"As Mote in at a Munster Dor": Sanctuary and Love of This World

By Allen, Elizabeth | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"As Mote in at a Munster Dor": Sanctuary and Love of This World


Allen, Elizabeth, Philological Quarterly


In Patience, the Gawain-poet's retelling of the story of Jonah and the whale, the moment of Jonah's comeuppance conjures an image of a cathedral: he tumbles into the filthy jaws "as mote in at a munster dor" (268). (1) There in the belly of the whale, he finds a safe corner where he falls asleep. Malcolm Andrew rightly notes that the striking perspective of this entry into the fish's gullet "suggests the futility of [Jonah's] struggle against God" (n268) and that the appearance of a cathedral ("munster") door is especially remarkable because the whale is associated with hell and the devil. (2) Surely the reluctant prophet's spiritual penance constitutes the central focus of the poem, as he suffers first in the fish and afterwards in the desert outside the city of Nineveh. But because he is still fleeing God's vigilance, his tumble in at the church door also evokes the legal act of seeking sanctuary from criminal prosecution. In late-medieval England, felons and debtors could seek safety in churches for up to forty days, after which they had either to stand trial or abjure the realm. This essay explores what happens if we view the undersea minster as a place of temporary respite akin to sanctuary. The image of the "mote in at a munster dor" raises crucial questions about the function of Jonah's sojourn in such a messy and creaturely minster.

Inasmuch as sanctuary was appropriated by the legal system, it represents an eccentric locus for examining religious attitudes; arguments about its powers and privileges belong less to the world of sacrament, penance, and absolution than to the world of crime and punishment. (3) The religious underpinnings of the practice emerge, however, in accounts of its breach or violation. This essay contends that sanctuary and its violation provide a singular venue for dramas of what we might call secular or worldly religion: dramas that call attention to the instrumental uses of the minster's sacred space. When civic officials and royal henchmen enter churches, they make the sacred space contingent and negotiable, but by profaning it they also elevate its power. When sanctuary-men and clerics come out of their protection to battle it out with civic officials, or are dragged out to be put into jail, they polarize the community into conflicts between sacred and profane. Such sanctuary dramas would seem to widen the gap between secular and clerical interests, but actually the imbrication of clerical and secular forces makes for a remarkably flexible notion of holy space, one that does not suffer from profanation in the way that we might expect but gains a certain vigor from the corruptions that are said to surround it. Cases of violated sanctuary reveal the practice's dependence on an idea of holy space not as timeless and unchanging, but as fundamentally vulnerable to circumstance.

As Gervase Rosser and others have pointed out, Victorian and mid-century scholars understood sanctuary as a "quintessential manifestation of the privileges of the medieval church," necessary to regulate a savage and primitive culture. The decline of the practice during the Reformation has generally been considered, Rosser writes, "symptomatic of a double triumph of the modern secular state, respectively over primitive human passions and over priestly privilege." (4) Certainly sanctuary shares with other medieval religious practices a central insistence on the earthly manifestation of divine aegis, and the legal permission to avoid trial by retreating to a holy place essentially submits judicial process to the power of the church. In its assertion of clerical privilege over secular jurisdiction, sanctuary would seem to represent a typically "medieval" institution. Moreover, the jurisdictional language that arose after the consolidation of sanctuary law in England frequently did employ an opposition between secular interests and clerical privileges. (5) Because of its status as both a sacred and a secular institution, sanctuary generates especially clearly drawn oppositions--but as Rosser's critique suggests, sanctuary does not undo but reworks the mutual dependence of church and secular government. …

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