Saturday, August 08, 2009


This write up started when I logged on today and read a conversation among the E2religion group. The question being asked was Can sanctuary be refused? We do have some great conversations in the religious group, sometimes heated, but mostly good natured and frequently humorous. It helps me to better define my own ideas about a variety of subjects that I consider important to my life. Many times as a lay person these interesting questions that are posed are more complicated than they appear and above my head as far theology goes and so I am left searching for an answer or well; at least a definition or history of the ideas and thoughts behind this particular ideologies. So I went off in search of meaning and insight through memories, across the World Wide Web, in the encyclopedia and the Oxford Companion Bible and here are the results.

My first introduction the idea of sanctuary was from the 1939's film based upon Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton as a poor disfigured soul whose only means of eking out a sustenance in the society to which he was born disfigured into, was to ring the church bells for a French place of worship. The first time I saw it my thoughts were struck dumb at the depth of his compassion as I watched Quasimodo, save Esmeralda from the law, and almost unintelligible cry for "Sanctuary!" as he carried her to safety inside the cathedral of Notre Dame. It is one of the finest examples of literature put to film.

Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885) long regarded in France as one of that country's greatest poets, is better known abroad for his novels Les Miserables and Notre-Dame de Paris or the English translation, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831). Hugo deliberately chose his setting for the story as an evocation of life in medieval Paris during the reign of Louis XI. While Notre-Dame was being written, Louis-Philippe, a constitutional king, had been brought to power by the July Revolution. The novel condemned the royalist society, in the persons of Frollo the archdeacon and Phoebus the soldier, heaps misery on the hunchback Quasimodo and the gypsy girl Esmeralda. The theme and social commentary touched the public consciousness deeply at the time.

Today sanctuary is a noun that has come to mean a place sought out by for political refugees to. To be hospitable or to take one in is said to be providing sanctuary. It's also a sacred place, such as a church, temple, or mosque, or the holiest part of a sacred place. A sanctuary has become synonymous with sacrarium, the part of a Christian church around the altar. And a refuge or shelter for wildlife where predators are controlled and hunting is illegal.

A sanctuary as a consecrated, or sacred place began early in the 4th Century. The root of the word is derived from Anglo-French sentuarie, from Old French sainctuarie, from Late Latin. sanctuarium meaning, "a sacred place, shrine." from Latin sanctus. .

In ancient times the Hebrews had cities of refuge open to those who committed unpremeditated murder. In Egypt, the temples dedicated to Osiris and Amon served this purpose, and in Greece all temples offered sanctuary. One of the oldest known European sanctuaries is the Bronze Age Stonehenge. Initiated during the Neolithic era it was remade several times, finally completed about 1400 BC. Older than Stonehenge is a peninsula lined with numerous megalithic tombs in the area near Brittany France called Carnac that has been established as a hub of ritualistic activity by archaeologist dating as far back as the 5th and 3rd millennia BC.

A sanctuary of Zeus, Olympia established in 1000 BC was the venue of the Olympic Games. One of the most important religious sanctuaries of the ancient Greek world was Delphi. The principal sanctuary and oracle of Apollo this sacred enclosure remains today an impressive sight where it is located on Mount Parnassus above the Gulf of Corinth. In 632 BC Megacles an Alcmaeonid desecrated the sanctuary of Athena by having a political opponent treacherously murdered there. The oracle of Delphi placed a hereditary curse on the family, banishing them from Athens. During the 4th century In the ancient Greek city of Epidauros was the sanctuary of Asclepius, patients who slept in the temple were visited by the god in their dreams and treated by his priests next morning; thankful inscriptions confirm many cures. As traditional beliefs declined after the 4th century BC the oracle lost influence and the Christian Emperor Theodosius closed many sanctuaries like Olympus and Delphi.

Portable sanctuary or "tent of meeting" was employed by the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 25-31, 33, 35-40). Sanctuary can also be thought of more specifically as the Hebrew Holy of Holies or the ancient Hebrew temple at Jerusalem. The Holiest of Holies expression is a translation of the Hebrew term for the sanctuary inside the tabernacle of the Temple of Jerusalem, where the sacred Ark of the Covenant was kept. Shiloh was the traditional sanctuary of the Ark until the Philistines destroyed the city and captured the Ark in the mid-11th century BC. The earliest site of importance in biblical times is Bethel or the Hebrew 'house of God'. A town north of Jerusalem where Abraham first pitched his tent and built an altar, it's also the same site where Jacob experienced the revelation from God, it became for a time the primary sanctuary of the Israelite tribes.

The right of sanctuary has been practiced throughout the ages. Sacred places that give refuge and inviolable asylum or protection afforded by entering such a places were formerly acknowledged as refuges for criminals or fugitives. After the introduction of Christianity fugitives were able to claim sanctuary in any church or churchyard and later also in certain other places, like Whitefriars in London. After 40 days they were obliged to swear abjuration of the realm. This means the person seeking the 'right of sanctuary' had to confess to his or her transgression before promising to renounce England and could only return following a royal pardon.

Immunity from law attached to a sanctuary was first recognized as the right of sanctuary in Christian abbeys and churches in the 4th century. One of the most infamous characters from history to seek sanctuary as political refuge was the Frankish queen Fredgund. Gregory of Tours in his Historia Froncorum enhanced her reputation as an indomitable, ingenious and atrociously cruel woman:

    While working as a servant, she became the mistress of Chilperic I, the Merovingian King, and influenced him to reject his wife, Audovera, and then to murder his second wife, Galswintha, in 568. She then became his wife. The hatred of Brunhilda, Galswintha's sister and the wife of King Sigebert, and Fredegund for each other led to almost 40 years of war between their two Frankish kingdoms of Neustria and Austrasia. In the course of the war Fredegund engineered the deaths of Sigebert and of her own step-children, Audovera's sons, one of whom she accused of killing her own three sons who had died of the plague.

    When Chilperic was murdered, in mysterious circumstances, in 584, Fredegund seized his wealth and fled to sanctuary in Paris with her remaining son Lothair II. She persuaded the nobles to accept him as legitimate heir, and acted as Regent, continuing her power struggles first with the kings of Burgundy, Guntram (561-92) and Childebert II (593-5), and then with Brunhilda again, who supported her own grandsons' claim to the throne. In 597 she finally defeated her old opponent but died in Paris a few months later. (The Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography, © Jennifer S. Uglow 1999)

Some famous and not so famous stories of political sanctuary in England. Around 1378 two squires Robert Hawley and John Shakell escaped from the Tower of London and took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, but Hawley was murdered by the constable of the Tower on the altar steps.

Another personality to seek immunity from arrest was the Queen consort of Edward IV,Elizabeth Woodville. She secretly wed Edward IV in 1464 and was crowned the following year. The influence she used in securing favors for her family connections made her enemies and following Edward's death she also sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

English Quaker, founder of Pennsylvania. William Penn was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1668 for writing in defense of Quaker practices. Acquitted in 1670, he was granted a charter to land in North America by Charles II and used it to establish the colony of Pennsylvania as a sanctuary for Quakers and other Nonconformists.

Sanctuaries as charitable relief was supplied by almshouses that were supplemented by a series of poor laws during the 16th century. Clergymen established most medieval foundations and originally it was in sections of medieval monasteries in which alms, or food and money, were distributed.

Often abused sanctuary was abolished in Britain with respect to criminal cases sometime between 1623 and 1625 in civil cases by 1722. By the time Victor Hugo was born in 1802 it had ceased to exist in most other countries, but was it was still fresh in the minds of his audience of when his book was published in the early 18th century.

So can sanctuary be refused? I don't know, but I'm a little closer to understanding what it has meant throughout the ages.



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