I is for Indulgences

Czech manuscript shows Satan distributing indulgences. Image from wikipedia.

Indulgences had a huge influence on the Renaissance in a not-so-pleasant way. These are dispensations granted by the Catholic church under very specific conditions, but those conditions weren’t always followed. Representatives, particularly far from Rome, bent the rules, until the rules were in pretzels. Which might remind you of Germany, and that, as it happens, is where the end of the Renaissance sprouted like a seed.

Just to be clear, indulgences aren’t, on their own, a problem. The church still issues them, and the internet is replete with modern info-graphics on how they can be acquired. It’s just that they aren’t sold on the open market or include absolution for 20,000 years. Clarification is required.

Modern-day indulgence instructions. From opusdei.org.

Plenary Indulgences

Reading Catholic doctrine–or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist…any doctrine that one is not familiar with–is a little like reading a science experiment. You look up the meaning to one word which leads to the next and so on. A plenary indulgence is a permission granted to you by the church (in exchange for something you do) to have your temporal punishment reduced for sins which have already been forgiven. If you do some things, like visit a cemetery to honor the dead and pray so many times, then you are granted this permission. The permission reduces punishment that you are also enduring AFTER your sins were forgiven because you went to confession. (Also because Jesus on the cross, too, don’t forget that).

Still not there? You commit a sin, naughty you. But as a good Catholic, you confessed the sin and were given penance, like saying a rosary so many times. But you still have temporal punishment–temporal as opposed to eternal punishment. Temporal means that you have to continue your penitence for that sin through prayer and piety on Earth and possibly still in Purgatory for a while, too. The more sins, the more temporal punishment, the more confessing and praying and so forth. But you need to keep doing that so that your sins don’t accumulate and lead to eternal punishment. If you’ve ever watched Lucifer, well… you know.

A 17th century certificate for an indulgence, from wikipedia.

It Only Sounds Like a Quid Pro Quo

If that accumulation of sin starts to sound soul-crushing, the indulgence is a Catholic partial get-out-of-purgatory card. Now, nervous Catholics can perform a shorter list of actions: read the Scripture for half an hour, pious exercise of the Stations of the Cross, etc., to be granted a lessening of the temporal punishment.

Why can indulgences be granted? Historical explanations go something like this. When you commit a sin, you have to make restitution–that goes back to Hammurabi’s Code, eye for an eye and all that. Christ and his mom and friends in heaven all provide a “treasury of merit,” which the pope has access to, since he’s the vicar of Christ. The papacy is also referred to as a “well of grace.” You can have a sip from that well of grace by petitioning to the pope, who might grant a bit of grace, a bit of that treasury of merit, to a truly repentant sinner, who demonstrates as such with all those actions. The pope is beneficent. Naturally, you would want to donate to the church, too.


Drawing for Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” photo from wikimedia.

Pay to Play

In the 13th-14th-15th centuries, this is where they got into trouble. Priests or people pretending to be priests would offer pardons, indulgences, “relics” to kiss, or other means where faithful Christians could be granted remission of temporal punishment in exchange for money. This was a quid pro quo, which has its own church-y name: Simony.

Simony is also a big sin. Dante has the simoners burn in a special circle of hell near the greedy. In Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” the pardoner, who is a con man (or a simoner) boasts of duping parishioners for money with his fake relics, but he still asks for money from the group after telling his story. The host says he would rather cut off the Pardoner’s… Chaucer gets very bawdy, you know.

Catholic councils kept meeting and reconfirming the rules, especially because priests started granting very lengthy terms of remission, like 40 years, in exchange for someone say building a church. Or they would grant indulgences for the dead. (That’s not as weird as it sounds; if you worried that your sinful uncle is wandering through Purgatory, you might want him to get some sips of that grace, too.)

Decrees from 1215 and 1392 repeatedly warned priests against granting lengthy indulgences or too many for the dead. Even so, it went on. The “Butter Tower” of Rouen Cathedral was nicknamed because of money raised from allowing indulgences for people to use butter during Lent. Another engraving shows an indulgence granting 20,000 years of remission, which presumably would last for most of someone’s Purgatory.

Luther Starts Gathering Nails

Johann Tetzel seemed to be the German freund that brought the Stroke was dem Kamel’s Rucken genbrachen. Tetzel was appointed Grand Inquisitor for Poland, then Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany. He was openly marketing indulgences to raise money, half of which went to help built St. Peter’s Basilica–lovely church ain’t it?–and the other half to pay off the debts of the archbishop who appointed him. There was a little ditty attributed to Tetzel:

As soon as the gold in the casket rings
The rescued soul to heaven springs

Luther had had enough of this by 1517. Tetzel’s actions, along with others, led Luther to publish his 95 Theses, which he tacked up on the church doors in Wittenberg.

Satirical engraving of Johannes Tetzel, from wikipedia.

After Luther’s movement started gathering steam and fed-up parishioners, the Catholic Church passed a series of rules to ensure money was no longer collected in exchange for indulgences. Thus, indulgences are still granted from the well of grace but without any quid pro quo.

Don’t even get me started on Renaissance chantries and composition fees.

4 Replies to “I is for Indulgences”

    1. Part of me feels like the whole things is weird, but then the other part of me knows that I can’t possibly poke fun of someone else’s faith, especially since the underlying idea is to get people to be good and penitent about what they did wrong. But they are a Thing!

Leave a Reply