What price would you pay?


It is the time of year for resolutions – go on a diet, join a gym, give up drink. Whatever your guilty pleasure might be, what if you were offered an easy way out. A way of writing off all that guilt and sin, for a price. Would you take it? In the middle ages the Church had just the thing for you and by the early 16th century it seemed that just about everyone with enough spare cash would be buying an indulgence to ease their guilt and smooth the path to heaven.

At this time, the sacraments of the medieval Catholic Church were at the heart of everyone’s lives, and it was important to perform them in order to get into heaven. The confession of sins, and the ability of a priest to absolve people’s sins, was a central feature of the medieval Church. Indulgences were intended to offer remission from other punishments that might be handed out as part of confession.  People believed that the forgiveness of sin reduced their time in purgatory – a temporary stop for souls before entrance to heaven. As Purgatory became more prominent in Christian thinking, the idea developed that the term of indulgences related to remission of time in Purgatory.

The sale of indulgences became an important income stream for the Church. Many were issued in the late 15th century to raise funds for a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks. In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to write his 95 Theses, condemning what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. In Thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”.

The invention of printing boosted the use of indulgences, allowing thousands to be printed at one time. We have a number of original printed indulgences in our collection, many of which only survive as fragments reused in the bindings of books. The example currently on display in our Reformation exhibition is especially significant as it has been preserved exactly as it was issued on 7 March 1455. This particular indulgence was ordered by Pope Nicolas V in support of the defense of Cyprus and the distribution was delegated to the Cypriot nobleman Paul Chappe whose name can be seen in the middle of the first line. When Chappe arrived in Germany he commissioned Johann Gutenberg to produce the indulgences for him on his new printing press. This makes our indulgence one of the earliest dated examples of printing.

Indulgentia, Printed by Johann Gutenberg, Mainz, 1454-1455. Ref. Spencer 17250.2

This indulgence was issued at Würzburg to Heinrich Deupprecht and his wife Anna (Heinricus Deupprecht et Anna vxor eius legitima). Under the fold at the bottom of the document are the further details that it was sold by Johannes Allendorf, the abbot of St. Burkhard monastery in Würzburg for the sum of 1 florin. This was equivalent to about a week’s wages for a skilled labourer – a price worth paying to absolve you of all your sin ?

3 comments on “What price would you pay?

  1. How ironic now, that something so easily bought (if you had the money then) is deemed priceless to us now. But is the hypocrisy of the act any different now as it was then? I mean when we donate to charity to clear our consciences?
    I guess actions speak louder than words, and when we do something good it makes us feel better; and that in itself isn’t altogether a bad thing, I don’t suppose as humanbeings we have changed all that much.

    It is a beautiful document to look at however, thank you for posting this.

  2. And still Cyprus and the Holy Land cry out for peace and reconciliation …

  3. Pingback: 10 April: More vital than cake … | agnellusmirror

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