The Conundrum of the Missing Women Sanctuary Seekers

As I discuss in several of these posts, very few women sought sanctuary in English churches and religious houses in the late Middle Ages: my research has uncovered that women constituted about 1% of felons and about 1.6% of all sanctuary seekers.

Seekers of all kindsFelons
Female Seekers30 (1.63%)15 (1.01%)
Male Seekers1808 (98.37%)1464 (98.9%)
(See Sanctuary Seekers in Medieval England for the source of this data)

The highly gendered nature of sanctuary-seeking in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is not easy to explain. To some extent, at least, it’s owed to the construction of the English criminal law that simply assumed that felons were male. Violence – both authorized and criminalized – was gendered masculine in medieval society and in the late Middle Ages, women made up only about 4-6% of those prosecuted for felonies. It’s likely that men did commit more felonies than women, but what’s impossible for us to tell is whether the prosecution gender gap simply reflected that difference in actual felonious conduct or whether women were less likely to be pursued than men.

If felony law assumed that perpetrators were men, so also did the mitigations (loopholes) available for felons to escape the full force of punishment. This meant that, in structural terms, women found it difficult or impossible to take advantage of mitigation. Benefit of clergy—increasingly important through the fifteenth century as a means of mitigation for laymen as well as male religious—was unavailable to women in this period. We can infer from the numbers in the table above that sanctuary, in both its forms, worked much more effectively for men than for women, although it is not clear why. Here are a few guesses: for abjurers, if exile overseas might have been a viable option for a man, perhaps general cultural prohibitions against women travelling alone made it more difficult and dangerous for a woman. Even in chartered sanctuaries, the evidence shows that there were very few women who sought the privilege, indicating that they saw there, too, dangers or difficulties finding the basics of life.

Women might accompany their husbands into sanctuary, especially in the case of debtors who stayed in sanctuary precincts long-term, but it seems that most sanctuary precincts were overwhelmingly male places. Twitter reaction to another post on here brought to my attention (special thanks here to John Jenkins and Shaun McAlister) that one of the most important chartered sanctuaries in England, Durham Cathedral, was likely a deliberately all-male environment. Women were not permitted to enter the cathedral due to a belief that the cathedral’s patron saint, Cuthbert of Durham, had forbidden it; there is evidence that this injunction was enforced in the 15th century (in one fascinating early 15th-century case – here, scrolling down to fol. 7r – two women were chastised for dressing in men’s clothing to get into the church to visit Cuthbert’s shrine). This clearly would have then introduced a formal bar for women sanctuary seekers (and indeed Durham’s records show not a single woman sanctuary seeker of the 293 Durham seekers). Though such exclusions of women were not in place elsewhere in English churches to my knowledge, this is a somewhat stunning illustration of the extent to which the structures were both formally and informally masculine.

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