With the term ‘sanctuary cities’ in the news a lot in the past few weeks, our Radiotopian sibling 99% Invisible just made a two-parter tracing the origins of the modern sanctuary movement, which provides refuge for the persecuted, the vulnerable and, lately in particular, undocumented immigrants. So I wanted to dig further into the word ‘sanctuary’, which derives from the Latin ‘sanctuarium’, a sacred or private space. Its root was the Latin word ‘sanctus’, meaning ‘holy’.
That there is a religious element in ‘sanctuary’ isn’t surprising: buildings of worship provide protection and safety during the modern sanctuary movement, as they have throughout history.
Since the mid-16th century, the word ‘sanctuary’ has carried the more general sense of a place of refuge, not necessarily a religious one.
But before then, the word had a meaning that is a pretty big contrast to the modern sanctuary movement: for at least a thousand years in England, until James I abolished it in 1623, sanctuary was not for people fleeing injustice, but for people fleeing justice.
JOHN JENKINS: If you'd committed a crime, if you could get yourself to a place of religious significance - a church, a cathedral, even things like a monastery or an abbot's house or in some respects, even just land that belonged to the church or was near to it, then you were able to effectively evade justice for a period of time.