Visit theallusionist.org/sanctuary to read about and hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, catch language stealing from the church plate.
Coming up in today’s show: crime and punishment, medieval England style!
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On with the show.
HZ: 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 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.
HZ: John Jenkins is a researcher on cathedrals and pilgrimage at the University of York.
JOHN JENKINS: And after that period of time was up you might be asked to - you might be forced to - leave the country, or you could go to trial. So the idea is, it's a sort of extrajudicial way of apparently evading punishment, at least for a short period of time.
HZ: In England, that period of time was usually 37 or 40 days, depending on where you sought the sanctuary.
JOHN JENKINS: The sanctuary rights in England are very different to those on the continent. In general the idea of being able to seek sanctuary having committed a crime is almost universal in Christendom and is reflected in many ways to the world in all sorts of different systems.
HZ: In ancient Greece there were sanctuary temples, as well as statues that served a similar purpose. And the Torah mentions six cities in Judea that had been designated as sanctuaries for people who unintentionally caused the death of another, so they might be spared from revenge killings. So the sanctuary concept was not new when it came into law here in England in the fifth or sixth century.
JOHN JENKINS: But England was unusual in the length of time that you could seek sanctuary, for the range of places you could seek sanctuary, and the range of crimes that you could seek sanctuary for - on the continent you wouldn't necessarily get people who have committed murders in cold blood being able to seek sanctuary.
HZ: Most were seeking sanctuary for murder, or theft, or because they were in debt.
JOHN JENKINS: One of the reasons why sanctuary is quite important is because the medieval system of law is hideously punitive. In England, before Norman Conquest of 1066, theft is considered a capital crime. So if you steal something, you are answerable to the king and your life is forfeit. Whereas murder is not considered a capital crime; that's considered a case between the murderer and the family of the people he has murdered and actually it is only something that you get a fine for.
HZ: Huh. Death penalty for theft, but a fine for murder. Not so much ‘An eye for an eye’ as ‘An eye for a loaf of bread, and a cheque for an eye’? That idiom is as much of a mess as medieval law..
JOHN JENKINS: Violence is common, whereas property is not. Life is nasty, brutish and short, whereas property is really expensive.
HZ: Then in 1066 the Normans invaded and put their own spin on the law.
JOHN JENKINS: After the Norman Conquest, a murder becomes a capital crime, but theft and other similar crimes become punishable by mutilation, and sometimes hideous: castration, blinding, having your nose cut off; that sort of thing. So because it's such a punitive system, actually sanctuary can be seen as being a little bit of an escape valve, in a way, for that. For example: you're involved in a scuffle and you stab someone, which happens all the time because medieval England was very violent brutal and at times; you could then flee to sanctuary and be in sanctuary for a certain period of time, you might then know whether they live or die. And that would certainly affect the state punishment you were going to receive.
HZ: So the period of sanctuary gave a person time to find out whether they had committed a murder or just a bit of wounding. Unless - here’s a twist - they had committed no crime at all.
JOHN JENKINS: There are records of people who claim sanctuary having claimed to have killed someone, and then the person they claimed to have killed turns up alive. And they're using sanctuary to escape a different thing: that they're in disfavour with the king, or even something that they were in a marriage they don't want to be in, because divorce is very very difficult if you're just an ordinary person, if you're not nobility you can't get an annulment very easily. So you could - and there are occasional examples of people getting out of unwanted marriages by claiming to have killed someone and then fleeing the realm.
HZ: What’s worse: that, or breaking up with someone by text message?
There aren't comprehensive records of sanctuary, so we don’t know much about the sanctuary seekers, who they were or what happened to them afterwards, or even how many there were: perhaps only around ten to twenty per year at some of the bigger cathedrals, though possibly as many as 140 in one year at Westminster Abbey. It was also difficult to keep tabs on sanctuary-seekers because as well as specific sanctuary buildings, there were areas of sanctuary, which didn’t have booths set up around the perimeter checking you in for sanctuary.
JOHN JENKINS: There are two areas, Durham and Chester, where the whole county is considered to be sanctuary. The idea is once you set foot in the county you have some measure of sanctuary.
HZ: But if you were already in the sanctuary county and committed a crime, you needed to level up and find a sanctuary town, such as Beverley in Yorkshire.
JOHN JENKINS: We find at Beverley, because the whole town a mile around the minster was sanctuary, that a lot of the sanctuary seekers end up living in Beverley pretty much permanently. So you must have these towns that are full of murderers and thieves and debtors living in relative safety.
HZ: If you were in the sanctuary town then committed an offence for which you needed to seek sanctuary, you had to level up again and get to a sanctuary building, most likely a church. And a handful were better sanctuaries than others: one of the best was Durham cathedral.
ROSALIND BROWN: My name is Rosalind Brown. I am one of the canons at Durham Cathedral, which means I am one of the clergy there.
HZ: If you managed to make your way to claim sanctuary at Durham cathedral, here’s what would happen. You’d see the cathedral from miles away - the 12th century building is mightily imposing, made even more so by being on top of a hill. Technically you’d already be in sanctuary once you arrived on the cathedral grounds, but you’d want to make your way to the cathedral’s main entrance at the north door, where you would find the green bronze sanctuary knocker, or sanctuary ring: it’s in the form of a quite alarming face with a pointy human nose, serious eyebags and what looks like a halo of wild hair, or a sunburst coming out of the back of its head; and there’s a ring in its mouth.
ROSALIND BROWN: It looks rather scary. I'm told it is actually a lion with staring eyes that might once have been glass - they're now holes - and it's got teeth that grip what apparently are the legs of a man, which are themselves being devoured by a double headed serpent. So basically it looks as though we've got a sort of gruesome looking lion which was supposed to scare people. It was supposed to remind them of the seriousness; it's a traditional medieval hell mouth open-jawed lion who's devouring a sinner. And what we can see is his legs sticking out of the lion's mouth. But then each leg is being grasped by this serpent. So it's not a cheerful thing.
HZ: Although it’s known as the sanctuary knocker, it’s thought it wasn’t actually possible to knock it because it’s so heavy.
ROSALIND BROWN: But I understand that they would hold onto the ring and shout out to the monks who were there waiting for anybody who did need sanctuary.
HZ: Once you’d grasped onto the sanctuary ring at Durham cathedral, the following procedure would commence.
ROSALIND BROWN: When somebody claimed sanctuary, the Galilee bell at the cathedral was immediately rung, which indicated to everybody that a fugitive had arrived. Witnesses were then summoned and there's evidence that quite often they summoned local people including stonemasons who might have been working there or members of the clergy or other local people and the witnesses. In presence of the witnesses the offender had to announce what his offence was, and he was then provided with a black cloth gown which had the St. Cuthbert's cross in yellow on the left shoulder, and they were given food and bedding which the cathedral paid for for 37 days and were allowed to sleep near the south door of the Galilee chapel.
JOHN JENKINS: You do have all your possessions confiscated and you are basically almost declared an outlaw too; it's not wonderful, but you are at least still alive.
HZ: As sanctuaries went, Durham cathedral was one of the swankiest. It was the 5* all-inclusive sanctuary experience. If you think living like a monk and sleeping on a stone floor doesn’t sound all that cushy, you would not have scored the other sanctuary options highly on SanctuaryAdvisor.
JOHN JENKINS: If you claimed sanctuary at a church, you got your 40 days, and during that 40 days it was your kin and your friends that had to come and feed you. There was no automatic right to being fed by the church at any of these normal sanctuaries. During that 40 days, it was the responsibility of the local community, which would be the parish in this sense or the ville: they had to guard the church and make sure that you didn't leave and that no one who’s pursuing you went in. So this becomes a very tremendous burden on the local community. If after 40 days at a church you don't want to leave, anyone bringing you food is liable to the death penalty. So you're effectively, after 40 days, starved out. So it really is incumbent on you to leave.
ROSALIND BROWN: At which point he was handed over to the authorities. Having confessed his sin or his crime, he either had to face the authorities and face justice in this country, or he was escorted to the nearest port, put on the first boat that was leaving the port for wherever it was sailing, and was never allowed back into the country. So that was the choice: either face justice in this country or be deported. So although you were getting food and clothing and shelter, it probably wasn't very happy time.
HZ: On top of that, you might well still be worried about mob justice catching up with you. People pursuing you to seek vengeance or retrieve the money you owed them weren’t supposed to breach sanctuary or they themselves could face punishment, which is where all those different levels of sanctuary come into play.
JOHN JENKINS: If you're in the churchyard and sanctuary is broken, there's a fine; at York it's £36which is a vast sum of money. If you're in the cathedral itself, or the minster, then it goes up to £72for breaking sanctuary. If the sanctuary is broken in the choir, it's £108 - we're talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds in modern-day money. You can't really equate the two, but this is so much money.
HZ: If there were a lot of people after you, they might decide to go ahead and breach sanctuary, grab you and wreak their vengeance and split the fine between them. But there was one further level of sanctuary within a few of the churches and cathedral, in the form of a shrine, or sometimes a big stone chair known as the frith stool, friþ being the Old English word for ‘peace’ or ‘safety’.
JOHN JENKINS: The sanctuary seeker gets to the frith stool - and ‘frith’ is Anglo-Saxon for peace; it's the friths stool which is a big stone chair - and sits in it and is taken out of the chair by the people pursuing him and killed or taken away, then the person who has broken the sanctuary is what's called 'bootless', and that there is no fine that can save him; his life is forfeit.
HZ: By the sixteenth century, sanctuary for fugitive criminals had become contentious, with the idea that there were bustling colonies of felons living it up without remorse or penance for their crimes, and, worse, the sanctuaries might be shielding political exiles. The past is present.
The separation of church and state during King Henry VIII’s reign spelled the beginning of the end for sanctuary for criminals; he abolished most sanctuaries and limited the protective powers of the remaining ones, and in 1623 King James I finished the job.
JOHN JENKINS: The rights of sanctuary were revoked, and part of that is to do with changing ideas of the law and the relationship between people who have committed crimes and how the state should deal with them, and that actually allowing people to escape justice is - even to postpone justice in this way - is no longer considered to be in keeping with post-medieval, with modern, with Renaissance ideas of justice. And so they're phased out.
HZ: And nearly 400 years later, it might seem contrary to us that churches were ever helping criminals evade justice.
ROSALIND BROWN: I think it goes back to the place that the church is, the concept that a church is a place of sanctuary: in that sense it's not judging whether the people are guilty or not. They're offering sanctuary, letting them face up to what they've done, and then helping them to face the consequences. So it's not necessarily condoning the evil that has been done. It is the tradition of the church providing sanctuary for everyone who comes, but also encouraging them to face up to their actions.
JOHN JENKINS: There was a nice thing that it does break the link between the crime and the retributive punishment, that actually there is another way, there is another outlet, there is the possibility of being able to spend this time in a place of sanctuary, in a place of religion, where you can do penance for your crimes without necessarily that straight link that you'd think of there being in the medieval period of an eye for an eye, that there is another way.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick. Thanks to John Jenkins, Greg Jenner, and Rosalind Brown and Catherine Hodgson at Durham Cathedral. You can’t claim legal sanctuary there any more, but you can have a go on the sanctuary ring, although the one on the door is a replica now, the 900-year-old original is taking a break in private. And later this year they’ll have new exhibitions opening, the Magna Carta is going to be on display! It’s one of my favourite buildings, pay it a visit.
As I mentioned earlier, this piece was prompted by 99% Invisible’s pair of episodes about the modern sanctuary movement, so be sure to listen to those. And to all the other shows that belong to Radiotopia from PRX. To go with all the talk in this episode about fleeing, I recommend Criminal’s recent episode Vanish, about how to fake your own death. It is very compelling. Hear Criminal and all the Radiotopia shows at Radiotopia.fm - and this May you can see Criminal LIVE, and 99% Invisible, and The Memory Palace, and Mortified, and the West Wing Weekly, on Radiotopia’s live tour of the west coast of the USA. I might pop in as well.
Also, next month’s 99% Allusional live show with Roman Mars in Cambridge, Massachusetts has sold out, but we’ll be performing it in Los Angeles at the Zipper Hall on 14 April as a fundraiser for Arts for LA. So if you like this show and 99% Invisible AND the arts, this is YOUR night. I’ll link to that event and the Radiotopia tour at theallusionist.org.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to you generous listeners, the Knight Foundation and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
tritagonist, noun, the person who is third in importance after the protagonist and deuteragonist, in an ancient Greek drama.
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