Sanctuary in the Middle Ages

23 Mar

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.

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.


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


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4 responses to “Sanctuary in the Middle Ages

  1. mikulpepper

    March 27, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    So, if blood is spilled in a sacred place, it ceases to be less sacred? That seems the underlying notion here: don’t desecrate the church. Cf. Eyrbyggja Saga for a pagan example when the Thorsness temple site had to be moved after a battle was fought there.

    • Curt Emanuel

      March 27, 2014 at 6:45 pm

      I don’t know if it actually becomes less sacred. While it had been desecrated, Canterbury didn’t lose it’s holiness after Beckett though there were martyrdom aspects at work there. But you couldn’t argue that a fortified church could be a sanctuary against the violence the criminal might face as violence was part of its function.

      Of course not allowing Jews to use a church this way is a hole in that argument. I’d have to read the sources to know the arguments used. I suspect one was that a Jew shouldn’t be asking the Christian God for protection.

      • Geoffrey Tobin

        June 30, 2014 at 7:36 am

        Another good reason why Magnus Maximus should have beaten Theodosius.

  2. Geoffrey Tobin

    June 30, 2014 at 7:59 am

    The following statement

    “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.”

    reminds me of a series of events in 1088 beginning when Count Alan Rufus was sent with an army to arrest William de St Calais (the Bishop of Durham whose most famous achievement is supervising the writing of the Great Domesday Book).

    St Calais refused to leave Durham Castle willingly unless a document he’d devised to protect his person in perpetuity was signed. This was effectively a paper sanctuary! Alan signed it without qualms, perhaps because of their long association. After his treason trial, which was pretty thoroughly kiboshed by this pre-emptive manoeuvre, backed as it was by Alan’s “calm and clear voice” declaring that he could not continue to support King William II if he attempted to subvert it, the King spent 3 months wrestling with his dilemma and looking for loopholes, before admitting defeat and allowing Alan to escort St Calais to Southampton to take ship for exile in Normandy.

    St Calais thought himself clever with words and legal niceties, but this only got him into more trouble with fellow clerics. He was fortunate that his captor-cum-defender Alan was, in the words of his epitaph, “praecepto legum” (a law professor).


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