Non compos mentis

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,The Latin non compos mentis translates as "of unsound mind": nōn ("not") prefaces compos mentis, meaning "having control of one's mind". This phrase was originally used in thirteenth-century British law.[1]


Non compos mentis was often related to religious or mysterious explanation such as diabolical influence in Medieval and early modern Britain; however in the seventeenth century, it was increasingly viewed as a mental illness, described insanity and madness as well.

In English law, Non compos mentis was a juristical term to estimate a person's action is not out of reason, but under the influence of some false images or sounds of the mind.[2] Non compos mentis and ‘Felo de se’ (the Latin word for ‘self-murder,’) presented two different verdicts of the case of suicide. In the finding of a jury, the deceased who was stigmatized felo de se, would be excluded form burial in consecrated ground and forfeited their estate to the Crown, while these penalties would not apply to the deceased affirmed non compos mentis, namely, the person who deemed to be insane.[3]

Suicide was a severe crime in Tudor and early Stuart England. Self-killing was a species of murder, a sin not only in the eyes of the church but also defined by criminal law. The State of mind of self-Killers at the time that they committed their fatal deed was crucial. To be judged guilty of self-murder, one had to be sane. Men and women who killed themselves when they are mad or otherwise mentally incompetent were not conceived innocent. The verdict would made by juries. The penalties for suicide used in England is originated in the ancient world and evolved gradually into their early modern form; similar laws and customs existed in many parts of Europe. Born of the domestic beliefs, the ritual of punishing suicide, which is usually concerned with the suicidal corpse, embodies the notion that suicide is polluting, and that the suicide should be ostracized from the community of the living and the dead. The theological and legal severity increased in the High middle Age. Medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas extended Angustine's arguments against suicide, and added the new meaning of 'violation the natural law' to it. Most western European governments began to promulgated laws to confiscate some of a suicide's property.[4]

However, attitudes to suicide changed profoundly after 1660, to some extent, following the English Revolution. Judicial and ecclesiastical severity gave way to official leniency for most people who died by suicide, with the civil war, political and social changes. Non compos mentis verdicts increased greatly, and felo de se verdicts became as rare as non compos mentis once had been two centuries earlier.[5]


In English law, the rule of non compos mentis was most commonly used when the defendant invoked religious or magical explanations for behaviour, as mentioned above.

Although typically used in law, this term can also be used metaphorically or figuratively; e.g. when one is in a confused state, intoxicated, or similarly mentally impaired. it usually refers to a person has no rational mind or judgement, and whose behaviour is nonsense.

Some relating words such as 'insane', 'mad', and 'lunatic' used more frequently in psychiatry; however the laws against suicide and the verdicts felo de se and Non compos mentis had never faded until the late nineteenth century.


  1. ^ "Non Compos Mentis". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 2016-11-15. 
  2. ^ Houston, Rab (2009). 'Medicalization of Suicide: Medicine and the Law in Scotland and England, circa 1750-1850' in Histories of suicide : international perspectives on self-destruction in the modern world. eds. John C. Weaver and David Wright. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 91-94 
  3. ^ Merrick,, Jeffrey, ed. (2013). The history of suicide in England, 1650-1850, vol. 5. London: Pickering & Chatto. pp. xi. 
  4. ^ MacDonald, Michael; Murphy, Terency R. (1990). Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University press. pp. 15–18. 
  5. ^ MacDonald and Murphy, Sleepless Souls, pp. 109-110.