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Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sanctuary in the Middle Ages

Most of us have either watched a movie or read a book set in the Medieval Period which includes a scene where the action runs something like this; Someone who has been accused (usually unjustly, particularly if he/she is Our Hero) is pursued by a (usually evil) group of people intent on bringing him/her to justice (we usually can hear baying hounds in the background). Our Hero, almost by accident, finds him/herself at the door of a church or chapel where, after pounding on the door until the pursuers are visible in the background (sometimes as arrows strike into the door), he/she is granted admittance. Collapsing to the floor in a paroxysm of exhaustion, Our Hero asks for, and is granted, sanctuary.

In my effort to read a bit of material outside of Early Christianity, I seem to have focused on a few books I’ve picked up about Medieval Law. Right now I’m reading Law, Sex and the Illicit in Medieval Europe and just finished an essay on sanctuary by William Chester Jordan. 1

The concept of sanctuary existed during the Middle Ages; this post is not a myth-buster. However, as with most aspects of the Middle Ages, the reality was more complicated than what most of us (myself anyway) have been exposed to through popular media.

My rather ignorant notion of sanctuary had been that any Holy Place would serve. Once the accused/pursued was granted entrance, he or she could hang out there, basically forever. He or she might be asked to work to help pay his or her way, but that sanctuary could, theoretically (if the pursuers were honorable which, of course, in these books and movies they were not) last forever. I’ll admit to being a bit fuzzy on what a “Holy Place” actually meant. Jordan’s essay provides a fair amount of additional information related to sanctuary.

The first and most significant aspect is that the concept of sanctuary in the Middle Ages was far from universal. Jordan states that it may have only officially been recognized in England and Northern France. He says that while the Iberian peninsula provides evidence indicating that it may have been in effect there, little evidence exists for it in Italy, Central Europe, or Scandinavia. (19-20) While the concept of sanctuary appears to have been around for a long time, it only became widely practiced in the 13th century, when laws recognizing and regulating sanctuary were written.

What was recognized as a place of sanctuary and who was eligible? I found the answers to these two questions the most interesting parts of the essay. Turning to location, not every church was eligible to be considered sanctuary. Fortified churches were often not considered sanctuaries, probably as they couldn’t be considered a place where blood was never spilled. Private chapels and oratories didn’t qualify; a criminal could not flee to a chapel on an estate. (20-21) A few locations were chartered as sanctuaries where an institution had been granted special privileges, however Jordan did not mention any specifics about what these privileges might be.

London_westminster_1894
1894 plan of Westminster Abbey, a chartered sanctuary.
Note the area labeled “Broad Sanctuary” in the lower left (I am clueless as to what that means).
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The number of people ineligible to seek sanctuary far outweighed the number who could. First and foremost, it was only eligible for felons; those who might receive the death penalty. 2 Heretics, serfs, Jews, and those who had been excommunicated were also ineligible. 3

Things didn’t end once sanctuary was granted. In Britain, clergy were expected to inform officials that someone had taken sanctuary. The claimant had to confess their crimes before magistrates as well as participate in the sacrament of confession within the church. The term of sanctuary was not endless. If the individual was found to be deserving of sanctuary, he or she would take an oath agreeing to leave the kingdom and would be allowed to travel to a seaport to depart; in England this was usually from Dover. (25) If they did not leave they would become outlaws and would also forfeit the right to receive sanctuary a second time.

There’s more to this but I’m not going to re-create the entire essay. One of the most interesting things to me is that this is another sign of the systematization of the legal system which took place in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. If it was a part of custom or a generally recognized practice, folks started to write down and codify things. Sanctuary evolved from something of an informal practice governed by custom, to one written into and both protected and limited by law.

1 Jordan, William Chester, “A Fresh Look at Medieval Sanctuary,” pp. 17-32 in Karras, Ruth Mazo; Kaye, Joel and; Matter, E. Ann, eds., Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4080-1.

2 I think it’s important to note that in the 13th century punitive imprisonment for the most part did not exist. This meant that more crimes were punishable by death but it also meant that those denied sanctuary would not face a long stretch in jail but rather fines or some type of forced servitude.

3 I read – somewhere – that Jews might be given the choice of converting and being granted sanctuary as a newly baptized Christian rather than being handed over. It’s been a long time since I read it and I’m not going to look for it in my books. I don’t recall what time period this was for or where but the same sort of condition accompanied expulsion from kingdoms at times so this would be consistent. I suppose this isn’t technically forced conversion.

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Posted by on March 23, 2014 in Society and Social Structure

 

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Why This Blog May be Quiet and Why I’ll Likely Miss Kalamazoo

I have quite a bit to post about but am having real trouble finding the time, at least to make the kind of posts I want to make. I have a fair amount to write on Origen, though this will not approach the time I spent on Tertullian. I’ve had a draft post on Irenaeus sitting around since last August and I think I may be ready to offer a few thoughts on some of the ways in which ancient philosophy impacted the evolution of Christianity.

There’s a reason for this. I was going to wait until the project was finished and then apologize after the fact but I’ve had a couple of e-mails this week asking me if I would be at Kalamazoo. I’ve been debating my attendance and finally have decided this would be foolish. The reason can be summed up by the following image.

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Eventually things will be placed on top of what you see here – wood and shingles and bricks and wires and other stuff. The problem, related to Kalamazoo, is that the house is due to be finished in late May. That means that when Kalamazoo is going on is about the time when I’ll be talking to the builder to finalize things like fixtures in the kitchen and baths, the placement of lights and outlets throughout the house; all of the detail sort of things which I might actually have something to contribute to. If they’d be in the middle of framing or placing trusses it would be a different story but for this I need to be on site.

The problem’s not money, though a Kalamazoo book bill in the thousands probably wouldn’t be the wisest move (considering I just splurged on Oxford’s annual spring sale I wouldn’t let this stop me though) but I need to be here.

When it comes to impacting this blog, as an example, I spent most of yesterday walking through various shops looking at furniture, art, and antiques. I’m not normally an antique-er but I’d like the place to have a bit of character. On finishing this post I’m heading to Indianapolis to visit a home show (technically a flower and patio show but there are plenty of interior booths there too) to look at kitchen and bath items. I’ve sort of decided where I’m going in those areas but nothing’s final until it’s final so I’ll take my plans with me and talk to some folks.

So I apologize both for missing Kalamazoo which really disappoints me, as well as for my expectation that this blog will be relatively quiet for a while. The one consolation I have is that if this is finished by the end of May, I might be able to head to Saint Louis University for their conference in June. We’ll see. There is a possibility of a significant delay (no reason to expect it, but there is always a chance something may come up) which might change my Kalamazoo plans but this is where I’m at right now.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2014 in Not Really Medieval

 

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