Tuesday, April 13, 2010


There is a human right that was allowed to the most degraded members of medieval society - criminals, refugees and homeless vagabonds - yet which is denied to us. I am of course talking about sanctuary.

Well, I am probably idealizing. Sanctuary perhaps did not cut much ice unless you were well-born. Superior force might not choose to recognize it. It is said that at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, some of the despairing Lancastrians fled the Bloody Field to take sanctuary in the abbey: so they were slaughtered there instead. If Shakespeare knew of this story, he didn't use it (in 3 Henry VI); he had enough atrocity for his purposes in the killing of the young Prince Edward.

Sanctuary had been recognized in pre-Christian times. In Euripides' Ion, Creusa takes sanctuary at Apollo's altar after her plot to kill Ion has been discovered. The baffled Ion grumbles:

What a state of affairs! How terrible it is when the laws the gods have made for men are made neither well now wisely! The criminal should be driven from the altar, not granted its protection. It is an offence that something holy should be touched by criminal hands; only the just have this right. It is the victim of wrongdoing who should receive the privilege of sanctuary; the good man and the bad when they seek refuge should not be given equal treatment by the gods.

Ion's reasoning, as throughout the play, is fresh but naïve. The problem is that to vengeful pursuers the supplicant is always going to be a criminal, never a victim of wrongdoing. I suppose it would work if the gods actively intervened (perhaps they could give the true criminals an electric shock), but then their altars would no longer be sanctuaries as we understand them. In this play, sanctuary does everyone a service, because Creusa and Ion are about to find out that they are mother and son.

A pursuer determined to override the claims of sanctuary can always find an argument. Buckingham, in Richard III, comes up with the mirror image of Ion's.

You break not sanctuary in seizing him;
The benefit thereof is always granted
To those whose dealings have deserv'd the place,
And those who have the wit to claim the place.
This prince have neither claimed it nor deserv'd it:
And therefore in mine opinion cannot have it...

Yes, you heard it right. The young Duke of York, not having done anything criminal, does not deserve sanctuary. Therefore the Cardinal will commit no wrong by collecting him from his over-protective mother and bringing him to us, by force if necessary (so we can later murder him).

Shakespeare found this argument in the chronicles. In a perverse way it reflects the Christianization of sanctuary: the Christian God came into the world to save sinners and not good men, therefore sanctuary applies specifically to criminals, just the class of person that Ion thinks ought to be excluded.

When I was at school, we still resorted, when finally cornered by some tough person that we had annoyed, to saying Pax! Pax! Pax! which was supposed to invoke the power of sanctuary or of being "home" in a game of It. In my own agitation I not only cried Pax but also crossed my fingers on both hands, with a confused hope that this action (primarily intended to nullify vows) could magically release me from other unwelcome consequences, too.

[In England the right of sanctuary was definitively withdrawn by King James I in 1623. In some other countries, notably Norway and Canada, it still has force.]

[This is another Brief History ad, this time for the Shakespeare pages.]

Labels: ,


Post a comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger