Published 26 Nov 2021 - Imogen Knox
Jokes which centre on suicide and self-harm are a touchy subject in the twenty-first century. For some, making light of these topics is insensitive, while others report that joking about such ‘serious’ subjects can help people suffering from mental illness to feel less alone. While present day society does not condone suicide, it is often seen as far more ‘tolerant’ than the view of early modern England a culture unsympathetic and intolerant to the act.
Legally and morally, early modern English society abhorred suicide. Suicide was a crime for which one would be posthumously tried. It was also an act which, for Protestants, consigned an individual to hell forever. Non-fatal self-harm was no less discouraged, as permanent mutilation of oneself went against God.
While people today certainly do still joke about suicide, it may seem shocking to our modern sensibilities that both suicide and self-harm could be funny to early modern people. Responses to suicide and self-harm ranged from mocking specific cases to simulating such acts for entertainment purposes. However, laughing at suicide sits at odds with the concept of the wide condemnation of the act. Through a number of early modern jokes about suicide, this blog post explores the myriad ways in which people might respond to self-inflicted death and the wider concept of suicide.
Ridiculing suicide and self-harm
It was not uncommon for jokes to be made about specific suicides in early modern Britain. The 1700 pamphlet A Step to Oxford described the suicide of Thomas Creech, a fellow of All Souls College. The anonymous author termed Creech a ‘mad lover’ and sarcastically remarked that the fairer sex had been deprived by his death. Speculating on the potential motives for his suicide, the pamphlet concludes that killing oneself ‘for the sake of a woman’ is a ‘ridiculous passion’ for which the reader should feel no sorrow.
Caption: Portrait of Thomas Creech (1659–1700), Bodleian Library LP 179
Self-harming acts might also function as the butt of a joke. The early Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria was widely believed to have castrated himself, an occurrence that Claudius Gilbert referred to in his 1658 criticism of the theologian’s teachings:
‘To turn plain Scripture into Allegories, is to turn substance into a shadow. It cost Origen a self-mutilation, for mutilating divine writings thus. He was called Centaur, for monstrous Opinions, flowing from Allegorical strainings of Scripture. Christs Manhood should be so precious to us as not to endure affronts put on it’.
For Gilbert, Origen’s self-mutilation was an ironically appropriate punishment for his misuse of God’s word, while the double-entendre of ‘Christs manhood’ offered another joke, in referring to both Christ’s genitalia, and the common theological debate about whether God, in the form of Christ, really walked the earth as a man.
Suicidal thoughts were ridiculed in a highly critical examination of Jane Wenham’s trail for witchcraft in 1712. The author of The case of the Hertfordshire witchcraft considered parodied Anne Thorn’s claims about her bewitchment, which he termed her ‘fooleries’:
‘but hark ! I am call'd away,by a Legion of foul Monsters like Cats: They speak to me; they tell me I must go...They are arm'd too with Knives and Razors, and tempt me to stab my self, or to cut my Throat’.
In all of these examples, it was some other characteristic or quality which made the individual ripe for ridicule, rather than their suicide or self-harm. Thomas Creech was apparently a womaniser, Origen had offered a disliked theological opinion, and it was Anne Thorn’s claims about cats with witches faces that were absurd. Yet in other cases, the act of suicide itself could be funny.
Staging suicide and self-harm
Reginald Scot devoted a significant part of his 1584 Discoverie of Witchcraft to explaining how various magic tricks operated. Some of these tricks led the audience to believe that the performer had severely harmed themselves. The ‘reveal’, and presumably the entertainment value, was that the juggler was in fact unharmed. These amazing ‘knacks’ could be performed on animals such as chickens, but also on the body of the performer. In this way, early modern jugglers parodied self-harm and suicide for entertainment value.
One of these tricks described by Scot was ‘to thrust a dagger or bodkin into your guts very strangely, and to recover immediately’. The point of the trick was that ‘you shall seem to kill your selfe’, and the ‘miraculous’ survival would cause ‘admiration in the beholders’.
In explaining how to successfully carry out this ‘counterfeit execution’, Scot includes information about a juggler who recently died in Cheapside after forgetting the protective stomach plate. The man’s own folly is blamed for the mishap, and his death is quickly skipped over in favour of information about the performance of the act, suggesting that Scot did not consider this death to be a particularly big deal despite the fact that he had (unwittingly, or perhaps, as Scot hints, purposely) killed himself.
Caption: Reginald Scot, The Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1665), p.200 The Huntingdon Library 145637
Other methods of simulating self-stabbing explained by Scot included making it look as if you had ‘thrust a bodkin into your head, and through your tongue’, ‘a knife through your arm’ and to ‘cut half your nose asunder’ using trick knives.
That suicide and self-harm might be ‘performed’ in this way is perhaps not that surprising when we consider the regularity with which suicide (particularly by sword or dagger) was included in early modern drama. Scot even suggests making such tricks appear ‘more terrible’ by using blood. That the simulation of suicide and self-harm was considered entertaining, and even amusing, by itself, outside of the context of a dramatic narrative, reveals an interesting dimension of attitudes towards suicide and self-harm as a comic event. While the entertainment was presumably related to the shock, and subsequent relief, that the person was unharmed, it is surprising that a society which supposedly utterly condemned suicide, could find entertainment value, and even humour in the performance of the act.
Suicide: a complex emotional response?
How does this apparent insensitivity around suicide and self-harm square with our conception of the early modern period as one which took these behaviours exceedingly seriously?
We might dismiss humorous responses to suicide, attempted suicide, suicidal thoughts, and acts of self-harm as just another example of a negative attitude towards early modern suicide. Yet to do so would ignore the complexity of responses towards suicide and related thoughts and behaviours in this period. Like the range of responses to the early modern mad (who were variously feared, ridiculed, and pitied), a range of responses to suicide also existed. Emanuel Stelzer has already demonstrated how the ‘love suicides’ of early modern English drama were met with a wide array of emotions including horror, hostility, pity, commiseration, and ridicule. This breadth of emotional response was also exhibited outside of the theatrical space, offering a significant challenge to our ideas about how suicide was received in the early modern world.
That early modern people could laugh at suicide and self-harm, real and imagined, contemporary and historical, demonstrates the complexity of early modern attitudes towards suicide. While Church teachings and the legal system of early modern England clearly opposed suicide, in wider culture, responses and reactions were clearly not limited to straight condemnation. Joking appears to have been a relatively standard response to suicide. While in the present day, joking about suicide is a contested topic, and not necessarily something we would advocated, it is important to explore the varied ways that suicide was perceived in past contexts to interrogate our responses to it in the present.
Imogen Knox is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Warwick and recipient of an Open Doctoral and Collaborative Doctoral Award with Midlands4Cities. Her thesis is titled ‘Suicide, Self-Harm, and the Supernatural in Britain, 1560-1735’.
Anon, A Step to Oxford (London, 1700)
Anon (probably Francis Hutchinson), The case of the Hertfordshire witchcraft considered (London, 1712)
Claudias Gilbert, A Soveraign antidote against sinful errors (London, 1658), p.101
Reginald Scot, Discovery of vvitchcraft (London, 1584), particularly chapter XXXIII
Michael MacDonald and Terence R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990)
Greg Eghigian, From Madness to Mental Health: Psychiatric Disorder and Its Treatment in Western Civilization (New Brunswick, 2010)
Emanuel Stelzer, ‘Social implications of love suicide in early modern english drama’, Critical Survey 28:1 (2016), 67-77
Jaxon C. Hart and Stephanie B. Richman, ‘Why Do We Joke about Killing Ourselves? Suicide, Stigma, and Humor’, Modern Psychological Studies 25:2 (2020)
figure 1: Portrait of Thomas Creech (1659–1700), Bodleian Library LP 179
figure 2: Reginald Scot, The Discovery of Witchcraft (London, 1665), p.200 The Huntingdon Library 145637