Indulgences and the Reformation

This month, on October 31st 2017, it is five hundred years since the event that is often said to have sparked the beginning of the Protestant movement in Europe: when Martin Luther nailed his ‘95 Theses’ against the doctrine of indulgences on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. Therefore, it seems somehow appropriate that I recently catalogued a unique item from the Perne Library collections that turned out to have a close connection to the origins of the Reformation. The item in question is an indulgence granted by Pope Leo X for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and for the support of the Augustinian Friars’ Churches in England and Ireland, which was printed in London, probably by Richard Pynson, in 1517 or 1518.

Entitled The artycles of saynt Peters generall pardon of plenary remissyon a pena et culpa graunted for the byldynge of saynt Peters church at Rome: and the co[n]entuall churches of friers Augustines within the realme of England/ and Irelande, the indulgence at Peterhouse survived as a pastedown on the boards of the binding (itself probably made in London) of a Concordance of the Hebrew Bible published at Venice in 1523, and later owned by Andrew Perne. The indulgence was granted by ‘the moost holy father in god pope Leo X” to offer full remission of sins “to all and euery man & woman beying truely penitent and co[n]fessed and byfityng devoutly any co[n]uentaull church of the sayd order [i.e. Augustinians]” within the realms of England and Ireland, with the condition that they give “any certayne so[m]me of such goodes as god hath sent them: after their conscience/ devotyin/ and riches”.

Image 1: Peterhouse indulgence – upper half

Through this pardon, the Pope also gave licence to the Prior Provincial of the Augustinians and his substitutes to ‘depute and assigne [the indulgence] as often as need shall require’, ‘in euery tyme and place through the yere’. In the last paragraph of the document, King Henry VIII extends his royal protection to the document and asks his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors and deacons to ‘giue their faurable assista[n]ce and to declare i[n] their churches /chapels this holy p[ar]don’ (image 2).

Image 2: Peterhouse indulgence-lower half

The item at Peterhouse is a typical example of an indulgence granted in sixteenth-century England. A practice originally introduced by the Christian Church as a way of achieving remission of sins by performing good works (such as almsgiving, fasting, going on pilgrimages, etc), indulgences were in reality often abused and misused by clerical authorities with the sole purpose of gaining financial rewards. The frequent exploitation of these ‘spiritual pardons’ for pecuniary reasons was increasingly being seen throughout Europe as a sign of the growing corruption amidst the Church and its ruling body, the Papacy.

Then in March 1513, Giovanni de’ Medici (of the famous Medici family in Florence) was elected Pope under the name Leo X.  Having been raised at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent and already accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, Leo X quickly became known for his expensive tastes and unrestrained spending habits. With much of the papal revenues going to fund his personal expenses, Leo X needed additional sources of income for his ambitious project of rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He resorted to the centuries-old practice of selling ‘spiritual pardons’ and, in March 1515, issued a bull authorizing the printing of indulgences for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Several agents were hired to sell them throughout Europe. One of them was a Dominican priest named Johann Tetzel, who was operating under a commission from the Archbishop of Mainz, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg. An experienced seller of indulgences, Tetzel was notorious for his mercenary and manipulative style, which often preyed on people’s anxieties about the afterlife. Tetzel would entice his customers by promising them that “As soon as the coin clinks in the coffer, another soul springs from purgatory” and he is known to have used a list with the tariff to be paid for each sin committed.

Image 3: Johann Tetzel

As expected, not everybody was happy with Tetzel’s exaggerated claims. In Wittenberg, an Augustinian friar and professor of theology by the name of Martin Luther decided to express his dissatisfaction in 95 ‘Theses’ disputing the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Following the local university’s tradition of scholarly debate, Luther nailed a copy of his Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (which doubled as the university notice board) and waited for a response to his invitation for academic debate.

The reaction to Luther’s criticism against the doctrine of indulgences was far greater than anyone could have reasonably anticipated. Quickly translated into German and disseminated with the help of the new printing technology, Luther’s ideas rapidly spread throughout Germany and beyond, sparking an era of unprecedented religious debate that would eventually culminate in the great schism of the Protestant Reformation.

In the decades following Luther’s attack, indulgences slowly went out of use in most European countries and they were eventually forbidden as financial transactions involving a fee by the Council of Trent in 1567. In England, they maintained a significant role in the religious life of the nation until the 1530s, when they were made redundant by Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his subsequent anti-papal legislation. The last known pardon sale in England took place in the year 1532 and after that, “indulgences as documents, things of paper and parchment were not preserved in a world which wanted them lost” (Swanson, p. 516). However, many of these items have survived in the bindings of books, and the copy at Peterhouse is an excellent example of that; it also serves as a powerful reminder of a significant moment in the past that fundamentally changed the nature of Christian belief and worship.


Swanson, R.N. Indulgences in Late Medieval England. Passports to Paradise? Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Written by Adriana Celmare.

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