Rezension über:

Elizabeth Allen: Uncertain Refuge. Sanctuary in the Literature of Medieval England (= The Middle Ages Series), Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2021, 311 S., ISBN 978-0-8122-5344-3, EUR 54,00
Inhaltsverzeichnis dieses Buches
Buch im KVK suchen

Rezension von:
Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ralf Lützelschwab
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Albrecht Classen: Rezension von: Elizabeth Allen: Uncertain Refuge. Sanctuary in the Literature of Medieval England, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2021, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 2 [15.02.2023], URL:

Bitte geben Sie beim Zitieren dieser Rezension die exakte URL und das Datum Ihres Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse an.

Elizabeth Allen: Uncertain Refuge

Textgröße: A A A

The topic of sanctuary pursued by Elizabeth Allen invites critical examinations of the relationship between the secular and the spiritual authorities in the Middle Ages and beyond. The desperate desire of a condemned fellow about to be executed or of a group of people facing nearly certain death to find sanctuary in a church, at a cross, a saint's grave, or simply at the feet of a bishop was a source of much debate. If sanctuary was granted, then divine laws overruled worldly laws, and it pitted the representatives of the Church against the king, the royal court, or the legal courts. But a king could also demonstrate his strong character and virtues by granting sanctuary, which then would have been an act of surprising mercy and overruled all traditional legal procedures. The sanctuary itself constituted a sacred space, either within an architectural frame or next to a religious person.

Allen identifies three stages in sanctuary seeking: "flight, refuge, and sacred space" (4), and once granted, sanctuary challenged the established laws or the entire legal system, insofar as a divine source was appealed to that then superseded all worldly authorities. Each case of a sanctuary seeker caused much friction and tension, and was solved only, if at all, after intensive negotiations between the various power players.

The phenomenon itself can be found in many ancient and medieval cultures, but Allen begins her study with England during the twelfth century when King Henry II expanded his jurisdiction over the entire country. The murder of Thomas Becket within the cathedral of Canterbury threatened the institution of sanctuary altogether, the consequences of which have already been discussed for a long time. However, even many clerics seriously questioned the validity of sanctuary because this could make the house of God to a 'den of thieves,' as both Pope Innocent III and Pope Gregory IX stated in their bulls.

The medieval institution of sanctuary declined steadily until the sixteenth century, at least in England (Allen's exclusive focus), when it came to a sudden stop when Henry VIII dissolved all monasteries, which removed the concrete spaces for sanctuaries, and when King Charles I banned it in 1623 altogether. The lengthy introduction to this book thus provides a valuable historical overview and also a critical discussion of major scholarly voices. Why Allen also needed to quote famous Jacques Derrida in this context seems unnecessary, but maybe it is a typical scholarly fig leaf, except that he had also published an essay on hospitality. I am surprised however (and grateful) that Michel Foucault does not appear here whom many younger scholars like to cite as the ultimate authority for everything.

In six chapters, Allen takes us on a fascinating, though at times a bit long-winded discussion through a number of different texts where sanctuary cases appear, both historical and literary. Chapter 1 examines the collection of miracles told by Reginald of Durham, especially "The Miracle of Cuthbert's Stag," where a stag itself, as God's representative, searches for sanctuary. Chapter 2 offers an analysis of the fall of Henry III' justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, seen through the lens of Roger Wendover, in which the problematic nature of sanctuaries surfaces well.

Chapter 3 focuses on the so-called Hawley-Shakell affair in which constables pursued two squires and killed one of the fugitives, Robert Hawley, in a sanctuary (Westminster) in 1378, which contemporaries such as John Wyclif supported because the efforts by perpetrators to resort to a sanctuary had undermined the royal authority, whereas the clergy (Thomas Walsingham) was adamantly opposed to this development and argued vehemently against this breach of traditional rules that the church offered absolute sanctuary.

Chapters 4 and 5 attempt to use the concept of sanctuary for the reading first of the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (here dated too late as around 1400, and with considerable disregard of current scholarship), and then of the ballad "Robin Hood and the Monk." In both cases, theory seems to trump the textual evidence, which unfortunately undermines the otherwise carefully crafted monograph. Certainly, Sir Gawain finds hospitality, and he is spared his life by the Green Knight who only nicks his neck because he had not turned over the green belt as part of their wager, but I cannot see at all why the notion of sanctuary would do anything to explain the events in any better way or in what way this rather speculative reading of that famous alliterative romance through this lens would contribute to the critical analysis of this powerful text; the same problem applies to Allen's reading of the Robin Hood ballad.

Chapter 6 turns to Thomas More's Richard III and two seventeenth-century chronicles, along with John Ford's play Perkin Warbeck from 1629, in which the idea of the sanctuary is cast in idyllic but unrealistic light.

Most fascinating proves to be the coda to this book in which the author reflects on the situation in the southwest of Georgia during the early 1960s when her father was working to support the civil rights movement by registering voters. But the term 'sanctuary' again does not seem to apply, at least technically. Nevertheless, until today, there are sanctuaries in the United States, with many churches taking in illegal immigrants and trying to help them to gain a legal status.

This study, which was very long in coming, concludes with an extensive apparatus, the bibliography, and a welcome index. A list of illustrations is missing. It is completely understandable that Allen, a Professor of English, limits her study to the situation in medieval and early modern England (except in the coda), but it still would have been very welcome if she had at least addressed parallel cases on the Continent.

Albrecht Classen