In the saint's embrace: The sanctuary privilege in medieval religious writing

Date of Completion

January 2007


Literature, Medieval|Law|History, Medieval




I argue that the symbolic significance of sanctuary, which demonstrated undeniably the Church's protective power, was naturally aligned with hagiographical literature in Anglo-Saxon England. Sanctuary practice existed as a relationship between a legal tradition and a religious literature in which that tradition played a significant part.^ Sanctuary practice both asserted and required that the guardianship of the helpless, the friendless, the confessed murderer, and the wrongly accused was an ecclesiastical responsibility. By its nature, the privilege was a contradiction, a refutation of public law and private feud that depended on fundamental social accord about the meaning of holy places and the rightness of haven for those who might be guilty. Unsurprisingly, sanctuary was frequently controversial, and was often debated as lives hung in the balance. Fortunately for the fugitive, the legal and customary assurances of protection in the holy spaces of England were supported by a social taboo on violence in the presence of the altar; this taboo was, in turn, reinforced by the vast religious phenomenon of the cult of the saints. The link between the saint, the church, and the protection of the faithful created a web of inter-reliance which insisted on a mediating role for the church in secular as well as spiritual disputes. This role supported and was strengthened by sanctuary laws. Careful investigation of the saint's lives produced by Bede, Aldhelm, Ælfric, and William of Malmesbury shows that the ability of a saint to protect those who sought refuge became, in many cases, a defining proof of spiritual potency. But sanctuary did more: it demonstrated the saint's commitment to the churches dedicated to his name and the churchgoers who gathered there, it supported the right of church officials to intercede in secular affairs when they felt their interests were involved, and it forged a bond between customary practice and saintly presence that strengthened both.^ I investigate the historical, legal, and hagiographical records extensively before studying the cults of Sts Swithun and Cuthbert to prove the central importance of the sanctuary privilege to both cults and to an understanding of hagiographic writing in the Anglo-Saxon era. ^