‘Some choice directions’: Early modern suicide advice literature

Imogen Knox, University of Warwick

Society has long been troubled by the prevalence of suicide, with concerns around mental health rising through the COVID-19 pandemic. Late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England similarly believed itself to be facing the ‘prodigious frequency’ of ‘diabolical transports of despair, and self-murther’. The devil reaped ‘a plentiful (but most deplorable) harvest’ from those who he had tempted ‘to lay violent hands on themselves’. In 1709, the belief that ‘the abominable practice of suicide’ had recently become common inspired John Prince to write Self-Murder asserted to be a very heinous crime.[1] It has been argued that the belief in a rising rate of suicide was accompanied with a deep cultural intolerance and lack of sympathy.[2] Less attention has been given to the rich culture of what might be termed ‘advice literature’. These documents reveal that contemporary attitudes towards suicide went beyond the binary of moral and immoral, as well as showing striking similarities to modern day support. This blog indicates that the early modern period displayed more compassion and understanding towards suicide than has previously been thought.

In 2017, the Church of England lifted the official restrictions on standard burial for suicide victims, noting that clergy had long been providing these burials regardless of Canon. Whether the early modern Church restricted suicide burials in practice has been much debated, with evidence showing that at least some church yard burials were permitted.[3] Prince condemned suicide as a rejection of God, yet he thought it ‘very seasonable to add [his] charitable endeavours, for the prevention thereof’.[4] As Jeremy Schmidt notes in Melancholy and the Care of the Soul, while the Church officially condemned suicide, in practice ministers had to offer spiritual comfort, not condemnation, to those who were suicidally tempted. Prince’s work outlined ‘some choice directions for the better avoiding’ of self-murder, which suggests that the intolerance and stigma of suicide was not so absolute.[5]

It is unsurprising that authors of this advice literature focused heavily on religious themes, many of them ordained ministers. Prince directed people to ‘apply yourself to some able pious, experienced divine’, whom he describes as ‘the physician of the soul’.[6] Spiritual wellbeing is emphasised in A discourse upon self-murder, and John Jeffery stated, ‘nothing can make a man miserable, if he be religious, who adheres constantly to God’.[7] Both Prince and John Cockburn recommended prayer in times of trouble, with the latter emphasising patience.[8] Richard Capel went further in connecting misery to weak faith, yet for the most part, writers did not tend to recommend faith alone as a solution, recognising that additional help was needed to support individuals who were thinking of suicide.[9] The modern-day Church of England continues to recommend prayer in times of mental health difficulty but also emphasise other forms of help.

Nowadays we would tend to recommend recourse to a GP, but in the early modern period medical help came second to spiritual means. Prince advised that ‘if the physician of the soul may not be able to effect the cure, your next way will be to try also the physician of the body’.[10] John Sym expressed a similar idea, reminding the reader that ‘it is God that… directs the Physitians judgement’.[11]

While we might question the focus on religious means from a secularised perspective, both early modern advice literature and modern recommendations emphasise the importance of talking to someone, be it a religious or medical figure, or even an untrained individual such as a family member or friend. Prince’s advice extends generally to the act of talking about suicidal urges, and he recommends good company.[12] Jeffery’s suggestion, to ‘make friends, and use them: find out those who are faithful and confide in them’ is reminiscent of modern talking therapies. He describes how ‘the mind is eased, and directed by another who has freedom and wisdom to judge’.[13] Later in the eighteenth century, Benjamin Fawcett advocated a more practical side to alerting others to one’s suicidal temptations; ‘tell all… that they may help to your preservation’.[14] This strand parallels modern day advice from mental health charities such as Mind, to ‘tell someone how you’re feeling’. Indeed, the importance of talking about suicidal feelings, and having them heard, is central to the Samaritans’ work.

Further practical recommendations to prevent suicide were offered by Sym, who advised people to ‘avoide all the meanes and opportunities’ for suicide. This could be done by removing potentially dangerous objects from the household and avoiding tempting locations such as bridges. This is reflected in Mind’s ‘Get safe right now’ section which includes instruction to ‘remove any items or things you could use to harm yourself’ and to ‘move… somewhere safer’. Prince further recommended occupying oneself with reading, crafts, or hunting, with the caveat that the activities should be ‘honest’ ones.[15] While this stems from the Protestant belief that idleness invites temptation, modern day advice also champions similar activities such as reading, exercise, and personal hobbies to help manage suicidal feelings.

Cockburn advised suicidal people to think about the implications that their death would have.[16] This did not just focus on the legal and religious aspects of such a death, but also the emotional impact this would have on those around you, again closely mirroring modern guidance for suicidal people, such as Mind’s ‘reasons to live’.

Beyond forms of self-help, these tracts offered guidance to people who found themselves dealing with someone who was suicidal. Sym provided a list of potential behaviours which people could use to identify suicidal intent in their friends and family members.[17] This included change in behaviour, neglect of duties, the desire to be alone, and the use of threatening or foreboding speeches. From this, communities could watch individuals, to prevent them from harming themselves, similar to being placed on modern suicide watch. In other cases, friends and relations removed knives and other potentially dangerous objects from the suicidal person in order to prevent them from harming themselves. Many of the behaviours Sym identified can be found in the Samaritans’ list of ‘Signs that someone may not be OK’, demonstrating that early modern people had a similar awareness of the ways suicidal people might behave.

By looking at contemporary advice literature, we can see that suicide did not occupy such an absolute, condemnatory position in the early modern imagination as has been previously assumed. The importance of sharing your thoughts and feelings with other people is championed in both early modern and present-day advice around coping with suicidal urges. For early modern authors to advise talking to others, this suggests that some people at least would have been willing to listen, challenging assumptions that there was a complete stigma around suicide. While early modern advice tends to begin with spiritual direction, authors went beyond this and offered practical and often rather nuanced, sympathetic advice to prevent suicide, much of which we still recognise as useful today. Early modern people were able to recognise suicidal behaviours in themselves and others, and take steps to prevent deaths by removing temptation, distracting themselves with work or recreation, and most importantly, by sharing their thoughts and feelings with others.

All of this shows the continuing importance of destigmatising conversations around suicide, allowing people to disclose their feelings to professional figures as well as those in their social circle, in order to access help and support, and most importantly, feel heard.


About the author: Imogen Knox is a Midlands4Cities-funded PhD student researching feelings of suicide and self harm in Early Modern supernatural narratives.



[1] J. Prince, Self-Murder asserted to be a very heinous crime; in opposition to all arguments brought by the Deists, to the contrary (1709).

[2] M. MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, anxiety, and healing in seventeenth century England (Cambridge, 1981); M. MacDonald and T. R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990); E. Fuller Torrey and J. Miller, The Invisible Plague: the rise of mental illness from 1750 to the present (Piscataway, 2001); S. Snyder, ‘What historians talk about when they talk about suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America’, History Compass 5:2 (2007), 658–674.

[3]M. MacDonald, ‘Ophelia’s Maimèd Rites’, Shakespeare Quarterly 37:3 (1986), 309–317; R. Houston, Punishing the dead? Suicide, Lordship, and Community in Britain, 1500-1830 (Oxford, 2010) and J. Watt (ed.), From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca, 2018).

[4] Prince, (1709).

[5] Prince, (1709).

[6] Prince, (1709).

[7] J. Jeffery, Felo de se: or, a warning Against the Most Horrid and Unnatural Sin of Self-Murder (Norwich, 1702).

[8] J. Cockburn, A discourse of self-murder. In which the heinousness of the sin is expos’d (London, 1716) and Prince, (1709).

[9] R. Capel, Tentations their nature, danger, cure (London, 1633)

[10] Prince, (1709).

[11] J. Sym, Lifes preservative against self-killing (London, 1637).

[12] Prince, (1709).

[13] J. Jeffery, Felo de se: or, a warning Against the Most Horrid and Unnatural Sin of Self-Murder (Norwich, 1702).

[14] B. Fawcett, Observations on the nature, causes and cure of melancholy (Shrewsbury, 1780).

[15] Prince, (1709).

[16] Cockburn, (1716).

[17] Sym, (1637).

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