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Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages

Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages
Karl Shoemaker
Fordham University Press 284pp £57.95
ISBN 978 0823232680

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For over a thousand years the right of a criminal to protection within the walls of a consecrated church was universally accepted in western Europe. Then, within the space of the 16th century, sanctuary protections were abolished or severely limited. Karl Shoemaker’s book tells the fascinating tale of how this practice was developed, adapted and eventually abandoned.

Though sanctuary is often thought of as a symptom of weak authority – as an indication that the state was unable to limit the independent powers of the Church – Shoemaker argues that this view is unhelpfully anachronistic, underestimating how successfully sanctuary was integrated into medieval power structures. Indeed it was only in the later medieval and in the Early Modern periods that sanctuary became a point of contention between Church and State.

Starting in Late Antiquity Shoemaker traces the religious background, showing how Christian teachings about clemency, which emphasise that repentant sinners deserve pardon, decisively influenced the development of sanctuary practices. These combined with Roman traditions of intercession (according to which aristocrats intervened on behalf of followers in legal cases) to create the formal right of sanctuary. First attested in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, this gave criminals the right to remain in a church unharmed for a period of time during which the local bishop might intercede on his behalf, seeking pardon for the repentant miscreant.

While this connection between sanctuary, penance and intercession remained intact in the early Middle Ages, feuding practices added an important new dynamic. Sanctuary came to play a decisive role in dispute settlement, drawing its power from the intersection between concepts of penance and compensation. Sanctuary was also integrated into the ideology of kingship, as rulers were praised for their ability to uphold Church rights. The prevalence of sanctuary is therefore not to be seen as a sign of weak kingship – many powerful rulers were prominent supporters of it.

The book’s final section is dedicated primarily to the English evidence, tracing the reception and adaptation of earlier practices under the Anglo-Norman and Angevin kings before discussing the demise of sanctuary at the end of this period. In these later years sanctuary became intimately associated with legal exile and outlawry, losing many of the penitential undertones it had possessed earlier. Indeed sanctuary was one of the main means by which Angevin rulers sought to drive criminals from the realm; the aim thereby was not so much punishment and deterrence as the exclusion of criminals from society. The eventual demise of sanctuary was thus not a result of developments within English common law, with which it resonated well, but stemmed from canon law, which increasingly emphasised the importance of legal punishment. Although sanctuary was defended for some time as an ecclesiastical prerogative, it sat increasingly awkwardly with the prevailing legal ethos and it was thus only a matter of time before its utility was called fundamentally into question. When this happened in the 16th century it had little to do with confessional conflicts and took a similar course in both Catholic and Protestant regions.

Overall, Shoemaker’s book is engaging and erudite, taking the reader from Augustine of Hippo, to the Assize of Clarendon (1176), to the court of Henry VIII with admirable ease. He has absorbed a large amount of secondary literature and is able to present this clearly and concisely. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that the final chapters feel rather Anglocentric, after the admirably broad earlier sections. Still, it would be churlish to criticise Shoemaker for not covering more ground in a book which already ranges so widely. This is a fine study which should be read not only by legal historians but by anyone interested in state and society in the Middle Ages.

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