So you have committed a murder or two – okay, maybe three – in 13th century Paris or London or Rome. The judicial systems of that era meant certain execution, whether or not you are guilty. What’s a poor bugger to do?
Leg it the hell to the local church. Thanks to the long tradition of sanctuary, which existed from the earliest centuries, even the most heinous villain could find refuge. The most famous example is from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fans of Victor Hugo will remember the hunchback bellringer Quasimodo nabbing the gypsy girl Esmeralda en route to her execution for witchcraft. While I knew of the medieval institution of sanctuary, I certainly didn’t know its ins and outs, and I hadn’t connected the dots to ancient Greece and Rome. Remember Oedipus takes a sort of asylum at the sacred grove of the Erinyes in Colonus? Or the young Troilus seeking sanctuary in the temple of Apollo? (Well, that didn’t work out very well for him – Achilles hunts him down and kills him there.)
As a recent article in Slate explains (read the whole article here), “Of course, these sites were not just hidey holes where fugitives could go to thumb their nose at the authorities; petitioners for sanctuary had to atone and pay penance for their crimes.” The article is informed by Karl Shoemaker of the University of Wisconsin, the author of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500. From the article:
In order for asylum seekers to gain sanctuary, they had to simply enter a church and wait for an appointed officer of the crown (known as a coroner) to arrive. Once the coroner arrived, the seekers had to confess to their crime, whether they committed it or not, and they were then under the protection of the church. In some cases, more specific action was required, such as ringing a certain bell, sitting down on a special bench (known as a “frith-stool”), or wrapping their hand around a special door-knocker, as was the case at the Durham Cathedral, and giving it a rap, not unlike a historic, legal version of freeze tag.
During the existence of English sanctuary laws, which lasted until 1624, countless thousands of felons claimed sanctuary. Shoemaker claims that “in some counties as many as half of the recorded felonies would end in a sanctuary claim rather than a trial.” This could be even higher in some counties, where up to two-thirds of all the felonies were “resolved” in a sanctuary. During this period all Christian churches offered sanctuary within their walls. Certain churches also offered a widened area of protection that was extended to areas surrounding the church, demarcated by monuments known as “sanctuary stones” or “sanctuary crosses” Those churches (there were at least 22, including Westminster Abbey) that offered a wider sanctuary usually had to be approved by a charter from the king.
Ahhh, those were the good old days. It didn’t last.
As the centuries rolled on, the length of sanctuary afforded to fugitives began to increase, with many churches extending their fugitives indefinite stays. This form of sanctuary began looking pretty attractive to some criminals, who would flock to these church safehouses, essentially forming small dens of thieves under the protection of the church. Again from Shoemaker: “We have evidence of [the fugitives] are going out in marauding bands. Robbing shopkeepers, robbing others. Then retreating back to these sanctuaries.” This began to change the perception of church sanctuaries among the people of England, and was likely the death knell of English sanctuary law.
Shoemaker believes that the changing nature of the role of law during the late 16th century in English society was the ultimate downfall of church asylum. Previously, sanctuary was seen as an act of kindness, forgiveness, and piety on the part of both Christianity and the crown. But as the feeling that an effective criminal system would deter wrongdoing through punishment began to grow in the country, the view of sanctuary’s penitent treatment of fugitives seemed only to be rewarding the criminal acts by allowing asylum seekers to avoid the official penalty.
Is it all over? Not entirely. Slate seems to have an ongoing interest in the matter. The publication ran a story in 2007 when a Mexican immigrant-rights activist took sanctuary in a Chicago church rather than risk deportation and separation from her young son. It’s here. That article, by the way, says the custom of sanctuary goes back even earlier:
The Old Testament mentions safe haven at the altar for criminals who commit accidental murder and even suggests the establishment of six “cities of refuge” for killers. By around the fourth century, the right to sanctuary had become formalized among the early Christians. At first the sanctuary rule applied if the criminal had one part of his body in a church building or grasped the rings attached to the church doors. Within a few centuries, the sanctuary zone included the churchyard, graveyard, cloisters, and a 35-pace radius around the bishop’s residence.
But for most of us, the image of sanctuary is forever frozen in time with Quasimodo swinging down from Notre Dame for his dramatic rescue effort. Here is a scene from one of the greatest films of the 1930s, with Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the chief justice, Edmond O’Brien as the Gringoire, the man who loves her, and the immortal Charles Laughton as Quasimodo.