Risk and Uncertainty

Death and Uncertainty in the Early Modern Community

This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here

Content warning: This post contains discussions of suicide.

In October 1684 a clothes seller named John Child took his own life. The forty-six-year-old father of four had been struggling with his faith for some years, and fears of damnation had driven him to become melancholy. John’s deteriorating mental state was first noticed by his immediate family, who initially attempted to console him. John’s mood and behaviour prior to his death led those close to him to conclude that he was suicidal, a suspicion which was confirmed when they spoke to him about his ‘temptations’. Neighbours and ministers too became involved and offered their help to John and his family.

John’s crisis (both mental and of faith) was a deeply personal experience. But it also affected his family and the wider community. The potential of losing a relative, friend, or neighbour to suicide cast early modern communities into times of uncertainty and moments of crisis. Not only would suicide devastate a family with grief, but the loss could also cause financial ruin to those left behind. Those around John took various measures to protect him, but sadly their efforts were in vain.

John Child as depicted in A warning from God to all apostates (London, 1684) which compares him to the well-known case of Francis Spira, an Italian lawyer who had taken his own life after being pressured to renounce his Protestant faith by the Catholic Church. EEBO.

John’s death was reported in a several short pamphlets and his story was used as a warning of the danger of ‘apostacy’ – lack of religion – in the following decade. Through these accounts and others in print in the same period, we can gain insight into the ways early modern people offered help to suicidal people and tried to prevent tragedy. The pamphlets describing John’s death took a rather judgemental tone towards his death, as was common for a period in which death by suicide was both a crime and a sin. Yet pamphlets and personal writings also reveal that those who had personal relationships with suicidal people were keen to help them. We often think of early modern mental illness as being confined within the asylum walls, but accounts such as John’s show that suicidal people were cared for in the community, and that people had strong ideas about how to reduce the risk of a person dying by suicide.

An important aspect of care for suicidal people in the early modern community was religious counsel. Ministers were often called in to speak to suicidal people, but community members also seem to have felt able to converse with suicidal people about their thoughts and temptations. Suicidal urges were generally conceived of as originating from the devil, so steadfast faith was essential to overcoming such feelings. John’s wife and children spoke with him, and encouraged him to spend time among others, particularly his neighbours, in an attempt to raise his spirits. When their pleas failed, they sent for ministers, who prayed for John and tried to reassure him that he was not damned; something John would not accept. The ministers visited regularly and had a series of conversations with John about his suicidal thoughts, though they were ultimately unable to help him.

Early modern people, both the laity and ordained ministers, seem to have been quite willing to talk about suicidal feelings, with their responses and advice stemming from the highly Christian beliefs of the time. Anne Street, a maidservant working in Hertfordshire in the early eighteenth century, felt able to confide in her friends about her suicidal feelings. After she first attempted to take her own life, her friends asked the young woman directly ‘what moved her to do this?’. Anne replied ‘that she knew not’, but felt that she ‘must kill herself’, which prompted her friends to pray for her.

Having established that a person was suicidal, either through speaking with them, or from suspicions raised by mood and behaviour, it was common to remove items which people might use to harm themselves. John’s wife, who is unnamed in the pamphlet describing her husband’s death, hid or removed ‘all mischievous instruments’ from their home. The same had been done in Nottingham in 1597 after nineteen-year-old William Sommers had attempted to take his own life. The young man, an apprentice musician, had various possessions confiscated from him which those in his master’s household believed he might use to hurt himself.

A poor painter seated at a canvas contemplates suicide. Etching by T.L. Busby, ca. 1826. Wellcome Collection.

Another important measure to reduce the risk of suicide was to keep watch over the individual. In the pamphlet we are told that John’s wife ‘watched him as narrowly as possible’. It was her attentiveness that had prevented a previous suicide attempt. However, maintaining watch wasn’t always possible, and the necessities of early modern life might get in the way. John’s wife, who seems to have been the only person consistently monitoring her husband, eventually became ‘wearied out with continual watchings’.

Joan Drake, a gentlewoman from Esher in Surrey, had dealt with suicidal urges for upwards of ten years during the early seventeenth century. Her family, like John Child’s, kept watch, as they did not ‘trust her [to be] alone’, though they took a slightly different tack in drawing up a schedule. Joan was ‘watched continually night and day by two gentlewomen by turns’ so that ‘she could by no means hurt herself’. It seems likely that her family’s wealth and connections helped here, as such monitoring was a struggle for the less financially well-off Child family. Despite this advantage, the decade-long duration of Joan’s ‘temptations’ made this system difficult to maintain. It was said that Joan ‘wearied out everybody’ with her repeated attempts to harm herself, and it seems that her unwillingness to participate in her own recovery frustrated those around her. That she was by this time a middle-aged woman likely influenced others’ perceptions of her and prompted deeper criticism of her behaviour. She was described as particularly argumentative, an unacceptable characteristic for a woman in this period.

In a more extreme version of keeping watch, some suicidal people were physically restrained. This technique was not adopted with John Child. Indeed, it would have been difficult for others to make a case for restraining an adult male who was also the head of his own household without first seeking an insanity verdict before a court of law. In a physical sense, he would likely also have been challenging to restrain. Young women, on the other hand, could be more easily tied up or held down to prevent them from harming themselves. A Wiltshire maidservant named Anne Style exhibited self-destructive behaviour in 1653, which was witnessed by fellow servants and friends of her employers’ family. Their response was to hold her ‘as fast as they could’ to stop her from hurting herself. At one point, Anne remarked, ‘had I not been held, I had been in hell’. This was likely a reference to the early modern belief that killing oneself resulted in eternal damnation.

Though John eventually took his own life, many suicidal people were described as recovering completely. Early modern people thought of suicidal feelings as a temporary state, which, with proper care and attention, could pass. In 1683, a Derbyshire woman named Hannah Allen reflected in print on the suicidal thoughts she had experienced throughout her life. She recalled how, when consumed with grief after the death of her husband Hannibal in 1664, she had attempted suicide. Hannah had been passed around her various family members, who looked after her and kept an eye on her as best they could. Through a combination of all the methods outlined above, Hannah overcame her temptations. She noted that ‘as my melancholy came by degrees, so it wore off by degrees’.

As keen as family members and neighbours were to help, keeping watch and otherwise helping suicidal people was disruptive to community life. Those with better connections, and time to spare, were better able to adjust their routines to take on roles as overseers and caregivers. The gender and social position of the suicidal person also impacted on how they could be helped, and how they were viewed, by those around them. Like today, socioeconomic status was a major factor for early modern people in being able to provide suicidal people with the help they needed.

We often tend to think that pre-modern attitudes towards suicide were harsh and inflexible. Yet early modern people firmly believed that, with the help of others, a suicidal person could completely overcome their thoughts, and normal life could resume.

Early modern people had recourse to various methods for mitigating the risk and uncertainty presented when members of their communities experienced suicidal thoughts. With these methods, they felt able to care for suicidal people in the community, and in many cases prevented people from taking their own lives. These ideas about how to cope with suicidal people in their midst were then communicated in cheap print, which may have served to spread these techniques across the population.

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article, please seek support. When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

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