The term indulgence is typically defined as the remission of temporal punishment due to God for sin. The term penance refers to a sacramental rite comprising the contrite oral confession of one’s sins to a priest, the penitent’s acceptance and eventual completion of acts of satisfaction imposed by the priest, and the priest’s absolution of the penitent from the guilt incurred by those sins.
Several problems complicate the historical study of indulgences. The use of indulgences in practice long predated theologians’ attempts to precisely explain and justify the way in which indulgences functioned and the spiritual benefits they provided. Moreover, conceptions and uses of indulgences evolved dramatically throughout the Middle Ages; definitions and usages that hold true for one period may not hold true for another. Both in theory and in practice, indulgences were closely tied to pilgrimage, the veneration of saints and their relics, and changing conceptions of purgatory and the sacrament of penance.
By the twelfth century, the concept of indulgences and the sacrament of penance both rested upon what was known as the doctrine of the keys, deriving from Matthew 16:19. This was the belief that Christ had granted to the first pope, St. Peter, and his ecclesiastical successors, the ability to refuse or grant to penitents absolution from the guilt and the punishment attached to their sins. Some theologians claimed that the penitent’s contrition for his sin absolved him from his guilt. However, true contrition would be manifested by confession to a priest (unless one were unavailable). The priest’s absolution of the confessing penitent represented God’s forgiveness of the guilt incurred by his sin, freeing him from the danger of hellfire. However, the penalty, or punishment, due for sin still remained. Ideally, the penance imposed by the priest upon the sinner would achieve two things. It would counteract the nature of the sins committed. It would also enable the penitent to pay the penalty incurred by his sins in this world through works of satisfaction in order to avoid having to pay it in the next through purgatorial torments.
Penitential handbooks had customarily prescribed rigorous set penances for many sins, such as years of harsh fasting. For fear that penitents genuinely unable to complete imposed penances within their lifetimes would despair or ignore them, confessors soon adapted the nature and quantity of the penance imposed to the personalities and circumstances of penitents. The degree of the penitent’s contrition was another important factor, as it was believed to directly affect the validity of any penance performed. Penances, whether undertaken voluntarily or imposed, could include works of charity (and financial sacrifice) such as almsgiving, acts of devotion such as prayer or pilgrimage, and forms of self-denial and physical hardship such as fasting or physical discipline. Through the power of the keys, priests and other ecclesiastics possessing jurisdiction over the penitent could also commute penances by substituting alternative works of satisfaction. This could result in a shorter but harsher penance, such as an arduous pilgrimage. Alternatively, the individual could be assigned less exacting penances such as prayers or the giving of alms. In this case, the responsibility of supplementing the remitted penance fell upon other members of the church, whose prayers, austerities, and good works would make up for any penance the penitent failed to perform before death.
The power of the keys was also invoked by popes, abbots, and bishops to grant indulgences, that is partial remissions of the penance originally imposed by an absolving priest, to individuals who performed a specified work of devotion. These could include attending particular churches or religious festivals (often feasts that marked the canonization of a saint or translation of relics), reciting prayers, visiting pilgrimage shrines, or giving alms for the building or sustenance of religious houses, hospitals, bridges, and churches. These partial remissions were often expressed in terms of days, weeks, or years, or a percentage subtracted from the estimated penance or satisfaction owed for sin. Despite persistent doubts concerning the precise functioning and potential spiritual dangers attached to indulgences, many bishops and popes appear to have viewed them as essential instruments for encouraging lay confession and for stimulating, channeling, and rewarding charitable works and devotion.
Many historians attribute the first offer of a plenary indulgence, or full remission of all the penance due for contritely confessed sins, to Pope Urban II. While preaching the First Crusade in 1095, he is reported to have offered it to all who, with pure motives, vowed to make an armed pilgrimage in order to aid the Holy Land. However, some scholars have argued that the crusade indulgence was not fully institutionalized until the late twelfth century. Many participants seem to have viewed the First Crusade (1096-1099) as an extraordinary and not necessarily repeatable opportunity for a form of arduous yet relatively brief penance. The crusade campaign fused military service for Christ with pilgrimage and offered the possibility of erasing one’s confessed sins and earning salvation without the complete and permanent renunciation of the world required by the monastic profession. Granted in acknowledgment of the possible hardships endured by those who took the crusader’s cross and their potential martyrdom in defense of the faith, the plenary crusade indulgence was also at first conceptually linked to the remissions of sin traditionally granted to those who made the arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This understanding led some early crusaders to fear that if they died before reaching Christ’s tomb, they would not receive the crusade indulgence.
After the crusade indulgence was applied to struggles against Muslims in Spain, pagans in the Baltic region, Cathar heretics in southern France, and political opponents of the papacy, the original association of the crusade with the Holy Land was gradually weakened. This meant that the exact nature of the service required to obtain the plenary became the subject of debate. Theologians and canon lawyers stressed that the indulgence was a reward for the penitent’s imitation of Christ’s sufferings and the death he risked while combating the enemies of the faith. Some individuals took the crusade vow on their own initiative or in response to appeals from the East without waiting for the pope to formally offer an indulgence, although the papacy largely successfully defended its exclusive right to grant various indulgences for the crusades. Some popes attempted to stipulate the term of military service necessary to earn the plenary, varying from one to three years for crusades to the Holy Land to forty days for the Albigensian Crusade in southern France (1209-1229). However, many crusaders considered shorter periods sufficient and left after their resources petered out, or after an important military or devotional objective was achieved.
Similarly, concepts of the precise extent and applicability of the crusade indulgence could vary widely according to the enthusiasm of those who preached the crusade and the interpretation given to their promises by their audiences. Many believed that the plenary indulgence granted to those who devoutly fulfilled a crusading vow replaced all penances imposed for previously committed but contritely confessed sins (and in some instances, forgotten and future sins as well!). Even in papal bulls, the precise formulation of the crusade indulgences’ conditions and benefits continued to vary until Innocent III established several categories of remissions granted in Ad liberandam (1215). This decree’s categories and phraseology were adopted by most later crusade bulls. Those who performed the labor and undertook the expense of the crusading pilgrimage in a devout frame of mind received a full remission of contritely confessed sins, as did those who paid for substitutes to fulfill their vow or served as substitutes themselves. Those providing assistance or counsel also partook in the crusade indulgence according to their devotion and the type of aid rendered. Partial indulgences similar to those granted to persons giving alms to charitable projects also came to be awarded to those who dutifully paid crusade taxes, attended crusade sermons, liturgies, and processions, lent substantial advice or aid to crusading projects, or made voluntary donations or bequests. Ideally, these partial indulgences were rated according to the penitents’ devotion and the financial hardship their donation or participation represented.
The crusade thus remained firmly linked in conception and practice to other penitential practices rewarded by partial indulgences, including local pilgrimages to devotional sites and the financial support of charitable enterprises. Similar to other works of satisfaction or pilgrimage vows, the commitment to armed pilgrimage held necessary to obtain the full crusading indulgence could, in cases of poverty, illness, age, or debility, be commuted into another form of penance. This might include sending a substitute or donating the money that would have been spent on the journey to the crusade or another charitable project. This meant that over time, despite many attempts to curtail the practice, the full indulgence gradually became attached to activities such as almsgiving that originally had been granted only partial indulgences. This transferral and the offer of partial indulgences for the crusade were not initially motivated by a desire to convert the devotion of the faithful into cash for the crusade. On the contrary, both appear to have stemmed from a desire on the part of the papacy and those preaching the crusade to allow those unable to participate personally in the military expedition to contribute to the crusade effort and partake in its spiritual rewards.
Until the late twelfth century, dispensations from the crusade vow were generally difficult to obtain. Individuals were screened before being allowed to take the cross and were granted commutations or redemptions of their crusading vow only on the grounds of extreme poverty, the safety of the realm, old age, or permanent disabilities. However, Pope Innocent III and many of his preachers insisted that the crusade vow should be granted to all who desired it. They appear to have intended to financially subsidize those hardy enough to make the journey. The devotion of other militarily unfit individuals who took the crusader’s cross and had fully intended to join the expedition until their vows were commuted just before the departure of the crusading army would be rewarded by being granted the plenary indulgence in return for other forms of contribution to the crusade. Yet this plan for universal participation unwittingly enabled individuals technically capable of fulfilling their vows in person to gain the plenary indulgence through deliberately commuting their personal participation into a donation to the crusade effort.
By the mid-thirteenth century, as the offices of preacher and commuter of vows became increasingly combined, critics complained that the plenary indulgence was being “sold” when the unfit, aged, and deathly ill were urged to take crusading vows, which were redeemed immediately. The instantaneous nature of these vow redemptions tended to erode the intention for personal participation present when redemptions were made at a much later date (if at all). Speedy redemptions also contributed to erasing the distinction between the putatively greater labor required for the plenary indulgence and the relatively minor almsgiving required for partial indulgences. Moreover, in response to pressure from military leaders responsible for organizing crusading contingents (who were worried about managing mobs of devout but untrained crusaders), crusade preaching very gradually shifted its emphasis from recruiting individuals to mustering funds. Categories deemed militarily useless were encouraged, and in some instances obliged, to redeem their crusade vow with money while still receiving the full crusading indulgence. However, the ideal of personal participation in the crusade remained strong.
Variation, confusion, and evolution in practice were exacerbated by the fact that indulgences effectively operated without a theoretical explanation until theologians began systematically considering the sacrament of penance in the mid- to late twelfth century. They were soon forced to retroactively justify indulgences while defending the validity of the sacrament of penance, saintly intercession, penance by proxy, the concept of purgatory, and the priestly power of the keys against criticism by “heretics.” However, they also sought to ensure that indulgences did not become a means for mulcting the faithful for money or enabling the cynical to escape the penance enjoined upon them by their priests. Some theologians insisted that all indulgences were mere spiritual insurance policies. They became valid only if the penitent could not physically perform the original penance assigned to him by his confessor, who had to approve any indulgences obtained. Remissions could only be granted by an ecclesiastical authority possessing penitential jurisdiction over the penitent, such as his bishop or the pope.
Many theologians claimed that an indulgence’s efficacy depended upon the substituted act that the penitent was responsible for performing (which ought to be proportionate to the remission granted) and his or her contrition and devotion. It was also contingent on variables outside the penitent’s control, including the quantity and quality of the good works, prayers, masses, and so on, organized by the authority offering the indulgence. These constituted a reserve that could be drawn upon to vicariously fulfill the penitent’s remitted original penance. This highly conditional conception of indulgences tended to limit the extent and number of remissions granted, since the reserves generated by the church militant (i.e., the members of the church alive on earth) was not bottomless. For this very reason, Innocent III and other popes organized special crusading liturgies and processions designed to earn enough spiritual credit to back up the partial and plenary indulgences offered for the crusade.
Unlike earlier secular theologians who had based their theory of indulgences upon the limited powers of priests and bishops to remit penance, mendicant theologians working in the second half of the thirteenth century theoretically mirrored current practice by gradually eroding the concept that indulgences should be proportionate to the suffering incurred by the recipient’s donation or labors. They severed the validity of indulgences from the limiting factors of the penitent’s own efforts and those of the church on earth by emphasizing the power of the penitent’s contrition and formulating the concept of the treasury of merits. According to this theory, by a special exercise of the power of the keys, the pope and those to whom he delegated his authority could dispense merit bankrolled from the limitless virtues of Christ and of the church triumphant (i.e., the saints and martyrs in heaven) in order to disproportionately reprieve sinners of their enjoined penance, although the penitent’s contrition and confession were still essential. The concept that the power of an indulgence was linked to the merits of the saints and Christ was by no means entirely novel. Yet the formulation and acceptance of this theory accompanied the widespread granting of the plenary indulgence in return for donations to the crusade and the plenary’s gradual, though by no means inevitable, disassociation from the crusading movement.
Complaints about the abuse of indulgences proliferated throughout the Middle Ages, but initially focused largely on the activities of wandering fund-raisers, or pardoners, who toured with relics and letters of indulgence to gather alms for charitable projects. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) sought to restrain these fund-raisers and to combat bishops’ perceived tendency to inflate partial indulgences granted to those attending church dedications and anniversaries. Preachers bent more on offerings than on the good of souls were also accused of claiming the ability to free the souls of specific persons from purgatory or even hell through the grant of transferable indulgences in return for donations. However, the theoretical qualms expressed by theologians and many bishops were often strikingly absent from their presentation of indulgences in devotional works intended for lay audiences. Crusade sermons often portrayed the plenary indulgence as a key that granted instant access to heaven to the contrite, even if they died with only the intent of fulfilling their crusading vow in person. Preachers also insisted that crusaders’ spouses and family, dead or alive, share in the benefits of the crusading indulgence long before these benefits were enshrined in papal bulls.
The generous terms of indulgences gradually increased during the thirteenth century, leading eventually to the grant of the plenary indulgence for the pilgrimage to Rome by Boniface VIII and his successors. Complaints regarding the hyperinflation of indulgences and the number of projects to which they were applied also continued to grow, reaching their zenith during the publicizing of plenary indulgences for the crusades against the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Moreover, by the late fifteenth century, the advent of the printing press exacerbated the already existing mass production of “pardons.” Typical of the late medieval period, these standardized letters granting indulgences and other spiritual privileges were sold by professional pardoners in return for a minimal contribution to any one of a long list of charitable causes (including various crusades). Pardoners’ hyperbolic promotional techniques and unscrupulous activities invoked the scorn of writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and the ire of reformers, including Martin Luther.
Many popes and church councils attempted to redress abuses associated with indulgences. Nevertheless, secular rulers, conciliarists, and other reformers resented the perceived diversion of money to Rome and the dubious methods employed by some preachers, particularly as the donations required to receive the increasingly inflated benefits ascribed to the plenary indulgence continued to decrease. Critics’ disillusionment with the “sale” of indulgences grew after money raised by preaching tours for the Holy Land or the anti-Ottoman crusades was consumed by local princes or diverted to other enterprises. Moreover, despite attempts to reclaim the plenary indulgence for the crusade alone, it was increasingly applied to other causes, including papal wars, almsgiving, donations to church building projects, and the pilgrimage to Rome or Jerusalem. This transfer paralleled the gradual loss of the crusades’ allure, as rulers and populace alike reluctantly came to accept that the Holy Land would not be recovered by a traditional crusade.