Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500

Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500

Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500

Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500

Synopsis

Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, 400-1500 rethinks the history of sanctuary protections for criminals in the Western legal tradition. From the twilight of the Roman Empire until the sixteenth century, every major medieval legal tradition afforded protections to fugitive criminals who took sanctuary in churches. Sanctuary-seeking criminals might have been required to perform penance or go into exile, but they were guaranteed immunity from corporal and capital punishment. In the sixteenth century, sanctuary protections were abolished throughout Europe, uprooting an ancient tradition and replacing it with a new set of juridical arguments about law, crime, and the power to punish. After situating sanctuary law within early Christian and late Roman traditions, this book explores a rich range of medieval legal, ecclesiastical, and social sources, with special attention to the early English common law, and it concludes by examining the legal arguments that led to the abolitionof sanctuary privileges and ushered in a new state-centered age of criminal deterrence and social control.

Excerpt

In its medieval form, sanctuary law granted a wrongdoer who fled to a church protection from forcible removal as well as immunity from corporal or capital punishment. The fugitive might be required to pay a fine, forfeit his goods, perform penance, or go into exile, but almost without exception his body and his life were to be preserved. Laws carving out sanctuary protections appear in every major medieval legal tradition. Fourth-century Roman law recognized sanctuary, ensuring that it was part of the legislative traditions that medieval Europe received from Rome. Ecclesiastical canons reiterated it, backing sanctuary with the Church’s spiritual authority. In the early Middle Ages, a host of royal legislative commands repeated it, mooring sanctuary to images of pious and benevolent kings. In later medieval England, sanctuary traditions were incorporated into the routine administration of royal law, providing a resolution to all sorts of felonies until Tudor reforms all but abolished the privilege. In many cities on the European continent, sanctuary remained a central feature of feuding, exile, and dispute-resolving processes until the sixteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, the thousand-year-old legal practice came under increasing political and juridical attack. Roman lawyers, scouring the classic Roman law texts, argued that sanctuary rights belonged to the prerogative of secular sovereigns and could be restricted in the interest of the “res publica.” Even the papacy participated in the restriction of sanctuary rights, promulgating in 1591 a bull that lengthened the list of crimes that no longer qualified for sanctuary and conceded a role for laymen in forcibly extracting . . .

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