What are indulgences, how were they abused in medieval times, and what do they have to do with the Reformation?

There was no limit to how many indulgences the medieval Church could grant from the heavenly ‘treasury of merit’, though having a real, well-funded treasury could help a great deal. Jonny Wilkes explains more

Illustration of German Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel selling indulgences inside a church

In Roman Catholicism, indulgences remain a part of belief and doctrine to this day, although if you were to ask a group of non-Catholics about them, the chances are they would only bring up the medieval Church and how the practice had been done away with during the Reformation.

Advertisement

An indulgence is a remission of the punishment of sin. Absolution alone, granted by a priest, is not enough to wipe the slate clean; a person is temporally punished for the sins accumulated in life, so an indulgence is a way to reduce that. In essence, it is getting time off for good behaviour.

Indulgences can be anything from good works and charitable acts to prayer and pilgrimage. During medieval times, however, they were abused and corrupted into a moneymaking enterprise. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, the Christian belief in purgatory – the place in between heaven and hell where souls are purified through punishment – grew and intensified. Believers wanted to avoid ending up there at any cost.

The Church started granting two kinds of indulgence: ‘plenary’ (or full), which remitted all need for the punishment of sin, or ‘partial’ to deal with a part of one’s debt of sin. This was both a relief to Christians hoping to avoid purgatory, and also a way for them to be encouraged to fight in the Crusades. At the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II promised a plenary indulgence to all men who fought against the infidels.

How were medieval indulgences abused?

As more indulgences were granted, a complex system evolved whereby the church could calculate exactly how much time off purgatory each one was worth. The more time, the bigger the indulgence. There was no limit to what could be granted thanks to the ‘treasury of merit’, a spiritual bank where the good works and merits of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Christ’s faithful and the saints are collected and can be drawn upon for the remission of sins.

The problem was money. Instead of people earning indulgences through Christian devotion, it became clear that they could be exchanged for a payment. This might be a donation to a charitable cause or, for the wealthy, to have church buildings erected. The bottom line: if you gave the church money, you would be awarded salvation. Such a purchase even came with a receipt, or letter of indulgence. Eventually, it became possible to secure indulgences for someone already dead.

The sale of indulgences continued until the 16th century, a time of religious reform. The abuses formed the basis of German friar Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, a catalyst document for the Reformation, in which he argued that salvation should be free to all by faith alone; it should no longer be necessary to serve penance for the remission of sins, let alone pay for it.

That same year Pope Leo X offered indulgences to those who gave money to the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Yet just 50 years later, in 1567, Pope Pius V abolished the sale of indulgences.

Advertisement

This content was commissioned for BBC History Revealed and first published by HistoryExtra in 2021