Shannon McSheffrey, Sanctuary and the Legal Topography of Pre-Reformation London
Through an examination of St. Martin Le Grand, a privileged territory in the heart of late medieval London, Shannon McSheffrey argues that pre-Reformation English sanctuaries must be understood not only in the context of complex intertwinings of conceptions of kingship, justice, mercy, and Christian religion, but in the quotidian practice and observance of the sanctuary space by those who lived in and around the sanctuary. By 1400, a number of English religious houses had come to offer permanent sanctuary to accused criminals, political refugees, debtors, and aliens. These small territories, which exercised varying extents of juridical and political autonomy, considerably complicated the jurisdictional map of late medieval England. Determining and recognizing the boundaries of the sanctuary territory was difficult: the bounds of the precinct were marked in some places by walls and gates, but in other places by notional, and often disputed, lines in the middle of streets. The meaning of the sanctuary was constituted through claims, counter-claims, and royal confirmations; through precedent and custom; and through how particular kinds of individuals--those “privileged” of the sanctuary--inhabited and used the territory. Although the royal free chapel and sanctuary of St. Martin Le Grand, like other English sanctuaries, was felled along with a host of ecclesiastical institutions in the dissolutions of the English Reformation, McSheffrey argues that we cannot understand its late medieval and early Tudor history teleologically, through the hindsight of its dissolution. Sanctuary, and the sacrality that underpinned it, continued to function in the early sixteenth century, not as an obsolete relic of earlier conceptions of law, punishment, and the role of the church, but because it dovetailed closely with late medieval and early Tudor conceptions of law, kingship, and Christian charity.