By Lilibeth Garcia

In 2016, faculty, students and alumni across the country pressured their administrations to declare their universities “sanctuary campuses” for undocumented students, workers and their families. Before long, in 2017, California passed a "sanctuary law” preventing state and local law enforcement from sharing immigrants’ personal information with immigration authorities. While the policy has provided limited protections to those at-risk of deportation, what does sanctuary mean, exactly?

For most, sanctuary is a current political problem, an act mired in controversial debate about the legality of immigration and whether communities have a moral duty to protect vulnerable migrants. But for Elizabeth Allen, chair and professor in UCI’s Department of English, the idea of sanctuary is rich in historical and literary meaning. It goes back to the Middle Ages, a time when sanctuary was written into law as a core part of the criminal justice process. Her new book, Uncertain Refuge: Sanctuary in the Literature of Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), explores the symbolic history of this contemporary topic.

In medieval England, roughly 1,000 people sought sanctuary every year. To take sanctuary meant “to flee to the church” before going on trial for a felony. Granted through royal mercy, sanctuary allowed someone to literally run to a church, sometimes chased down by neighbors and family seeking revenge. They could stay there and be protected for up to 40 days. After that, they had to come out and either stand trial, or confess their crime, give up everything they owned and travel barefoot to an assigned port to go into exile.

Rather than offering permanent security, sanctuary was a temporary respite from the inevitability of confession and exile or trial and, if convicted of a felony, execution.

“On the one hand, sanctuary was very precarious and temporary, and it led you into exile forever, but on the other hand, it was the difference between life and death,” Allen says. “It’s both weak but also very strong, and part of what interests me about the legal history of sanctuary in the Middle Ages are the symbolic meanings that gather around sanctuary seekers.”

Her book is divided into six sections, with each one meditating on a medieval story. In one, a stag seeks and is granted sanctuary from the hunt. The story ebbs and flows as the animal finds temporary relief in a chapel and bows in worship – only to be attacked and killed anyway. But the stag’s legacy lives on when a craftsman tries to take its antlers and they spontaneously bleed. The miracle brings together a community in prayer and festivities. This tension between safety, risk and sacred power envelops all the stories in Uncertain Refuge and illuminates the complexity of our own modern tales of seeking and finding refuge.

In fact, the 1980s sanctuary movement, which paved the way for more contemporary forms of sanctuary, retained a crucial connection to sacred space. It was started by Christian churches, whose members were motivated by an influx of Central American asylum-seekers “fleeing to the church.” By providing safe havens for refugees from civil conflict, they followed medieval footsteps. Yet whereas medieval sanctuary was baked into criminal law and supported by the king, the sanctuary movement was a form of civil disobedience, designed to demand a change in the law.

As in medieval England, sanctuary today often entails interaction between the church and the state: then, through active collaboration, and now, through rebellion. It’s the figurative thread connecting English literary works from the Middle Ages – miracle collections, chronicles, romances and drama – to present-day events that draws Allen to the topic of sanctuary. And it’s a thread that has looped through her own history.

“Partway through writing the book, I came across a new book about the civil rights movement in Southwest Georgia, which is where my father had been involved in that movement,” Allen says. “And it dawned on me that I was fascinated by sanctuary for reasons that are linked to my father's activism. The civil rights movement, especially as he experienced it, was located in the church.” The church acted as a safe zone for activists and marginalized groups, adds Allen, where they held mass-like introductions before political meetings and closed-off with prayer and song. Allen says that her father’s peculiar form of left-wing Christianity began to make more sense to her as she worked on Uncertain Refuge.

Taking sanctuary, what was once a legal act that mitigated the punishment of death, is more recently a secular political action. For instance, some cities and universities offer a secular form of sanctuary, protecting undocumented refugees by refusing cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Still, Allen insists that a residue of symbolic resonance from sanctuary’s association with the church gathers around even secular situations.

“It’s always an act that entails follow-up,” Allen says. “Sanctuary isn't an end-point where you can just kind of rest, but rather a political act that demands something further of us. One of the things that we can learn from the Middle Ages is that sanctuary, even if it's not articulated in law, does bear a relationship to the law, and when people talk about sanctuary being illegal or immigrants being illegal, they're trying to secularize people so that they can take away that symbolic meaning.”

Since joining UCI in 1999, Allen has taught courses on Chaucer, medieval cycle plays, Arthurian romance, the Bible as literature and more. In 2005, she published False Fables and Exemplary Truth (Palgrave, 2005), a book about how medieval stories try (and fail) to teach moral truths to their readers. This fall, she was named chair of the English department.

Uncertain Refuge is the result of a 16-year-long project. It was during that time that Allen discovered how college campuses can be modern sanctuaries in more than one sense.

“UCI has given me time to learn alongside my students, to research medieval legal history, to figure out what this particular legal practice has to do with literature. The university has provided me with a sort of ‘sanctuary’ for intellectual exploration, and I think that’s absolutely crucial, not just for me but for our students,” she says. “One of the most difficult things about the pandemic is that we were deprived of our classrooms, which are ‘safe spaces,’ sanctuaries of a sort, where for a little while we can think together, where we can talk freely about things we didn’t know before.”

Though classrooms aren’t purely safe – they can also be challenging and difficult, as all sanctuaries are – they offer new opportunities for growth. When Allen first decided to write about sanctuary seeking, she did not immediately make a strong connection to present day problems, she says. It was the social changes that swept the university and the country that helped her reframe her work to consider how it connects to the modern world.

Studying literature from the Middle Ages is like traveling to a foreign country or a fairy otherworld, Allen says. “When you visit, you come back to your own world with a new perspective, new ideas, and even sometimes a new plan of action.”