Death and Suicide from Medieval Times to Today

20 September 2012

They're taboo topics most often met with aversion and trepidation, but death, suicide and infirmity will lead discussion at the upcoming and aptly titled Danse Macabre conference.

From medieval Europe to 20th Century UFO-based religions, this innovative event will shed light on our responses to dying, bereavement and grief throughout the ages at the Australian Museum on Friday 21st September.

How have popular conceptions of death changed since the Middle Ages? Where do our modern bereavement rituals originate? And what do historical perspectives on suicide reveal about contemporary cultural mores surrounding the issue?

These questions and more are on the agenda at the Danse Macabre: Emotional Responses to Death and Dying from Medieval to Contemporary Times study day, presented by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) - Sydney node.

Providing multifaceted perspectives on confronting topics, the event brings together not only medieval experts from the University of Sydney, but writers, health professionals, historians and literary scholars from across Australia.

Keynote speaker Professor Ian Hickie, from the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, will present a timely discussion entitled: "The distress due to suicide runs deep in our psych and our community."

Hickie said his talk will unsettle popular misconceptions that modern societies talk as easily about suicide as "anything else we've had trouble talking about" across time, such as HIV or prostate cancer.

"If you just look at the contemporary debate about how to discuss suicide in the public domain, you can see this issue is as relevant today as it has ever been historically," he said.

"We now have a much more open discussion about mental health problems and seeking care, but the impact of that discussion is still hotly debated," he said.

Despite such initiatives as the recent R U OK day providing "a point to discuss the issue at a community level", Hickie noted that different explanatory models for this behaviour, often erroneously perceived as conflicting, complicate social responses and public policy on the issue.

"Depending on how you perceive the problem - as a personal failure, or as a social issue or as a medical and clinical issue - will often determine what you do next," he explained.

"This event gives us a chance to think more deeply and to try and understand that it's inevitable that society will have a range of different perspectives."

By grounding public discussions on suicide and death within a historical perspective, Hickie believed the Danse Macabre study day will provide much-needed context to better inform contemporary conversations on the matter.

"To see how humans have tried to cope and respond throughout their history is informative for all of us. It also helps us to frame what is going on in terms of the current debate, which is often presented in a vacuum and misses the point."

Professor Hickie will be joined by eminent author and medical practitioner Dr Peter Goldsworthy, whose keynote talk 'Death and The Comedian: Black Humour and Blacker Tragedy in the Work of Doctors Who Write' will be preceded by a screen adaptation of his popular short story, The Kiss.

Dr Rebecca McNamara, a research associate in the University of Sydney's Medieval and Early Modern Centre, will also present a paper on suicide cases in medieval Europe titled: 'The Sorrow of Soreness: Infirmity and Suicide in the Middle Ages'.

She said recent high profile cases like Tony Nicklinson's 'right to die' campaign in the UK highlight the consistent way that humans have conceptualised infirmity and suicide over time.

"Suicide then was culturally taboo, judicially punishable, and damnably sinful," McNamara explained.

"It is now still taboo in most cultures, and, as seen in Nicklinson's campaign and the attention he received internationally, it is still a very difficult issue both morally and judicially.

"The ambivalence of jury decisions and the reported motivations to suicide in the Middle Ages show that these issues were also salient in the Middle Ages, even though we might think the medieval religious culture would make the issue more 'black and white' for that period."

Other study day presentations span such under-explored topics as the memorialisation of the dead, early modern execution ballads, seventeenth century comic funereal verse, the rise of the printed suicide note in the eighteenth-century press, and nineteenth century expressions of mourning the animal dead.

Director of the CHE Sydney Node, Professor Juanita Ruys, will convene the study day, which also includes paper presentations by University of Sydney academics Zoe Alderton, Associate Professor Carole M. Cusack, and Dr Una McIlvenna.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) is a collaborative academic endeavour combining the expertise of scholars from five node universities: The University of Sydney, The University of Adelaide, The University of Melbourne, The University of Queensland, and the University of Western Australia. CHE academics study pre-modern emotions to explore how European societies felt and functioned from 1100 -1800, compared to modern times.

The Danse Macabre Study Day will be followed by drinks in the Skeleton Gallery at the Australian Museum.


What: Danse Macabre: Emotional Responses to Death and Dying from Medieval to Contemporary Times study day

When: 9am to 6pm, Friday 21st September 2012

Where: Terrace Room, The Australian Museum, 6 College Street, Sydney

Cost: $25 unwaged; $45 waged. Registration fee includes lunch, post-conference drinks and all refreshments.

Enquiries: Priscilla Gundelach, Administration Officer, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions on 9351 6859

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208, 0434 561 056

Email: 27161d217d2e1b1d2905333c1b06202401461f03077f171a