The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
Invitations to Delinquency: Medieval Sanctuary Laws and the Discourses of Injustice
Karl Shoemaker, University of Wisconsin

At the close of the Middle Ages, jurists, popes and parliaments across Europe began to turn a critical eye on a host of medieval legal practices. Laws granting criminals sanctuary for fleeing to a church or other sacred place became a favorite target for critics. Roman lawyers saw in sanctuary laws a host of unmitigated injustices and asked defenders of the Church’s prerogatives why murderers could have sanctuary in churches when Christ had thrown mere moneychangers out of the Temple. Even those steeped in canon law began to hold sanctuary in disdain. Pope Euginius IV, writing to the Bishop of Lincoln in 1442, complained that by virtue of sanctuary laws, criminals “escape the punishment of their evil deeds and the satisfaction of their debts.” Worse, some made residence within sanctuaries “and lived there with dishonest women.” At about this time in England, the Commons petitioned Edward IV with complaints of many men “doing treasons and robberies and felonies” and then “resorting again to sanctuaries” where royal justice could not reach them. Sanctuary laws, according to common judgment, were only “an invitation to delinquency.”

Taking their cue from these discourses, generations of historians have cast medieval sanctuary practices as “pregnant with an infinite deal of evil and mischief” and “seriously interfering with the administration of justice.” According to one twentieth-century historian, the abolition of sanctuary laws “was a measure calculated to advance the interests of justice and morality” in the modern age.

But the venerable practice of sanctuary was not always so closely associated with injustice, mischief, and delinquency. In fact, juridical discourses critical of sanctuary arose very late in the medieval period. Earlier medieval sources reveal a consistent equation of sanctuary and the doing of justice. Emperors and kings granted and defended sanctuaries, and they called it justice. Churchmen and chroniclers harangued violators of sanctuary, not the murderers and thieves who fled to their protection. In fact, hardly any critical discussion of sanctuary can be found in extant sources before the thirteenth century and the pontificate of Innocent III.

This paper explores the early-medieval legal, narrative and literary texts that put sanctuary protections and the doing of justice side by side. Next, it tracks the emergence of a juridical discourse that finds sanctuary antithetical with justice and good order, and explores the radical implications of this new understanding. Paradoxically, the discourses which would prove fatal to medieval sanctuary law emerged first within the writings of medieval canon lawyers.

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