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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 13:06 GMT
Study looks at suicide attitudes
Depressed man
The study is examining attitudes to suicide over the past 500 years
Records dating back 500 years are being studied in what is believed to be the first comprehensive research of suicide in Scotland throughout the ages.

Professor Rab Houston, a historian at the University of St Andrews, is sifting through asylum, medical and legal records as part of his study.

Previous definitions of suicide range from "at the instigation of the devil" to findings of mentally instability.

Some people who committed suicide had their goods forfeited to the Crown.

Prof Houston's project - Suicide and society in northern England and Scotland - aims to ask new questions on the subject and revise existing interpretations.

Early modern British suicide remains a curiosity that is worth a page or a footnote in studies of mortality, mentalities or madness
Prof Houston

Suicide was either viewed as wilful self-murder "at the instigation of the devil" or suicide "victims" were viewed as being mentally incapacitated and therefore not responsible for their actions.

The study will also look at "punishing the dead", where a person who had committed suicide had their goods forfeited to the Crown and suffered a ritual and public desecration of their body.

Prof Houston said: "With a handful of notable exceptions, early modern British suicide remains a curiosity that is worth a page or a footnote in studies of mortality, mentalities or madness.

"As well as revising, refining and redrawing the picture of English suicide, and opening up another unstudied area of Scottish history, the project will contribute to the growing awareness of regional variations.

Scottish experience

"The project will further the central question that has been the focus of my research for the last 25 years - where does Scotland fit into patterns of social development evidenced elsewhere in Britain and Europe, and what light does the Scottish experience shed on those developments?"

The professor said he had discovered that in Scotland the role of the devil in understanding suicide was never strong in the popular mind.

The phrase "at the instigation of the devil" was a legal term of art used in England to describe culpability, rather than a literal statement of belief, he said.

Far from being sympathetic to the plight of suicides, Scottish newspapers of the 18th and early 19th Century used them as examples of what was wrong with society, Prof Houston went on.

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