I knew who were marvellous afraid that they would kill themselves, and could tell me no cause wherefore they so feared it except that their own mind so gave them. Neither had they any loss nor no such thing toward them, nor none occasion of any worldly shame (the one was in body very well liking and lusty), but wondrous weary were they both twain of that mind. And always they thought that they would not do it for anything, and nevertheless they feared they would. And wherefore they so feared neither of them both could tell. And the one, lest he should do it, desired his friends to bind him.

VINCENT:  This is, uncle, a marvellous strange manner.

ANTHONY:  Forsooth, cousin, I suppose many of them are in this case.

The devil, as I said before, seeketh his occasions. For as St. Peter saith, “Your adversary the devil as a roaring lion goeth about seeking whom he may devour.” He marketh well, therefore, the state and condition that every man standeth in, not only concerning these outward things (lands, possessions, goods, authority, fame, favour, or hatred of the world), but also men’s complexions within them–health or sickness, good humours or bad, by which they be light-hearted or lumpish, strong-hearted or faint and feeble of spirit, bold and hardy or timorous and fearful of courage. And according as these things minister him matter of temptation, so useth he himself in the manner of his temptation.

Now likewise as in such folk as are full of young warm lusty blood and other humours exciting the flesh to filthy voluptuous living, the devil useth to make those things his instruments in tempting them and provoking them to it; and as, where he findeth some folk full of hot blood and choler, he maketh those humours his instruments to set their hearts on fire in wrath and fierce furious anger; so where he findeth some folk who, through some dull melancholy humours, are naturally disposed to fear, he casteth sometimes such a fearful imagination into their mind that without help of God they can never cast it out of their heart.

Some, at the sudden falling of some horrible thought into their mind, have not only had a great abomination at it (which abomination they well and virtuously had), but the devil, using their melancholy humour and thereby their natural inclination to fear for his instruments, hath caused them to conceive therewith such a deep dread besides that they think themselves with that abominable thought to be fallen into such an outrageous sin that they are ready to fall into despair of grace, believing that God hath given them over for ever. Whereas that thought, were it never so horrible and never so abominable, is yet unto those who never like it, but ever still abhor it and strive still against it, matter of conflict and merit and not any sin at all.

Some have, with holding a knife in their hand, suddenly thought upon the killing of themselves, and forthwith, in devising what a horrible thing it would be if they should mishap to do so, have fallen into a fear that they would do so indeed. And they have, with long and often thinking thereon, imprinted that fear so sore in their imagination, that some of them have not afterwards cast it off without great difficulty. And some could never in their life be rid of it, but have afterward in conclusion miserably done it indeed. But like as, where the devil useth the blood of a man’s own body toward his purpose in provoking him to lechery, the man must and doth with grace and wisdom resist it; so must the man do whose melancholy humours and devil abuseth, toward the casting of such a desperate dread into his heart.

VINCENT:  I pray you, uncle, what advice would be to be given him in such a case?

ANTHONY:  Surely, methinketh his help standeth in two things: counsel and prayer.

First, as concerning counsel: Like as it may be that he hath two things that hold him in his temptation; that is, some evil humours of his own body, and the cursed devil that abuseth them to his pernicious purpose, so must he needs against them twain the counsel of two manner of folk; that is, physicians for the body and physicians for the soul. The bodily physician shall consider what abundance of these evil humours the man hath, that the devil maketh his instruments, in moving the man toward that fearful affection. And he shall proceed by fitting diet and suitable medicines to resist them, as well as by purgations to disburden the body of them.

Let no man think it strange that I would advise a man to take counsel for the body, in such spiritual suffering. For since the body and the soul are so knit and joined together that they both make between them one person, the distemperance of either one engendereth sometimes the distemperance of both twain. And therefore I would advise every man in every sickness of the body to be shriven and to seek of a good spiritual physician the sure health of his soul. For this shall not only serve against peril that may peradventure grow further by that sickness than in the beginning men think were likely, but the comfort of it (and God’s favour increasing with it) shall also do the body good. For this cause the blessed apostle St. James exhorteth men in their bodily sickness to call in the priests, and saith that it shall do them good both in body and soul. So likewise would I sometimes advise some men, in some sickness of the soul, besides their spiritual leech, to take also some counsel of the physician for the body….

The manner of the fight against temptation must stand in three things: that is, in resisting, and in contemning, and in the invocation of help.

Resist must a man for his own part with reason, considering what a folly it would be to fall where he need not, since he is not driven to it in avoiding of any other pain or in hope of winning any manner of pleasure, but contrariwise he would by that fall lose everlasting bliss and fall into everlasting pain. And if it were in avoiding of other great pain, yet could he avoid none so great thereby as the one he should thereby fall into.

He must also consider that a great part of this temptation is in effect but the fear of his own fancy, the dread that he hath lest he shall once be driven to it. For he may be sure that (unless he himself will, of his own folly) all the devils in hell can never drive him to it, but his own foolish imagination may. For it fareth in his temptation like a man going over a high bridge who waxeth so afraid, through his own fancy, that he falleth down indeed, when he would otherwise be able enough to pass over without any danger. For a man upon such a bridge, if folk call upon him, “You fall, you fall!” may fall with the fancy that he taketh thereof; although, if folk looked merrily upon him and said, “There is no danger therein,” he would pass over the bridge well enough–and he would not hesitate to run upon it, if it were but a foot from the ground. So, in this temptation, the devil findeth the man of his own foolish fancy afraid and then crieth in the ear of his heart, “Thou fallest, thou fallest!” and maketh the foolish man afraid that he should, at every foot, fall indeed. And the devil so wearieth him with that continual fear, if he give the ear of his heart to him, that at last he withdraweth his mind from due remembrance of God, and then driveth him to that deadly mischief indeed. Therefore, like as, against the vice of the flesh, the victory standeth not all in the fight, but sometimes also in the flight (saving that it is indeed a part of a wise warrior’s fight to flee from his enemies’ traps), so must a man in this temptation too, not only resist it always with reasoning against it, but sometimes set it clear at right naught and cast it off when it cometh and not once regard it so much as to vouchsafe to think thereon.

Some folk have been clearly rid of such pestilent fancies with very full contempt of them, making a cross upon their hearts and bidding the devil avaunt. And sometimes they laugh him to scorn too, and then turn their mind unto some other matter. And when the devil hath seen that they have set so little by him, after certain essays, made in such times as he thought most fitting, he hath given that temptation quite over. And this he doth not only because the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked, but also lest, with much tempting the man to the sin to which he could not in conclusion bring him, he should much increase his merit.

The final fight is by invocation of help unto God, both praying for himself and desiring others also to pray for him–both poor folk for his alms and other good folk of their charity, especially good priests in that holy sacred service of the Mass. And not only them but also his own good angel and other holy saints such as his devotion specially doth stand unto. Or, if he be learned, let him use then the litany, with the holy suffrages that follow, which is a prayer in the church of marvellous old antiquity. For it was not made first, as some believe, by that holy man St. Gregory (which opinion arose from the fact that, in the time of a great pestilence in Rome, he caused the whole city to go in solemn procession with it), but it was in use in the church many years before St. Gregory’s days, as well appeareth by the books of other holy doctors and saints, who were dead hundreds of years before St. Gregory was born.

And holy St. Bernard giveth counsel that every man should make suit unto angels and saints to pray for him to God in the things that he would have furthered by his holy hand. If any man will stick at that, and say it needs not, because God can hear us himself; and will also say that it is perilous to do so because (they say) we are not so counseled by scripture, I will not dispute the matter here. He who will not do it, I hinder him not to leave it undone. But yet for mine own part, I will as well trust to the counsel of St. Bernard, and reckon him for as good and as well learned in scripture, as any man whom I hear say the contrary. And better dare I jeopard my soul with the soul of St. Bernard than with that of him who findeth that fault in his doctrine.

Unto God himself every good man counseleth to have recourse above all. And, in this temptation, to have special remembrance of Christ’s passion, and pray him for the honour of his death, the ground of man’s salvation, to keep this person thus tempted from that damnable death…

And I doubt not, by God’s grace, but that he who in such a temptation will use good counsel and prayer and keep himself in good virtuous business and good virtuous company and abide in the faithful hope of God’s help, he shall have the truth of God (as the prophet saith in the verse afore rehearsed) so compass him about with a shield that he shall not need to dread this night’s fear of this wicked temptation.

And thus will I finish this piece of the night’s fear. And glad am I that we are past it, and come once unto the day, to those other words of the prophet, “A sagitta volante in die.” For methinketh I have made it a long night!

VINCENT:  Forsooth, uncle, so have you, but we have not slept in it, but been very well occupied. But now I fear that unless you make here a pause till you have dined, you shall keep yourself from your dinner over-long…

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from Rihla: On Sati and Religious Suicide


Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Batutah, known as Ibn Battuta or sometimes Battuta, was born to a Berber family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco. He is known for the extent of his travels over 30 years, setting the record for distance journeyed by an individual until the advent of the Steam Age 450 years later. From the time he left to perform the hajj at age 21, Ibn Battuta’s travels took him through most of the Islamic world, North, West, and East Africa, and as far as South and Central Asia, including China in the east and Southern and Eastern Europe in the west.

Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco in 1354 and an oral account of his experience was collected by scholar Ibn Juzayy and adapted into a narrative entitled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, commonly known as the Rihla, meaning “journey.” The traditional rihla was centered around visits to the holy places of Arabia; only after, and due to Ibn Battuta’s travels, did “rihla” come to mean travels throughout the world.

Ibn Battuta describes in the Rihla that it was first from a passing man in Pakpattan, now in Pakistan, that he was first told of sati, the suicide of a Hindu widow on the pyre of her husband. Ibn Battuta describes noticing later processions of individual Hindu women on horseback, followed by “both Muslims and infidels” on the way to funerals. He wrote that the ritual was voluntary on the surface, but that a widow who declined would be “despised” and live on “with her own people in misery.” Ibn Battuta goes on to describe a sati ritual of three women that he himself witnessed, and relates that while the men preparing the ritual held a blanket in front of the fire so as not to frighten the approaching women, one of the women tore the blanket away and said, smiling, “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.”

In analogy to sati, Ibn Battuta adds religious suicide in the Ganges and quotes a typical man preparing to enter the water: “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” which Ibn Battuta cites as meaning God.


Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, tr. H.A.R. Gibb. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929 (1983 reprint), pp. 190-193.


The first town we reached after leaving Multan was Abuhar [Abohar], which is the first town in India proper, and thence we entered a plain extending for a day’s journey. On the borders of this plain are inaccessible mountains, inhabited by Hindu infidels; some of them are subjects under Muslim rule, and live in villages governed by a Muslim headman appointed by the governor in whose fief the village lies. Others of them are rebels and warriors, who maintain themselves in the fastnesses of the mountains and make plundering raids. On this road we fell in with a raiding party, this being the first engagement I witnessed in India. The main party had left Abuhar in the early morning, but I had stayed there with a small party of my companions until midday and when we left, numbering in all twenty-two horsemen, partly Arabs and partly Persians and Turks, we were attacked on this plain by eighty infidels on foot with two horsemen. My companions were men of courage and ability and we fought stoutly with them, killing one of the horsemen and about twelve of the footsoldiers. I was hit by an arrow and my horse by another, but God preserved me from them, for there is no force in their arrows. One of our party had his horse wounded, but we gave him in exchange the horse we had captured from the infidel, and killed the wounded horse, which was eaten by the Turks of our party. We carried the heads of the slain to the castle of Abu Bak’har, which we reached about midnight, and suspended them from the wall.

Two days later we reached Ajudahan [Pakpattan], a small town belonging to the pious Shaykh Farid ad-Din. As I returned to the camp after visiting this personage, I saw the people hurrying out, and some of our party along with them. I asked them what was happening and they told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him. After the burning my companions came back and told me that she had embraced the dead man until she herself was burned with him. Later on I used often to see a Hindu woman, richly dressed, riding on horseback, followed by both Muslims and infidels and preceded by drums and trumpets; she was accompanied by Brahmans, who are the chiefs of the Hindus. In the sultan’s dominions they ask his permission to burn her, which he accords them. The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; only when a widow burns herself her family acquires a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity, but she is not forced to burn herself. Once in the town of Amjari [Amjhera, near Dhar] I saw three women whose husbands had been killed in battle and who had agreed to burn themselves. Each one had a horse brought to her and mounted it, richly dressed and perfumed. In her right hand she held a coconut, with which she played, and in her left a mirror, in which she looked at her face. They were surrounded by Brahmans and their own relatives, and were preceded by drums, trumpets and bugles. Every one of the infidels said to them “Take greetings from me to my father, or brother or mother, or friend” and they would say “Yes” and smile at them. I rode out with my companions to see the way in which the burning was carried out. After three miles we came to a dark place with much water and shady trees, amongst which there were four pavilions, each containing a stone idol. Between the pavilions there was a basin of water over which a dense shade was cast by trees so thickly set that the sun could not penetrate them. The place looked like a spot in hell—God preserve us from it! On reaching these pavilions they descended to the pool, plunged into it and divested themselves of their clothes and ornaments, which they distributed as alms. Each one was then given an unsewn garment of coarse cotton and tied part of it round her waist and part over her head and shoulders. The fires had been lit near this basin in a low lying spot, and oil of sesame poured over them, so that the flames were increased. There were about fifteen men there with faggots of thin wood and about ten others with heavy pieces of wood, and the drummers and trumpeters were standing by waiting for the woman’s coming. The fire was screened off by a blanket held by some men, so that she should not be frightened by the sight of it. I saw one of them, on coming to the blanket, pull it violently out of the men’s hands, saying to them with a smile “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.” Thereupon she joined her hands above her head in salutation to the fire and cast herself into it. At the same moment the drums, trumpets and bugles were sounded, the men threw their firewood on her and the others put the heavy wood on top of her to prevent her moving, cries were raised and there was a loud clamour. When I saw this I had all but fallen off my horse, if my companions had not quickly brought water to me and laved my face, after which I withdrew.

The Indians have a similar practice of drowning themselves and many of them do so in the river Ganges, the river to which they go on pilgrimage, and into which the ashes of those who are burned are cast. They say that it is a river of Paradise. When one of them comes to drown himself he says to those present with him, “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” Kusay being the name of God in their language. He then drowns himself and when he is dead they take him out and burn him and cast his ashes into this river.

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from The Book of Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno


Little is known about the life of the Italian mystic Angela de Foligno. Tradition reports that she was born to a wealthy family but lost her father while still young. She married at an early age and had several sons. She had no formal education, but possessed an open mind and vigorous intelligence. She was beautiful, impetuous, and vain. After living a worldly early life—including, in the words of one of her biographers, “washing, combing . . . dressing in luxurious clothes, indulging in fancy foods . . . maligning others . . . letting loose with fits of anger and pride”—she converted to a life of contrition by confessing her guilt and shame, selling her land and possessions, and joining the Third Order of St. Francis as a Tertiary hermit. Despite the joy she found in her new life, Angela faced opposition from family and clergy. The remainder of her life was passed in seclusion (the members of her immediate family had all died by about 1288) in the area of the Church of the Friars Minor at Foligno, except for a pilgrimage to Assisi in 1291 at age 43, during which she received a vision “of God’s love for her.”

Angela confessed her doctrinal revelations, visions, and consolations, some of which occurred while she slept, to her scribe, Brother Arnoldo; some parts she may have recorded herself. These works were collected in The Book of Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno, which includes a detailed account of her inner journey toward purification. The first Italian edition (translated from Latin), 1510, became one of the most popular religious works printed in the Italian vernacular and is an important specimen of medieval psychology. Her mystical writings have influenced many writers and philosophers, even to the present day.

In the first of the two visions excerpted here, Angela vividly describes the intensity of her desire to die, much as St. Paul [q.v., New Testament: Philippians: “Paul on the Desire to Die”] had earlier written of his desire to die and be with Christ. In her second vision, which expresses a desire not unlike St. Ignatius’s [q.v.] eagerness to become “God’s wheat”—a martyr ground in the teeth of wild beasts—Angela wishes fervently for a slow and agonizing death. For Angela, as for Paul and Ignatius, however, suicide is not in question and is not explicitly discussed. These writings are crucial for examining the distinctions between voluntary martyrdom and suicide in early and medieval Christianity, emphasizing as this tradition does both the martyr’s promise of a personal, beatific afterlife and a thoroughgoing prohibition of suicide. One may desire intensely to die, but one must not deliberately end one’s life.


Angela de Foligno, The Book of Divine Consolation of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. Treatise III, First and Tenth Visions, tr. Mary G. Steegmann, New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1966, pp. 157-161, 163-168, 196-200.  Text also online from the Internet Archive. Quotations in introduction from Paul Lachance, Angela of Foligno: Complete Works, New York, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1993, pp. 16-17, and Elizabeth Alvil Petroff, The Mystics.



Of the Many Visions and Consolations Received by Angela of Foligno: First Vision and Consolation

Blessed God and Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, Thou hast verily deigned to console me, a sinner, in every tribulation.  For during the time of my conversion and after the enlightenment miraculously granted unto me as I was repeating the Paternoster, I did feel great consolation and sweetness in this manner.

I was inspired and drawn unto the contemplation of the blessed union of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and in this contemplation did I feel an exceeding great delight, the which was greater than any I had ever felt heretofore.  For this reason did I remain for a great part of that day standing in the cell where I was praying, astonished, locked in and alone.  My heart was all wrapped up in that joy and I became as one dumb and did lose my speech.  Wherefore did it happen that when my companion came she believed that I was about to die; but she did only weary me and was an hindrance unto me.

Once, before that I had finished giving all I possessed unto the poor (albeit but little then remained for me to give), when I was persevering in these matters, it chanced that one evening when I was at prayer methought I did feel nothing whatsoever of God.  Wherefore I lamented and prayed unto God, saying:

“Lord, that which I do, I do only that I may find Thee; wherefore, having done it, do Thou grant me the grace that I may find Thee.”

And many other similar things did I say in my prayer, and this answer was vouchsafed unto me, “What desirest thou?”

Then I said: “I desire neither gold nor silver; yea, if Thou wouldst give me the whole world I would not accept it, seeing that I desire Thee only.”

Then did He say unto me, “Strive diligently and make thyself ready, for when thou hast accomplished that which thou art now doing, the whole Trinity will descend unto thee.”

Many other things were also promised unto me, which did ease me of my tribulation and fill me with divine sweetness.  And from that hour I did await that the thing which had been told me should be immediately fulfilled.

After this I went unto the church of Saint Francis, near untoAssisi, and the promise was fulfilled by the way as I went thither.  Nevertheless, I had not yet finished giving all things unto the poor, but there was little yet remaining.

As I went unto Saint Francis, therefore, I prayed by the way.  And amongst other prayers, I did ask the Blessed Francis that he would implore God for me, that I might serve well his Order, unto which I had but lately renewed my promises, and that he would obtain for me the grace that I might feel somewhat of Christ, but above all, that He would make me become poor and end my days in poverty.  For this cause (namely, to have the liberty of poverty) had I journeyed unto Rome, to pray the Blessed Peter that he would obtain for me the grace of true poverty.  And thus, through the merits of the Blessed Peter and the Blessed Francis the gift of true poverty was vouchsafed unto me by divine mercy, even as I was asking for them in prayer as I walked by the way.

Now when I was come to that place which lieth between Spello and the narrow road which leadeth upward unto Assisi, and is beyond Spello, it was said unto me:

“Thou hast prayed unto My servant Francis, and I have not willed to send thee another messenger.  I am the Holy Spirit, who am come unto thee to bring thee such consolation as thou hast never before tasted.  And I will go with thee even unto Saint Francis; I shall be within thee and but few of those who are with thee will perceive it.  I will bear thee company and will speak with thee all the way; I will make no end to my speaking and thou wilt not be able to attend unto any save unto Me, for I have bound thee and will not depart from thee until thou comest for the second time unto Saint Francis.  Then will I depart from thee in so far as this present consolation is concerned, but in no other manner will I ever leave thee, and thou shalt love Me.”

Then began He to speak the following words unto me, which did persuade me to love after this manner:

“My daughter who art sweet unto Me, my daughter who art My temple; My beloved daughter, do thou love Me, for I do greatly love thee and much more than thou lovest Me.”  And very often did He say unto me: “Bride and daughter, sweet art thou unto Me, I love thee better than any other who is in the valley of Spolero.  Forasmuch as I have rested and reposed in thee, do thou also rest thyself and repose in Me.  I have been with the apostles, who did behold Me with their bodily eyes, but they did not feel Me as thou feelest Me.  When thou shalt be come unto thine house thou shalt feel another sweetness, such as thou hast never yet experienced.  I shall not speak unto thee as I now speak, but thou wilt only feel Me.  Thou hast prayed unto My servant Francis, hoping with him and through him to obtain the things thou desirest, seeing that as my servant Francis hath greatly loved Me, I have done many things for him.  If there were to-day any person who loved Me more, much more would I do for him.”

Then said He unto me that there are few good persons in these days and but little faith, for which cause He did lament, saying, “So great is the love of the soul who loveth Me without sin, that, if there were any one who loved Me perfectly, I would show him greater mercy than I have ever shown hitherto, and Thou knowest that many great things are recorded which I have done unto divers persons in times past.”

None can excuse themselves for not having this love, because it is possible for all persons to love God, and He asketh nothing save that the soul shall love and seek Him.  He is the love of the soul.  But these are deep sayings.

In the meantime I had remembered all my sins, and on my side I beheld nothing save sins and wrong-doing, so that I did feel greater humility than I had ever felt before.  Then did He tell me that I was beloved, that the Son of God and of the Virgin Mary had inclined Himself unto me and was come to speak with me.  Wherefore Christ said unto me:―

“If all the world came now unto thee, thou couldst not speak with others; for when I come unto thee, there cometh more than all the world.”  But in order to calm my doubts He said: “I am He who was crucified for thee, and for thy sake did I endure hunger and thirst, and so greatly have I loved thee that I did shed My blood for thee,” and He expounded unto me all His Passion and said: “Ask mercy for thyself and for thy companions and for all whom thou wilt, for I am much more ready to give than thou art to receive.”

Then did my soul cry aloud, saying, “I will not ask, for I am not worthy and I remember all my sins!”  And it said further, “If Thou who hast spoken with me from the beginning wert truly the Holy Spirit, Thou wouldst not have told me such great things; and if Thou wert verily within me, then my joy would be so great that I could not bear it and live.”

I can never describe the joy and sweetness which I felt, especially when He said, “I am the Holy Spirit who am entering into thee;” but briefly, great was the sweetness which I received at each one of His sayings.

In this manner, therefore, I did arrive at Saint Francis’, as He had foretold. And He departed not from me, but remained with me, even when I sat down to meat, until I went unto Saint Francis’ for the second time.

When I did bend my knees upon entering in at the door of the church, I immediately beheld a picture of Saint Francis lying in Christ’s bosom.  Then said Christ unto me:―

“Thus closely will I hold thee, and so much closer that bodily eyes can neither perceive nor comprehend it.  But now, My beloved daughter and temple of My delight, the hour is come when I must fill thee with My spirit and must leave thee.  I have told thee that because of this consolation I must leave thee; nevertheless, if thou lovest Me, I will not leave thee.”

Albeit the words were bitter, yet were they full of joy.  Then looked I, that I might behold with the eyes of both body and mind.  And I beheld; and if thou seekest to know what I beheld, truly I can only say that it was a thing full of great majesty; and more than this can I not say, save that it seemed unto me to be full of all goodness.  Then He departed with great gentleness; not suddenly, but slowly and gradually.  Of the words which He spake unto me, the greatest are these:―

“Oh my daughter, who art sweeter unto Me than I am unto thee, temple of My delight, thou dost possess the ring of My love and art promised unto Me, so that henceforth thou shalt never leave Me.  The blessing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be upon thee and thine understanding.”

Then cried my soul, “If only Thou wilt not leave me, I will commit no mortal sin!”

And He answered me, “That say I not unto thee.”  Then as He was departing, I did ask a blessing for my companion, and He replied, “Unto her will I give another blessing,” and so He departed.  And at His departure He would not that I should prostrate myself before Him, but that I should stand upon my feet.  But after that He was gone I fell down upon a seat and began to cry with a loud voice, clamouring and calling without any shame and uttering these words, “Oh Love, heretofore have I never known Thee, why leavest Thou me in this manner?”  And more than this I could not Say, for my voice was so suffocated with crying that scarce could I pronounce even this, wherefore was it not heard by the persons around me.

This clamouring and crying did come upon me as I entered into the door of the church of Saint Francis.  Here was I overwhelmed again and began to make a noise and call aloud in the presence of all the people, that those who were come with me and did know me did stand afar off and were ashamed, believing that I did it for another reason.  So was I left with the certainty that it was God who had spoken with me; and because of His sweetness and the grief of His departure did I cry aloud, desiring to die.  And seeing that I did not die, the grief of being separated from Him was so great that all the joints of my limbs did fall asunder.

When I was returned I stayed within the house, and I felt a sweetness so peaceful, quiet, and great that I know not how to describe it.  Wherefore did I long for death, and because of the aforesaid peace and sweet joyfulness was life a greater grief unto me than I can say.  I longed for death that I might attain unto that delight of the which I now felt something, and because of this did I wish to depart from this world.  Life was a greater grief unto me than had been the deaths of my mother and my children, more heavy than any other grief of which I can bethink me.

Thus did I remain eight days within the house, all feeble.  And I cried, “Lord, have mercy upon me and grant that I may remain no longer in this world.”  From this time forth I was often aware of indescribable odours; but these and other things can I not explain, so great was the sweetness and joy which I did feel in them.  The voice spake unto me many other times, but never at any great length, nor with so much sweetness or deep meaning.


Tenth Vision and Consolation

Upon another occasion whilst I was at prayer, exceeding pleasant words were spoken unto me after this manner:

“Oh my daughter, who art far sweeter unto Me than I am unto thee; thou art the temple of My delight, and the heart of the Omnipotent God resteth upon thy heart.”

Together with these words there came upon me a feeling of the utmost joy, such as I had never before experienced, inasmuch as all the members of my body felt it.  And as I did prostrate myself at these words, it was further told me:

“The Omnipotent God loveth thee more dearly than any other woman of this city.  He rejoiceth in thee and in thy companion.  De ye both strive, therefore, that your lives be as a light unto all who desire to follow your example; but unto those who follow you not, shall your lives be as a judgment strict and hard.”

Albeit I had great joy of this matter, yet did I remember my sins and I did esteem that neither now or at any time had there been in me any good which might be pleasing unto God.  Wherefore began I to doubt, seeing that great things had been spoken unto me; and I said:

“If Thou who speakest unto me wert truly the Son of Almighty God, my soul would feel a joy higher and greater than this, and I should not be able to bear it, feeling that Thou wert in me, who am so unworthy.”

Then I besought Him that He would give me some tangible sign, something which I could see; such as putting a candle into my hand, or a precious stone, or some other thing, or that He would give me any sign He pleased, promising Him that I would show it unto no person save unto whom He should desire.  Then He replied:

“This sign that thou seekest is one that would only give thee great joy when thou didst behold or touch it, but it would not free thee from doubt, and thou mightest be deceived by that sign.  Therefore will I give thee another sign, better than the one thou seekest, and which will be for ever with thee, and in thy soul thou shalt always feel it.  The sign shall be this: thou shalt be ever fervent in love, and the love and the enlightened knowledge of God shall be ever with thee and in thee.  This shall be a certain sign unto thee that I am He, because none save I can do this.  And this is a sign which I will leave in thy soul, the which is better for thee than that which thou didst ask of Me.  My love do I leave in thee, so that for love of Me thou wilt endure tribulations, and if any person speak or do evil unto thee thou wilt be grateful, declaring thyself unworthy of so much mercy.  Such is the love which I bare unto you all, for whose sake I patiently and humbly endured all things.  Thus thou shalt know whether or not I am in thee if, when any person shall speak or do evil unto thee, thou art not only patient, but even desirous that they should hurt thee and be grateful unto them.  And this is a certain sign of the grace of God.  And behold, I do now anoint thee with an ointment wherewith a saint called Siricus and many other saints were anointed.”

Then did I immediately feel that ointment, and so sweet was it that I longed for death, and that I might die with all manner of bodily torments.  The torments suffered by the martyrs who had died for Christ did I esteem as naught, and I desired that for love of Him my torments should be more terrible than theirs, and that the world should cry out upon me with insults and revilings.

Moreover, I rejoiced greatly in praying for those who might work me these evils, and I marveled not at the saints who prayed for their murderers and prosecutors; for not only ought we to pray unto God for them, but we should beseech Him to grant them especial grace.  Therefore was I ready to pray for those who did me evil, to love them with a great love, and to take compassion upon them.  In that anointing I did feel such sweetness both within and without that I never felt the like before, and I have no words wherewith I can show forth the least part of it.

This consolation was different, and of a nature unlike the others.  For in the others I had desired immediately to quit this world, but in this my desire was that my death should be grievous and prolonged, with all manner of torments, and that my members should suffer all the tortures of the world.  Yet all this seemed but a small thing unto me, for my soul knew well that every torment was but a small thing in comparison with the blessings promised in the life eternal.  My soul knew of a certainty that it was thus, and if all the wise men of the world had told me the contrary, I should not have believed them.  And if I should swear that all who walked upon the aforesaid way would be saved, I should believe that I spake the truth.

This sign did God leave so firmly implanted in my soul, with so bright and clear a light, that me thinketh I could endure any martyrdom.  This sign, moreover, leadeth continually upon the straight way of salvation, that is to say, it leadeth unto love and the desire to suffer for love of God.

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(c. 1225-1274)

from Summa Theologiae: Whether One is Allowed to Kill Oneself


St. Thomas Aquinas, the Italian scholastic philosopher and theologian, and the principal theological authority within the Roman Catholic Church and progenitor of the tradition known as Thomism, was the son of an Italian count, related through his mother to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. At the age of five, Thomas was placed in the care of the monks at the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino to be educated as a monk and later to become abbot, but after eight years, political circumstances forced him to leave. He then studied in Naples. In complete opposition to his family’s wishes, he became involved in the Dominican order, finding its emphasis on intellectualism more suitable to his interests. In 1245, Thomas escaped the house arrest he had been kept under by his family to prevent him from joining the Dominican order. As a Dominican, he was sent to Naples, then Rome, and then Paris, where he studied under the German philosopher and theologian Albertus Magnus. Thomas then followed his teacher to Cologne, where he was reluctantly appointed to be magister studentium. Thomas returned to the University of Paris to study for a master’s degree in theology in 1252 and was named master of theology in 1256. He wrote prolifically until December 1273, when a visionary experience changed him. When his secretary asked him why he had ceased to write, he said, “All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

Thomas was greatly influenced not only by the Christian tradition but also by the works of Aristotle, which, preserved since antiquity in Arabic libraries, had remained mostly unknown in the Latin West until the end of the 12th century. In what is recognized as Thomas’s most important work, Summa Theologiae (1266–1273), he attempts to integrate Aristotelian thought with Catholic doctrine and to clarify many points of doctrine by synthesizing faith and reason into a coherent whole. Thomas believed that divine revelation and human reason were both aspects of the same uniform truth and that they could not conflict with one another; reason can discover some theological truths by observing the effects of God’s work in the world, yet the role of reason is limited, and faith is necessary to understand and believe what is unknowable by reason alone. Thomas also wrote a series of commentaries on Aristotle and the Bible, as well as Summa contra Gentiles (1260), a manual of concise arguments in defense of Church doctrine for use by missionaries attempting to convert Muslims and Jews.

Thomas often traveled between France and Italy, and on March 7, 1274, just a few months after his visionary experience, while en route to Lyon, he became ill and died at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova. He was canonized in 1323 and proclaimed doctor of the church in 1567; he is often known as the Angelic Doctor.

The following selection is taken from the Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, question 64, article 5. In this work, Aquinas begins each article by stating the reverse of his conclusion and the objections to a particular claim (“it appears that . . .”), then responds with a statement of the correct conclusion and the rebuttal to each of the previous objections in turn. In Question 64, article 5, Thomas argues against the legitimacy of suicide, incorporating the arguments of both Aristotle (referred to as “the Philosopher”) and Augustine. Thomas’s central argument appeals to Augustine’s inclusive interpretation of the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill”: since there is a prohibition against killing human beings and suicide is killing a human being, suicide is therefore a sin, to which Thomas adds three further reasons: an argument from the natural inclination to live, an argument based on social community, and the argument that life ought not be rejected because it is a gift from God.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, question 64, article 5, tr. Michael Rudick. Quotation in introduction from Angelico Ferrua, S[ancti] Thomae Aquinas vitae fontes praecipuae (Alba, IT: Edizioni domenicane, 1968, p. 318).


from SUMMA THEOLOGIAE, 2A 2AE, Q. 64, A. 5


We proceed to the fifth article.

1. It appears that one is permitted to kill himself.  Homicide is a crime in that it is contrary to justice, but, as proven [by Aristotle] in Ethics, Book V, no one can do an injustice to himself; therefore, no one sins by killing himself.

2. Moreover, those with public authority are allowed to kill criminals; but sometimes one with public authority is himself a criminal, and so he is allowed to kill himself.

3. Moreover, it is permissible to submit oneself voluntarily to a smaller danger in order to avoid a greater, as one may amputate an infected member in order to save the whole body.  Sometimes one may, by killing himself, avoid a greater evil, such as a wretched life or corruption through some sin; therefore, it is permissible for one to kill himself.

4. Moreover, Samson killed himself (Judges xvi), yet he is numbered among the saints, as is evident from Hebrews xi.  Therefore, it is permissible for one to kill himself.

5. Moreover, it is said in II Maccabees xiv that a certain Razis killed himself, “choosing to die nobly rather than be subject to sinners and to injuries unworthy of his birth.”  Therefore, it is not unlawful to kill oneself.

On the contrary is what Augustine says in Book I of The City of God:  “We understand the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to pertain to man.  Kill no other man, nor yourself; for he who kills himself kills another man.”

I respond by saying that to kill oneself is altogether unlawful for three reasons.  First, because every thing loves itself, it is thus proper for every thing to keep itself in being and resist decay as far as it can.  Therefore, to kill oneself is contrary to natural inclination, and contrary to the charity according to which everyone ought to love himself.  Hence self-killing is always a mortal sin, inasmuch as it stands against natural law and charity.

Second, because every thing that is a part belongs to a whole, every man is part of a community, and as such is of the community.  Therefore, he who kills himself injures the community, as is proven by the Philosopher in his Ethics, Book V.

Third, because life is a gift divinely given to man, and subject to the power of Him “who kills and makes to live.”  Therefore, he who deprives himself of life sins against God, just as he who kills another’s slave sins against the slave’s master, and just as he sins who arrogates to himself power over something not committed to him.  To God alone belongs the power over death and life, according to Deuteronomy xxxii: “I kill and I make to live.”

To the first [argument that suicide is permissible], it may be objected that homicide is not only a sin against justice, but is also a sin against the charity that everyone ought to have for himself; on that ground, self-killing is a sin with respect to oneself.  And with respect to the community and to God, it is a sin through its opposition to justice.

To the second, it may be objected that one with public authority may kill a criminal because he is empowered to judge him.  But no one is allowed to be the judge of himself, and so one with public authority is not allowed to kill himself because of some sin, although he is allowed to commit himself to the judgment of some other.

To the third, it may be objected that man is indeed lord of himself through his free will, and so may lawfully dispose of himself as far as what pertains to this life is concerned; that much is governed by man’s free will.  But the passage from this life to the other, happier one is not subject to man’s free will, but to divine power.  Therefore, it is not permissible for a man to kill himself in order to pass over into the happier life.  Neither, likewise, to avoid the present life’s miseries; the “ultimate” evil of this life, and the “most frightful,” is death, as the Philosopher shows in Ethics, Book III, and so to kill oneself to evade the other miseries of life is to assume a greater evil to avoid a less.  Neither, likewise, may one kill oneself on account of some sin committed; in that case one harms oneself as much as may be, by preventing the necessary time for penitence.  Besides, killing a criminal is not permitted except through the judgment of public authority.  Neither, likewise, is a woman permitted to kill herself to prevent another’s violating her; she ought not commit the maximal sin on herself, which is to kill herself, to avoid another, smaller sin (for it is no crime for a woman to be violated through force, without her consent, because “the body is not corrupted without the mind’s consent,” as Lucia said [Golden Legend, IV]).  And it is certain that fornication and adultery are less sins than homicide, especially self-homicide, which is the gravest of all because it injures the self to which is owed the greatest love.  And it is also the most dangerous, because there remains no time to expiate the sin through penance.  Neither, likewise, is one allowed to kill himself in fear of consenting to sin, for “we must not do evil in order that good come from it” [Romans iii 8], or to avoid evils, especially smaller and less certain ones, for it is not inevitable that one will in the future consent to sin; God is capable, whenever temptation arises, to free man from sin.

To the fourth, it may be objected that, as Augustine says in The City of God, Book I, “Neither may Samson be otherwise excused for crushing himself along with his enemies in the fall of the house, except that the Holy Spirit inwardly commanded this in order to perform a miracle through him”; and he gives the same reason for certain holy women who killed themselves in time of persecution, whose memory the church celebrates.

To the fifth, it may be objected that it is fortitude when one does not shrink from suffering death inflicted by another person, in the interest of virtue and the avoidance of sin; but when one kills oneself to avoid bad punishments, it has some appearance of fortitude, on account of which certain suicides are accounted to have acted bravely, Razis among them.  But this is not real fortitude, it is instead some weakness in a soul not strong enough to bear hardship, as is shown by the Philosopher in Ethics, Book III, and Augustine in The City of God, Book I.

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Filed under Aquinas, Thomas, Christianity, Europe, Middle Ages, Selections, Sin

(c. 1220-c. 1400)

from The Ynglinga Saga: Odin Marks    Himself with a Spear
from Gautrek’s Saga: The Family Cliff
from Njal’s Saga: The Burning of Njal


The term “Viking” is a collective name for Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and other Old Norse-speaking peoples of the period from roughly the 8th to 11th centuries, seafaring raiders who lived by plunder, conquest, and trade. Also called Northmen or Norsemen, many were expert shipbuilders and seamen, and their voyages ranged across some 5,000 miles from Scandinavia to England, France, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Greenland, and North America to the borders of Persia. Viking raids on European and other lands were ruthless and savage, and the Vikings were widely feared. The Viking Age was characterized by a period of a gradual consolidation of national political life, during which chieftains and notable families vied for power at all levels of government.

The body of literature known as the Norse sagas documents these elaborate political intrigues, and both the sagas and occasional foreign observers like Ibn Fadlan [q.v.] provide insight into Viking religious and cultural practices. The term “saga” is borrowed from the Old Norse and an Icelandic word to designate an Old Norse prose narrative; it has been described as a combination of story, tale, and history. The oldest sagas are so-called apostles’ sagas and saints’ lives, based on anonymous translations from the Latin; other genres of saga include what are known as kings’ sagas, sagas about Icelanders, biographies of poets, sagas about knights, and sagas of ancient times, fictionalized accounts of the history of earlier Viking peoples from the year 874, the settlement of Iceland, to 1000, the conversion to Christianity, and beyond. The best of these works are considered the highest achievement of the medieval storytelling art in Northern Europe. The selections included here were all written in Iceland, and while they purport to describe earlier periods, they shed light on medieval Scandinavian cultures of the 13th and 14th centuries. Of particular interest is the tenuous distinction in Viking culture, apparent from the time of the practices described by Ibn Fadlan several centuries earlier on into high Viking culture, between voluntarily allowing oneself to die and voluntarily killing oneself. Either form of death could involve violence and so ensure entrance into Valhalla.

Odin, the god of battle, knowledge, and poetry, appears as the chief pagan figure in medieval Scandinavian polytheism. Odin’s demands for sacrifice were immense and may have included animals, other human beings (e.g., slaves and enemies), and the self by suicide. Indeed, some have claimed he was known as the “Lord of the Gallows” or “God of the Hanged.” Both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda describe Odin’s self-destructive acts, including hanging himself, torture between two fires, and on different occasions, impaling himself for nine days and giving up an eye for knowledge. In a section known as the “Rune Poem,” the Poetic Edda relates:

Odin said:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
or nine long nights;
pierced by a spear—Odin’s pledge—
given myself to myself.

Through this act of self-mutilation, it is said, Odin sought to discover the runes and, through them, become possessed of secret wisdom.

The Ynglinga Saga, from which the first selection is taken, was compiled from earlier sources by Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). It forms part of the Heimskringla, a history of the reigns of the Norse kings from the end of the 3rd century to 1177. The Ynglinga Saga tells the story of Odin—then a powerful king—as he lay dying in bed. According to this tradition, Odin marked his dying body with the point of a spear and thus prepared the way for the worthy to enter Valhalla, “the Hall of those who die by violence” (literally, “corpse hall”), a hall of feasting that courageous and mighty warriors enjoy after death. With Odin’s example before them, it was considered a disgrace for a man to die unwounded in bed, not in battle; death by violence was preferable. If a Viking followed Odin’s example by dying violently in battle or from a self-inflicted wound, a portion of the rejoicing at Valhalla might be his. The Valkyries chose the best and most heroic of the slain for Odin; the goddess Freyja, as the goddess of love, war and sex, also got to select half. Death in battle was the greatest honor and greatest qualification for Valhalla; suicide was next best, but those who died peacefully in their beds of old age or disease were excluded from Valhalla for all eternity.

The second selection, taken from the first of the three tales that form Gautrek’s Saga (13th century), tells the story of King Gauti of Gautland, who becomes lost in a forest and is given shelter by a most peculiar family. This family claims Gillings Bluff as their “Family Cliff,” which serves to control family size and ensure a good death. By throwing themselves down from its height, family members will be able to die immediately without suffering from illness, misfortune, starvation, or infirmity, and in realizing a violent death, they will, they believe, be transported directly to Odin’s welcoming abode. When King Gauti arrives, the family perceives the intrusion and the expectation that they feed the guest as such an affront, they decide it is time to use the Family Cliff. They take a slave along as a “reward” for his faithful service. A daughter survives, however, and bears King Gauti a son, Gautrekr, who later becomes king and plays a role in the second part of the saga.

Njal’s Saga, or the “Story of Burnt Njal” (probably written between 1275–1290), the longest and most highly acclaimed of the Norse sagas, is the story of two warring families. In the selection presented here, a complex plot reaches its climax as Njal, a wise and peace-loving father, when he learns that he and his family are surrounded and outmanned by their enemies, allows himself, together with his wife, sons, and a grandson, to die violent deaths by fire rather than suffer a continued existence in shame. When Njal’s body is found afterward, his friend reports that his “. . . body and visage seem to me so bright that I have never seen any dead man’s body as bright as his.”


Edda passage: The Poetic Edda, tr. by Patricia Terry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962, p. 138); Ynglinga Saga, ch. 6-11, 44: Snorre Sturlason, Heimskringla: The Norsking Sagas, tr. Samuel Laing (1844), available online from the Online Medieval and Classical Library; Gautrek’s Saga: Gautrek’s Saga and Other Medieval Tales, trs. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (New York: New York University Press; London: University of London Press, 1968, chs. 1-2, pp. 25-32;  Njal’s Saga: Sir George Webbe Dasent, The Story of Burnt Njal (London: J.M. Dent, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1911, chs. 20, 127-28,  131, pp. 34, 235-39, 246-47) .




When Odin of Asaland came to the north, and the Diar with him, they introduced and taught to others the arts which the people long afterwards have practised. Odin was the cleverest of all, and from him all the others learned their arts and accomplishments; and he knew them first, and knew many more than other people. But now, to tell why he is held in such high respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it.

When sitting among his friends his countenance was so beautiful and dignified, that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it, but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to his foes. This arose from his being able to change his skin and form in any way he liked. Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and smoothly, that all who heard believed him. He spoke everything in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call scald-craft. He and his temple priests were called song-smiths, for from them came that art of song into the northern countries. Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.


Odin could transform his shape: his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in shape of a fish, or worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands upon his own or other people’s business. With words alone he could quench fire, still the ocean in tempest, and turn the wind to any quarter he pleased. Odin had a ship which was called Skidbladnir, in which he sailed over wide seas, and which he could roll up like a cloth. Odin carried with him Mime’s head, which told him all the news of other countries. Sometimes even he called the dead out of the earth, or set himself beside the burial-mounds; whence he was called the ghost-sovereign, and lord of the mounds. He had two ravens, to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news. In all such things he was pre-eminently wise. He taught all these arts in Runes, and songs which are called incantations, and therefore the Asaland people are called incantation-smiths. Odin understood also the art in which the greatest power is lodged, and which he himself practised; namely, what is called magic. By means of this he could know beforehand the predestined fate of men, or their not yet completed lot; and also bring on the death, ill-luck, or bad health of people, and take the strength or wit from one person and give it to another. But after such witchcraft followed such weakness and anxiety, that it was not thought respectable for men to practise it; and therefore the priestesses were brought up in this art. Odin knew finely where all missing cattle were concealed under the earth, and understood the songs by which the earth, the hills, the stones, and mounds were opened to him; and he bound those who dwell in them by the power of his word, and went in and took what he pleased. From these arts he became very celebrated. His enemies dreaded him; his friends put their trust in him, and relied on his power and on himself. He taught the most of his arts to his priests of the sacrifices, and they came nearest to himself in all wisdom and witch-knowledge. Many others, however, occupied themselves much with it; and from that time witchcraft spread far and wide, and continued long. People sacrificed to Odin and the twelve chiefs from Asaland, and called them their gods, and believed in them long after. From Odin’s name came the name Audun, which people gave to his sons; and from Thor’s name comes Thore, also Thorarinn; and also it is sometimes compounded with other names, as Steenthor, or Havthor, or even altered in other ways.


Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland. Thus he established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth. For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin’s time. On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle. Over all Swithiod the people paid Odin a scatt or tax — so much on each head; but he had to defend the country from enemy or disturbance, and pay the expense of the sacrifice feasts for a good year.


Njord took a wife called Skade; but she would not live with him and married afterwards Odin, and had many sons by him, of whom one was called Saeming; and about him Eyvind Skaldaspiller sings thus: —

“To Asa’s son Queen Skade bore
Saeming, who dyed his shield in gore, —
The giant-queen of rock and snow,
Who loves to dwell on earth below,
The iron pine-tree’s daughter, she
Sprung from the rocks that rib the sea,
To Odin bore full many a son,
Heroes of many a battle won.”

To Saeming Earl Hakon the Great reckoned back his pedigree. This Swithiod they called Mannheim, but the Great Swithiod they called Godheim; and of Godheim great wonders and novelties were related.


Odin died in his bed in Swithiod; and when he was near his death he made himself be marked with the point of a spear, and said he was going to Godheim, and would give a welcome there to all his friends, and all brave warriors should be dedicated to him; and the Swedes believed that he was gone to the ancient Asgaard, and would live there eternally. Then began the belief in Odin, and the calling upon him. The Swedes believed that he often showed to them before any great battle. To some he gave victory; others he invited to himself; and they reckoned both of these to be fortunate. Odin was burnt, and at his pile there was great splendour. It was their faith that the higher the smoke arose in the air, the higher he would be raised whose pile it was; and the richer he would be, the more property that was consumed with him.


Njord of Noatun was then the sole sovereign of the Swedes; and he continued the sacrifices, and was called the drot or sovereign by the Swedes, and he received scatt and gifts from them. In his days were peace and plenty, and such good years, in all respects, that the Swedes believed Njord ruled over the growth of seasons and the prosperity of the people. In his time all the diar or gods died, and blood-sacrifices were made for them. Njord died on a bed of sickness, and before he died made himself be marked for Odin with the spear-point. The Swedes burned him, and all wept over his grave-mound….


Ivar Vidfavne came to Scania after the fall of his uncle Gudrod, and collected an army in all haste, and moved with it into Sweden. Aasa had gone to her father before. King Ingjald was at a feast in Raening, when he heard that King Ivar’s army was in the neighbourhood. Ingjald thought he had not strength to go into battle against Ivar, and he saw well that if he betook himself to flight his enemies would swarm around him from all corners. He and Aasa took a resolution which has become celebrated. They drank until all their people were dead drunk, and then put fire to the hall; and it was consumed, with all who were in it, including themselves, King Ingjald, and Aasa. Thus says Thjodolf: —

“With fiery feet devouring flame
Has hunted down a royal game
At Raening, where King Ingjald gave
To all his men one glowing grave.
On his own hearth the fire he raised,
A deed his foemen even praised;
By his own hand he perished so,
And life for freedom did forego.


The Family Cliff

This is the start of an amusing story about a certain King Gauti. He was a shrewd sort of man, very quiet, but generous and outspoken. King Gauti ruled over West Gotaland, lying east of the Kjolen Mountains between Norway and Sweden; the Gota River separates Gotaland from the Uplands. In that part of the world there are immense forests, very difficult to get about in except when the ground is frozen. This king we’re talking about, Gauti, used to go into these forests, with his hawks and hounds, for he was keen on hunting and got a great deal of pleasure from it. At this time there were plenty of people living deep in the forests, as a good many settlers had cleared the land to make their homes right away from the world. A number of these backwoodsmen had turned from society because of some misdeed or other, or else had cleared out to avoid the consequences of youthful escapades or adventure; they thought the best way of protecting themselves against people’s scoffing and sneering was to get completely away from it all, and so they lived out the rest of their lives without seeing another human being apart from their own companions. As these men had gone to live right off the beaten track, hardly anybody ever came to visit them, unless from time to time someone who happened to lose his way in the forest might stumble on their homes, and even so, he would often wish that he’d never set foot there. This King Gauti we’ve been talking about started out with his retainers and his finest hounds to hunt deer in the forest. The king sighted a fine stag and set his heart on getting it, so he unleashed his hounds and began chasing hard after it. This went on all day, and by evening he had lost all his fellow huntsmen and was deep into the forest. He realized that he wouldn’t be able to get back to them, as it was already dark and he’d covered so much ground during the day. Besides this, he’d hit the stag with his spear, and it had stuck fast in the wound. He didn’t on any account want to lose the spear if he could possibly help it, since it seemed to him a great humiliation to surrender one’s weapon.  Gauti had been hunting so hard that he’d thrown off all his clothes except for his underwear.  He’d lost his socks and shoes, and his legs and feet were badly torn by stones and branches, but still he had not caught up with the stag.  By now it was night and very dark, and he had no idea where he was going, so he stopped to listen if he could hear anything, and after a little while he heard the bark of a dog.

It seemed most likely that where a dog barked there would be people about, so he walked on in the direction of the sound.

Shortly afterwards he saw a small farmstead, and standing outside was a man with a woodcutter’s axe.  When he saw the king coming closer, the man pounced on the dog and killed it.

‘This is the last time you’ll show a stranger the way to our house,’ he said.  ‘It’s obvious, this man’s so big he’ll eat up all the farmer has once he gets inside.  Well, that won’t ever happen if I can help it.’

The king heard what the man said and smiled to himself.  It occurred to him that he wasn’t at all suitably dressed for sleeping out; on the other hand, he wasn’t certain what sort of hospitality he would be offered if he waited for an invitation, so he walked boldly up to the door.  The other man ran into the doorway with the idea of keeping him out, but the king forced his way past him into the house. He came into the living-room, where he saw four men and four women, but there wasn’t a word of welcome for the King Gauti.  So he sat down.

One of them, evidently the master of the house, spoke up.  ‘Why did you let this man in?’ he asked the slave at the door.

‘I wasn’t a match for him,’ said the slave, ‘he was so powerful.’

‘What did you do when that dog started barking?’ said the farmer.

‘I killed the dog,’ said the slave, ‘I didn’t want it to lead any more roughs like this to the house.’

You’re a faithful servant,’ said the farmer, ‘and I can’t blame you for this awkward situation that’s cropped up.  It’s difficult to find the proper reward for the trouble you’ve taken, but tomorrow I’ll repay you by taking you along with me.’

It was a well-furnished house and the people were good-looking but not particularly big.  It struck the king that they were frightened of him.  The farmer ordered the table to be laid, and food was served.  When the king saw that he wasn’t going to be invited to share the meal, he sat down at the table next to farmer, picked up some food and settled down to eat.  When the farmer saw this, he stopped eating himself and pulled his hat down over his eyes.  Nobody said a word. After the king had finished eating, the farmer pushed up his hat and ordered the platters to be cleared from the table . . . ‘since there’s no food left there now,’ he said.

The king lay down to sleep, and a little later on one of the women came up to him and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like me to give you a bit of hospitality?’

‘Things are looking up now you’re willing to talk to me,’ said the king.  ‘Your household seems a pretty dull one.’

‘Don’t be surprised at that,’ said the girl.’  ‘In all our lives, we’ve never had a single visitor before.  I don’t think the master is too pleased to have you as a guest,’

‘I can easily compensate him for all that he spends on my account,’ said the king, ‘as soon as I get back to my own home,’

‘I’m afraid this queer business will bring us something more from you than compensation,’ said the woman.

‘I’d like you to tell me what you and your family are called,’ said the king.

‘My father’s called Skinflint,’ she said, and the reason is, he’s so mean he can’t bear to watch his food stocks dwindle or anything else he owns.  My mother’s known as Totra because she’ll never wear any clothes unless they’re already in tatters.  She has the idea that this is very sound economics.’

‘What are your brothers called?’ asked the king.

‘One’s called Fjolmod, another Imsigull, and the third Gilling,’ she said.

‘What about you and your sisters?’ asked the king.

‘I’m called Snotra, because I’m the most intelligent. My sisters are called Hjotra and Fjotra,’ she said. ‘There’s a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff.  The drop’s so great there’s not a living creature could ever survive it. It’s called Family Cliff simply because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens, and in this way our elders are allowed to die straight off without having to suffer any illness. And then they can go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care them. Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by the cliff, so there’s no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with any other misfortunes that might happen to us.

‘I hope you realize, my father thinks it quite extraordinary, your coming to our house.  It would have been remarkable enough for any stranger to take a meal with us, but this really is a marvel, that a king, cold and naked, should have been to our house.  There’s no precedent for it, so my father and mother have decided to share out the inheritance tomorrow between me and my brother and sisters.  After that they’re going to take the slave with them and pass on over Family Cliff on the way to Valhalla.  My father feel’s that’s the least reward he could give the slave for trying to bar your way into the house, to let the fellow share this bliss with him.  Besides, he’s quite sure Odin won’t ever receive the slave unless he goes with him.’

‘I can see that you’re the most eloquent member of your family,’ said the king, ‘and you can depend on me.  I take it you’re still a virgin, so you’d better sleep with me tonight.’

She said that was entirely up to him.

In the morning when the king woke up, he said, ‘I’d like to remind you, Skinflint, that I was barefoot when I came to your house, so I wouldn’t mind accepting a pair shoes from you.’

Skinflint made no reply but gave him a pair of shoes.  All the same he pulled out the laces first.  The king said:

‘Skinflint gave me
a pair of shoes,
but held the laces back.
I tell you a miser
can never give
a gift without a snag.’

After that the king got ready to go, and Snotra came to see him off.  ‘I’d like to ask you to come with me,’ said King Gauti, ‘I’ve an idea our meeting may have certain consequences.  If you have a boy, call him Gautrek; it’ll remind you of me and all the trouble I’ve caused your family.’

‘I think you’re pretty near to the mark,’ she said.  ‘But I shan’t be able to go along with you now, as it’s today my parents divide their property between me and my brothers and sisters.  When that’s done my father and my mother intend to move on over Family Cliff.’

The king said good-bye to her and told her to come and see him whenever she felt like it.  Then he went on his way until he came up with his men, and now he took it easy.

But to get on with the story, when Snotra came back to the house, there was her father squatting over his possessions.

‘What an extraordinary thing to happen,’ he said, ‘a king has paid us a visit, eaten us out of house and home and then taken away what we could least afford to lose.  It’s clear to me that we won’t be able to stay together any longer as one family since we’re reduced to poverty.  That’s why I’ve gathered together all my things.  And now I’m going to divide them up between my sons.  I’m going to take my wife along to Valhalla, and my slave as well, since it’s the least I can do to repay him for his faithful service, to let him go there with me.’

‘Gilling is to have my fine ox, to share with his sister Snotra.  Fjolmod and his sister Hjotra are to have my bars of gold, Imsigull and his sister Fjotra all my cornfields.  And now I want to implore you, my children, not to add to the family, so that you’ll be able to preserve what you’ve inherited.’

When Skinflint had said all he wanted, the family climbed up to Gillings Bluff.  After that the young people helped their parents to pass on over Family Cliff, and off they went, merry and bright, on the way to Odin.

Now that the young people had taken over the property, they decided they’d better set things right.  So they cut some wooden pegs and used them to pin pieces of cloth round their bodies so that they couldn’t touch each other.  They felt this was the safest method of controlling their numbers.

When Snotra realized she was going to have a baby, she loosened the wooden pins that held her dress together, so that her body could be touched.  She was pretending to be asleep when Gilling woke or stirred in his sleep.  He stretched out his hand and happened to touch her cheek.

Once he was properly awake, he said ‘Something terrible has happened, I’m afraid that I’ve got you into trouble.  You seem to be much stouter now then you used to be.’

‘Keep it to yourself as long as you can,’ she said.

‘I’ll do no such thing,’ he said, ‘once there’s been an addition to our family there wouldn’t be a hope of hiding it.’

Not long after, Snotra gave birth to a beautiful boy.  She chose a name for him and called him Gautrek.

‘What a queer thing to happen,’ said Gilling, ‘there’s no hiding this any longer.  I’m going to tell my brothers.’

‘Our whole way of life is being threatened by this remarkable event,’ they declared.  ‘This is indeed a serious violation of our rule.’

Gilling said:

‘How stupid of me
to move my hand
and touch the woman’s cheek.
It doesn’t take much
to make a son
if that’s how Gautrek was got.’

They said it wasn’t his fault, particularly since he’d repented and was wishing it had never happened.  He said he’d willingly pass on over Family Cliff, and added that this little affair might be only a beginning.  His brother told him to wait and see whether anything else would happen.

Fjolmod used to herd his sheep all day, carrying the gold bars with him wherever he went. One day he fell asleep and was woken up by two black snails crawling over the gold.  He got the idea that the gold had been dented where it was really only blackened, and he thought it greatly diminished.

‘It’s a terrible thing,’ he said, ‘to suffer such a loss.  If this should happen once more I’ll be penniless when I go to see Odin.  So I’d better pass on over Family Cliff just to cover myself in case it happens again.  Things have never looked so black, not since my father handed me out all this money.’

He told his brothers about his remarkable experience, and asked them to share out his part of the property.  Then he added:

‘Scrawny snails
have swallowed my gold,
everything goes against me.
Stripped of my wealth,
I snivel and sulk,
Now all my gold’s been gobbled.’

Then he and his wife went up to Gillings Bluff and passed on over Family Cliff.

One day Imsigull was inspecting his cornfields.  He saw a bird called the sparrow – it’s about the size of a tit.  He thought the bird might have caused some serious damage, so he walked round the fields till he saw where the bird had picked a single grain from one of the ears.  Then he said:

‘The sparrow’s done
dire devastation
to Imsigull’s field of corn.
He ravaged an ear
And gobbled a grain;
What grief to the kin of Totra!

Then he and his wife passed joyfully on over Family Cliff, unable to risk such another loss.

One day, Gautrek happened to be outside when he noticed the fine ox – the boy was seven years old at the time.  It so happened that he stabbed the ox to death with a spear.  Gilling was watching and said:

‘The young boy has killed
that ox of mine,
Never again
Shall such treasure be mine,
no matter how old I grow.’

‘This has really gone too far,’ he added.  And then he climbed up Gillings Bluff and passed on over Family Cliff.

Now there were only two of them left, Snotra and her son Gautrek.  She made them both ready for a journey, and off they went all the way to King Gauti who gave his son a good welcome.  So from then on Gautrek was brought up at his father’s court.



The Burning of Njal

THERE was a man whose name was Njal.  He was the son of Thorgeir Gelling, the son of Thorolf.  Njal’s mother’s name was Asgerda.  Njal dwelt at Bergthorsknoll in the land-isles; he had another homestead on Thorolfsfell.  Njal was wealthy in goods, and handsome of face; no beard grew on his chin.  He was so great a lawyer, that his match was not to be found.  Wise too he was, and foreknowing and foresighted.  Of good counsel, and ready to give it, and all that he advised men was sure to be the best for them to do.  Gentle and generous, he unravelled every man’s knotty points who came to see him about them.  Bergthora was his wife’s name; she was Skarphedinn’s daughter, a very high-spirited, brave-hearted woman, but somewhat hard-tempered.  They had six children, three daughters and three sons, and they all come afterwards into this story.

[Flosi, enemy of Njal and his family, is unable to take Njal’s house by arms, since Njal is well defended.  Flosi decides to set Njal’s house on fire.]

Kari, and Grim, and Helgi, threw out many spears, and wounded many men; but Flosi and his men could do nothing.
At last Flosi said, “we have already gotten great manscathe in our men; many are wounded, and he slain whom we would choose last of all.  It is now clear that we shall never master them with weapons; many now there be who are not so forward in fight as they boasted, and yet they were those who goaded us on most.  I say this most to Grani Gunnar’s son, Gunnar Lambi’s son, who were the least willing to spare their foes.  But still we shall have to take to some other plan for ourselves, and now there are but two choices left, and neither of them good.  One is to turn away, and that is our death, the other , to set fire to the house, and burn them inside it; and that is a deed which we shall have to answer for heavily before God, since we are Christian men ourselves; but still we must take to that counsel.”

NOW they took fire, and made a great pile before the doors.  Then Skarphedinn said, “What, lads! Are ye lighting a fire, or are ye taking to cooking?”

“So it shall be,” answered Grani Gunnar’s son; “and thou shalt not need to be better done,”

“Thou repayest me,” said Skarphedinn, “as one may look for from the man that thou art.  I avenged thy father, and thou settest most store by that duty which is farthest from thee.”

Then the women threw whey on the fire, and quenched it as fast as they lit it.  Some, too, brought water, or slops.

Then Kol Thorstein’s son said Flosi, “A plan comes into my mind; I have seen a loft over the hall among the crosstrees, and we will put the fire in there, and light it with the vetch-stack that stands just above the house.”

Then they took the vetch-stack and set fire to it, and they who were inside were not aware of it till the whole hall was a-blaze over their heads.

Then Flosi and his men made a great pile before each of the doors, and then the women folk who were inside began to weep and to wail.

Njal spoke to them and said, “Keep up your hearts, nor utter shrieks, for this is but a passing storm, and it will be long before ye have another such; and put your faith in God, and believe that he is so merciful that he will not let us burn both in this world and the next.”

Such words of comfort had he for them all, and others still more strong.

Now the whole house began to blaze. Then Njal went to the door and said, “Is Flosi near that he can hear my voice.”
Flosi said that he could hear it.

“Wilt thou,” said Njal, “take any atonement from my sons, or allow any men to go out.”

“I will not,” answers Flosi, “take any atonement from thy sons, and now our dealings shall come to an end once and for all, and I will not stir from this spot till they are all dead; but I will allow the women and children and house-carles to go out,”

Then Njal went into the house, and said to the fold, “Now all those must go out whom leave is given, and so go thou out Thorhalla Asgrim’s daughter, and all the people also with thee who may.”

Then Thorhalla said, “This is another parting between me and Helgi than I thought of a while ago; but still I will egg on my father and brothers to avenge this manscathe which is wrought here.”

“Go, and good go with thee,” said Njal, “for thou art a brave woman,”

After that she went out and much folk with her.

Then Astrid of Deepback said to Helgi Njal’s son, “Come thou out with me, and I will throw a woman’s cloak over thee, and tie thy head with a kerchief.”

He spoke against it at first, but at last he did so at the prayer of others.

So Astrid wrapped the kerchief round Helgi’s head, but Thorhilda, Skarphedinn’s wife, threw the cloak over him, and he went out between them, and Thorgerda Njal’s daughter, and Helga her sister, and many other folk went out too.

But when Helgi came out Flosi said, “That is a tall woman and broad across the shoulders that went yonder, take her and hold her.”

But when Helgi heard that, he cast away the cloak.  He had got his sword under his arm, and hewed at a man, and the blow fell on his shield and cut off the point of it, and the man’s leg as well.  Then Flosi came up and hewed at Helgi’s neck, and took off his head at a stroke.

Then Flosi went to the door and called out to Njal, and said he would speak with him and Bergthora.

Now Njal does so, and Flosi said, “I will offer thee, master Njal, leave to go out, for it is unworthy that thou shouldst burn indoors,”

“I will not go out,” said Njal, “for I am an old man, and little fitted to avenge my sons, but I will not live in shame.”

Then Flosi said to Bergthora, “Come thou out, housewife, for I will for no sake burn thee indoors.”

“I was given away to Njal young,” said Bergthora, “and I have promised him this, that we would both share the same fate,”

After that they both went back into the house.

“What counsel shall we now take,” said Bergthora.

“We will go to our bed,” says Njal, “and lay us down; I have long been eager for rest.”
Then she said to the boy Thord, Kari’s son, “Thee will I take out, and thou shalt not burn in here.”

“Thou hast promised me this, grandmother,” says the boy, “that we should never part so long as I wished to be with thee; but methinks it is much better to die with thee and Njal than to live after you.”

Then she bore the boy to her bed, and Njal spoke to his steward and said, “Now thou shalt see where we lay us down, and how I lay us out, for I mean not to stir an inch hence, whether reek or burning smart me, and so thou wilt be able to guess where to look for our bones,”

He said he would do so.

There had been an ox slaughtered and the hide lay there.  Njal told the steward to spread the hide over them, and he did so.

So there they lay down both of them in their bed, and put the boy between them.  Then they signed themselves and the boy with the cross, and gave over their souls into God’s hand, and that was the last word that men heard them utter.

Then the steward took the hide and spread it over them, and went out afterwards.  Kettle of the Mark caught hold of him, and dragged him out, he asked carefully after his father-in-law Njal, but the steward told him the whole truth.

Then Kettle said, “Great grief hath been sent on us, when we have had to share such ill-luck together.”

Skarphedinn saw how his father laid him down, and how he laid himself out, and then he said, “Our father goes early to bed, and that is what was to be looked for, for he is an old man.”

Then Skarphedinn, and Kari, and Grim, caught the brands as fast as they dropped down, and hurled them out at them, and so it went on awhile.  Then they hurled spears in at them, but they caught them all as they flew, and sent them back again.

Then Flosi bade them cease shooting, “for all feats of arms will go hard with us when we deal with them; ye may well wait till the fire overcomes them,”

So they do that, and shoot no more.

Then the great beams out of the roof began to fall, and Skarphedinn said, “Now must my father be dead, and I have neither heard groan nor cough from him.”

Then they went to the end of the hall, and there had fallen down a cross-beam inside which was much burnt in the middle.

Kari spoke to Skarphedinn, and said, “Leap thou out here, and I will help thee to do so, and I will leap out after thee, and then we shall both get away if we set about it so, for hitherward blows all the smoke.”

“Thou shalt leap first,” said Skarphedinn; “but I will leap straightway on thy heels.”

“That is not wise,” says Kari, “for I can get out well enough elsewhere, though it does not come about here.”

“I will not do that,” says Skarphedinn; “leap thou out first, but I will leap after thee at once.”

“It is bidden to every man,” says Kari, “to seek to save his life while he has a choice, and I will do so now; but still this parting of ours will be in such wise that we shall never see one another more; for if I leap out of the fire, I shall have no mind to leap back into the fire to thee, and then each of us will have to fare his own way.”

“It joys me, brother-in-law,” says Skarphedinn, “to think that if thou gettest away thou wilt avenge me.”

Then Kari took up a blazing bench in his hand, and runs up along the cross-beam, then he hurls the bench out at the roof, and it fell among those who were outside.

Then they ran away, and by that time all Kari’s upper clothing and his hair were a-blaze, then he threw himself down from the roof, and so crept along with threw smoke.

Then one man said who was nearest, “Was that a man that leapt out the roof?”

“Far from it,” says another; “more likely it was Skarphedinn who hurled a firebrand at us.”

After that they had no more mistrust.

Kari ran till he came to a stream, and then he threw himself down into it, and so quenched the fire on him.

After that he ran along under shelter of the smoke into a hollow, and rested him there, and that has since been called Kari’s Hollow.

KARI bade Hjallti to go and search for Njal’s bones, “For all will believe in what thou sayest and thinkest about them.”
Hjallto said he would be most willing to bear Njal’s bones to church; so they rode thence fifteen men.  They rode east over Thurso-water, and called on men there to come with them till they had one hundred men, reckoning Njal’s neighbours.

They came to Bergthorscknll at mid-day.

Hjallti asked Kari under what part of the house Njal might be lying, but Kari showed them to the spot, and there was a great heap of ashes to dig away.  There they found the hide underneath, and it was as though it were shriveled with the fire.  They raised up the hide, and lo!  They were unburnt under it.  All praised God for that, and thought it was a great token.

Then the boy was taken up who had lain between them, and of him a finger was burnt off which had stretched out from under the hide.

Njal was borne out, and so was Bergthora, and then all men went to see their bodies.

Then Hjallti said, “What like look to you these bodies?”

They answered, “We will wait for thy utterance,”

Then Hjallti said, “I shall speak what I say with all freedom of speech.  The body of Berthora looks as it was likely she would look, and still fair; But Njal’s body and visage seem to me so bright that I have never seen any dead man’s body so bright as this.”

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(c. 1210-1268)

from On the Laws and Customs of England:
   Where a Man Commits Felony Upon       His Own Person


Henry de Bracton (Henricus de Brattona or Bractona) was an English jurist, judge, and important ecclesiastical figure in the 13th century. He was born in Bratton Clovelly, though the exact date is unknown, and was most likely educated at Oxford before becoming an itinerant judge in 1245. He was later appointed to a judgeship in the king’s court and became archdeacon of Barnstable in 1263. He also served as chancellor of Exeter Cathedral and in 1265, according to legend, he was made chief justiciar of England by King Henry III.

Bracton is known principally for his association with the lengthy Latin work De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae, or On the Laws and Customs of England, the first systematic and comprehensive treatment of English law. The work was never actually completed, and recent scholars have thrown serious doubt on the claim that it was originally written by Bracton, suggesting instead that most of the book was written in the 1220s and 1230s. Bracton appears to have been the last owner of the manuscript and a redactor rather than the original author. On the Laws was based largely on the combination of Roman and canon law that was taught in universities at the time, the ius commune, and it established a written authority for existing common law. The work became the standard for many later treatises on law in England, and it was not until Blackstone [q.v.] in the 18th century that an attempt was made again to systematize the entire body of English law.

On the Laws delineates the various legal treatments of cases involving suicide, interpreting self-killing as a felony committed against oneself. The work makes a series of fine distinctions based on the circumstances of and motivation for the act of suicide, though many of these were later lost in the often wholesale denunciation of suicide as felo de se, or “felon of himself,” freely spoken of as “self-murder.” On the Laws attempts to distinguish between suicides committed to avoid legal penalty for a previous felony—in these cases the perpetrator is assumed guilty—and those in situations of depression (“weariness of life”) and intolerable physical pain. It also interprets what are now called “dyadic” suicides, those suicides intended to affect another person, as felonies where the intent was to injure. Penalties for suicide variously involve forfeiture of inheritance and/or moveable goods, penalties that primarily affect surviving family members or heirs. In cases of mental illness, however, the inheritance and property are preserved. This latter exception would be preserved in later centuries, though some of On the Laws’ fine distinctions concerning the intent and impact of suicide would be lost. Nevertheless, these laws, set in writing for the first time by On the Laws, established a legal approach to suicide and property that shaped English law for centuries to come.


Henrici de Bracton, Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae.  Libri Quinque.  Ed. Sir Travers Twiss.  London: Longman & Co., 1879.   Book III, Of the Crown, Treatise II, ch.  31, pp. 505, 507, 509. Online at



Of Please of the Crown

Just as man may commit felony by slaying another so may he do so by slaying himself, the felony is said to be done to himself, as where one has been accused of some crime and been arrested [or outlawed] [as] for homicide or with the proceeds of theft, or apprehended in the course of some evil deed and crime, and kills himself in fear of the crime that hangs over him; he will have no heir, because the felony previously committed, the theft or homicide or the like, is thus convicted. But the goods of those who destroy themselves when they are not accused of a crime or taken in the course of a criminal act are not appropriated by the fisc, [King’s treasury], for it is not the wickedness of the deed that is reprehensible but that the fear of guilt in the accused takes the place of confession. Therefore if they are accused of or apprehended in the course of a crime and kill themselves let their goods be confiscated, that is, the goods of those who know they deserve death, as where if they were found guilty of their crime they would be condemned to death or exile.

But if a man slays himself in weariness of life or because he is unwilling to endure further bodily pain [as where he drowns himself or throws himself from a height, or kills himself in some other way,] he may have a successor, but his movable goods are confiscated. He does not lose his inheritance, only his movable goods, [because no felony is proved, nor is there any precedent crime for which he ought to be in peril of life or members.] [This is true] of those who drown or are crushed, who die by misadventure, but if a man hangs himself are his heirs not thereby disinherited? [No], according to some, nor does his wife lose her dower, except in the case above, because [of] a felony done to himself he cannot be convicted. But if one lays violent hands upon himself without justification, through anger and ill-will, as where wishing to injure another but unable to accomplish his intention he kills himself, he is to be punished and shall have no successor, because the felony he intended to commit against the other is proved and punished, for one who does not spare himself would hardly have spared others, had he had the power. But what shall we say of a madman bereft of reason? And of the deranged, the delirious and the mentally retarded? Or if one labouring under a high fever drowns himself or kills himself?  Quaere whether such a one commits felony de se. It is submitted that he does not, nor do such persons forfeit their inheritance or their chattels, since they are without sense and reason and can no more commit an injuria or a felony than a brute animal, since they are not far removed from brutes, as is evident in the case of a minor, for if he should kill another while under age he would not suffer judgment. [That a madman is not liable is true, unless he acts under pretense of madness while enjoying lucid intervals.]

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(12-14th centuries)

On Avodah Zarah 18a
On the Torah: Concerning Genesis    Rabbah (Genesis 9:5)


Tosafot, meaning “additions,” refers to a body of explanatory and critical remarks made by a group of Talmudic scholars known as the tosafists, who wrote in France and Germany from the late 11th–12th through the 14th centuries, during the time of the Crusades, and while Spanish Jewry in the 14th and 15th centuries was subject to the Inquisition and the Expulsion. The first recorded tosafists, Meir ben Samuel of Ramerupt and Judah ben Nathan, were sons-in-law to the famous 11th-century Talmudic scholar Rashi; it is debated whether the Tosafot were written as direct commentary on the Talmud [q.v., under Babylonian Talmud] or as a supplement to Rashi’s commentary. Another of the first recorded tosafists, Rashi’s grandson Jacob ben Meir Tam, was the leading figure in the French school of Tosafot. Many schools of Tosafot followed in the next two centuries; the commentaries they produced were gathered together to form a significant contribution to rabbinic literature. They were intended for those well advanced in the study of Talmud, and their seeming simplicity presupposes extensive familiarity with a complex prior tradition.

Two tosafist selections are included in this volume. The first is a commentary on the description of the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon in Avodah Zarah, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud [q.v.]. In the commentary, the tosafist states a general conclusion that despite Rabbi Chanina’s pronouncement that he should endure death by fire rather than “harming himself” {i.e., hastening his death by inhaling the flames}, it is proper to commit suicide to avoid sinning {i.e. apostasy} under great duress not only is such an act permissible, but in these circumstances, it ought to be done. The tosafist approvingly cites as precedent the suicides of the 400 boys and girls who drowned themselves to escape forced prostitution.

The second passage presented here is a 13th-century commentary from the Tosafot on the Torah [q.v., under Hebrew Bible], which reflects some of the arguments relating to the brief statements in Genesis Rabbah [q.v.] regarding the prohibition of suicide and some possible exceptions. In this passage, the tosafist raises questions about suicide and martyrdom, including opposing views about whether allowing oneself to be martyred or actively killing oneself in times of persecution are rightful acts. Some later commentators, such as Luria [q.v.] will argue no; others, like Margolioth [q.v.], appear to say yes, and the question raised here remains a pressing one throughout the later Jewish tradition.


Tosafot: On Avodah Zarah 18a, on Genesis 9:5. Trans. Baruch Brody.



R. Tam said: In those cases in which they are afraid that idolaters may force them to sin by tortures that they will not be able to withstand, then it is a mitzva to destroy themselves as in the case of the young people taken captive to be used as prostitutes who threw themselves into the sea.


This means that I might think that even people like they [Channanyah, Mishael, and Azaryah] who gave themselves to martyrdom could not kill themselves if they were afraid that they could not stand the test. “But” tells me that in times of persecution one can allow oneself to be killed and one can kill oneself. The same with Saul…And it is from here that those who killed the children in the time of persecution brought a proof [to justify their action]. Others prohibit the practice. They explain [the remarks of Breishit Rabbah] as follows; I might think that this prohibition applies even to Channanyah and his friends who are already sentenced to death. We are told otherwise by “but.” Even they, however, cannot kill themselves….Saul acted against normative opinion…There was one rabbi who killed many children in the time of persecution because he was afraid that they would be forcibly apostasized. A second rabbi who was with him was very angry and called him a murderer.  He [the first rabbi] paid no attention…Afterwards, the decree was lifted and if he had not killed the children, they would have lived.


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