Sanctuary! Sanctuary!
July 27, 2015 6:13 PM   Subscribe

"So you are in 13th century England and you’ve been accused of, or maybe have actually committed, a murder. To be taken into custody and tried would likely result in execution, so you need to go to ground, fast." What do you do? Run to a church and claim sanctuary!

The idea of sanctuary dates back at least to the ancient Hebrews -- Cities of Refuge, Deuteronomy 19, and was originally intended for those seeking to avoid private retribution: "set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess ... so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities. ... anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life."

As it disseminated into the medieval Christian world, sanctuary acquired more rules, and generally required deportation of the criminal after a set period of time. The English, with their obsessive bookkeeping, provide us with the best summaries of sanctuary law in the medieval period. It gradually turned from a custom of ecclesiastical protection of the potentially innocent to a formal legal protection for all criminals (PDF). During the high period for sanctuary claims, England allowed you 40 days to leave the country. By 1700, criminals could no longer claim sanctuary in England, though the rules remained on the books for the Roman Catholic Church until the Code of Canon Law revision of 1983.

While traditional sanctuary has faded, the body of law has given rise to the right of asylum recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as to the Sanctuary Movement in the United States, which provided church sanctuary and support to Central Americans fleeing political conflict in the 1980s. While it provided no formal legal protection, authorities were reluctant to be seen raiding churches.

Today, the United States has somewhat controversial Sanctuary Cities for illegal immigrants (which refuse to use local police to enforce federal immigration rules, on the grounds that many will refuse to cooperate with local police seeking to solve violent crimes if they fear deporation). Illegal immigrants in the US facing deportation have sought sanctuary in churches, hoping against hope that federal authorities will be reluctant to raid churches to deport them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (35 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sadly, a tent doesn't count.

Excellent post, as usual. I had stuff to get done tonight, but whatever.
posted by jquinby at 6:25 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can't believe someone beat me to to the MASH episode
posted by bq at 6:28 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Whre is Assange these days anyway?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:51 PM on July 27, 2015


Note that while technically sanctuary involved loss of property and exile, it was possible to game the system. As the story of Catalina de Erauso shows.
posted by happyroach at 6:53 PM on July 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


I know it's a good way to avoid losing your head.
posted by curious nu at 6:55 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


wow, this feels so familiar to me. This feels like a trope from my childhood. Was there some great work of fiction/history that I would have run into in the 90s that employed this as a device? (Besides hunchback which I never actually watched)
posted by rebent at 7:11 PM on July 27, 2015


Highlander?
posted by Hatashran at 7:22 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


As the story of Catalina de Erauso shows.

That's a heck of a story, but having a background for your web page that looks the same as having bits of dirt on your monitor is not cool.
posted by zachlipton at 7:39 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


This site says that the Puuhonua in Hawaii provided refuge starting as far back as the 12th century, and up to the early 1800s.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:40 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Was there some great work of fiction/history that I would have run into in the 90s that employed this as a device?

Homer: [runs into church] Sanctuary! Sanctuary!
Rev. Lovejoy: Oh, why did I teach him that word?
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 7:45 PM on July 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


the Puuhonua in Hawaii provided refuge starting as far back as the 12th century, and up to the early 1800s.

Bad timing for Captain Cook.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:47 PM on July 27, 2015


This feels like a trope from my childhood. Was there some great work of fiction/history that I would have run into in the 90s that employed this as a device?
i believe it was calling "base" in freeze tag.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:50 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's a part in The Once and Future King involving Lancelot having to claim sanctuary by holding a wooden cross while proceeding directly to the sea. If he lets go, they can kill him. If no ship is immediately available to give passage to France, he must walk into the sea up to his chin or something once a day until such a ship is available, in order to show he's really trying, or they can kill him. The Sanctuary Laws are, at least in Arthur's time, strange and complex.
posted by timdiggerm at 7:50 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh, and regarding the contemporary debate in the US about sanctuary cities: After Lambasting "Sanctuary Cities," Hannity Goes Quiet Upon Learning Giuliani Enforced Similar Policy As NYC Mayor
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 7:50 PM on July 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Benefit of clergy is mentioned in that PDF, but this post seems dangerously negligent in failing to more prominently remind everyone to memorize Psalm 51 before heading to medieval England for a life of crime.
posted by sfenders at 7:52 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I remember that there was an episode of Cadfael on PBS that featured the right to Sanctuary. That is everything I remember about the episode.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:55 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember that there was an episode of Cadfael on PBS that featured the right to Sanctuary. That is everything I remember about the episode.

Titled, appropriately enough, The Sanctuary Sparrow.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:21 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Err, umm, Hunchback?

Still get chills.
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 8:23 PM on July 27, 2015


I read Hunchback once and it was so fantastically beautiful that I'm terrified to read it again.

I feel like I should put it off until I'm 70 or something and wrapping up my affairs. Les Miz, fine, but Hunchback is sacred.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:29 PM on July 27, 2015


"in failing to more prominently remind everyone to memorize Psalm 51 before heading to medieval England for a life of crime."

I totes intended to travel with my scholarly Bible versions and also my massive literacy! I will join the King James translation consortium in extremis!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:36 PM on July 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


i believe it was calling "base" in freeze tag.

"gools"
posted by Greg Nog at 9:16 PM on July 27, 2015


I will join the King James translation consortium in extremis!

Pretty sure they met in greater London, not at a Belgian furniture maker.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:20 PM on July 27, 2015


At the cathedral in Durham in the north of England there are these huge wooden doors. On one of the doors is this giant metal knocker. The story goes is that if you got to the cathedral and banged the door with this huge knocker you got sanctuary.

From the website: The knocker on the Cathedral’s northern door, known as the Sanctuary Knocker, played an important part in the Cathedral’s history. Those who ‘had committed a great offence,’ such as murder in self-defence or breaking out of prison, could rap the knocker, and would be given 37 days of sanctuary within which they could try to reconcile with their enemies or plan their escape.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:34 PM on July 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Was there some great work of fiction/history that I would have run into in the 90s that employed this as a device?

A Magic: The Gathering novel, the title of which I've rightfully forgotten.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:03 PM on July 27, 2015


Um, Logan's Run, anyone?
posted by yesster at 11:47 PM on July 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have to admit that, prior to this post, the most I knew about sanctuary was from that Brother Cadfael episode mentioned above.

Great post!
posted by teponaztli at 11:50 PM on July 27, 2015


Was there some great work of fiction/history that I would have run into in the 90s that employed this as a device?

Did taking sanctuary play a role in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose?
posted by Dip Flash at 1:54 AM on July 28, 2015


There's a part in The Once and Future King involving Lancelot having to claim sanctuary by holding a wooden cross while proceeding directly to the sea. If he lets go, they can kill him.

There's a similar bit in Conan Doyle's The White Company.
posted by pompomtom at 3:02 AM on July 28, 2015


he must walk into the sea up to his chin or something once a day until such a ship is available

This was definitely a thing, but it was usually just up to the knees. It was part of a legal process called "abjuration of the realm" that was basically banishment. There was an oath the person would have to take:
"I swear on the Holy Book that I will leave the realm of England and never return without the express permission of my Lord the King or his heirs. I will hasten by the direct road to the port allotted to me and not leave the King's highway under pain of arrest or execution. I will not stay at one place more than one night and will seek diligently for a passage across the sea as soon as I arrive, delaying only one tide if possible. If I cannot secure such passage, I will walk into the sea up to my knees every day as a token of my desire to cross. And if I fail in all this, then peril shall be my lot".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:52 AM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm sure Sanctuary came up in numerous retelling of myths and legends that I read as a child. Maybe Robin Hood, if not the King Arthur legends?
posted by Braeburn at 5:44 AM on July 28, 2015


Noriega took sanctuary in an Embassy of the Vatican in late 1989/early 1990.

Could this be what you are thinking of?
posted by Sheppagus at 7:21 AM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a tradition of taking sanctuary in Buddhist temples in China as well, giving rise to the idiom 'Grabbing on to the Buddha's foot not a moment too soon' (临时抱佛脚), later used mostly to describe some poor student cramming for their exams.
posted by of strange foe at 9:22 AM on July 28, 2015


Any idea why the canon law was revised in 1983 to exclude it?
posted by corb at 9:51 AM on July 29, 2015


I think just because it wasn't really a thing anymore; church and state law are firmly separated; and the 1983 overhaul of the Code of Canon Law removed a lot of archaic stuff that had fallen out of use but nobody ever really got around to removing (your "no giving monkeys cigarettes at gas stations in Indiana" sorts of laws that aren't relevant but nobody bothers to repeal so they hang around a few hundred years).

Basically they announced they wanted to do it during Vatican II, but they had to wait until Vatican II was over so they knew what the new rules had to be, and then it took 20 years to work through the whole thing so it could be updated all at once, and that's the 1983 code. From the Council of Trent until 1917, canons were just promulgated one at a time (the way US states make laws, for example), so there were more than 10,000 of them and they didn't all agree; in 1917 the Church went through that and promulgated a "harmonized" code of canon law that was stripped down and cleaned up so that you didn't have to look up 15 different canons, 3 of which disagreed with the other 12, to figure out how to get your annulment. The 1917 code was just periodically amended until 1983, when they did the complete overhaul and update for a new "harmonized" edition. So odd things that disappear in 1917 or 1983 were typically just part of that process of cleaning out the cobwebs.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:47 AM on July 29, 2015


I'm just kind of curious because I remember as a kid, a priest saying that the police would have to kill him to drag someone out of his church, and being deeply impressed by it, so I was wondering if there were some internal politics. It's always possible he was just a relic, though, I guess.
posted by corb at 10:51 AM on July 29, 2015


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