ON March 15, 1517, Pope Leo X promulgated the most famous of all indulgences. It was a pity, yet just, that the Reformation should strike during a pontificate that gathered into Rome so many of the fruits, and so much of the spirit, of the Renaissance. Leo, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was now head of the Medici family, which had nourished the Renaissance in Florence; he was a scholar, a poet, and a gentleman, kindly and generous, in love with classical literature and delicate art. His morals were good in an immoral milieu; his nature inclined to a gaiety pleasant and legitimate, which set an example of happiness for a city that a century before had been destitute and desolate. All his faults were superficial except his superficiality. He made too little distinction between the good of his family and that of the Church, and wasted the funds of the papacy on questionable poets and wars. He was normally tolerant, enjoyed the satire directed against ecclesiastics in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, and practiced, with occasional lapses, the unwritten agreement by which the Renaissance Church accorded considerable freedom to philosophers, poets, and scholars who addressed themselves—usually in Latin—to the educated minority, but who left the irreplaceable faith of the masses undisturbed.
The son of a banker, Leo was accustomed to spending money readily, and chiefly on others. He inherited full papal coffers from Julius II, and emptied them before he died. Perhaps he did not care much for the massive basilica that Julius had planned and begun, but the old St. Peter’s was beyond repair, immense sums had been poured into the new one, and it would be a disgrace to the Church to let that majestic enterprise abort. Possibly with some reluctance he offered the indulgence of 1517 to all who would contribute to the cost of completing the great shrine. The rulers of England, Germany, France, and Spain protested that their countries were being drained of wealth, their national economies were being disturbed, by repeated campaigns for luring money to Rome. Where kings were powerful Leo was considerate: he agreed that Henry VIII should keep a fourth of the proceeds in England; he advanced a loan of 175,000 ducats to King Charles I (the later Emperor Charles V) against expected collections in Spain; and Francis I was to retain part of the sum raised in France. Germany received less favored treatment, having no strong monarchy to bargain with the Pope; however, the Emperor Maximilian was allotted a modest 3,000 florins from the receipts, and the Fuggers were to take from the collections the 20,000 florins that they had loaned to Albrecht of Brandenburg to pay the Pope for his confirmation as Archbishop of Mainz. Unfortunately that city had lost three archbishops in ten years (1504–14), and had twice paid heavy confirmation fees; to spare it from paying a third time Albrecht borrowed. Now Leo agreed that the young prelate should manage the distribution of the indulgence in Magdeburg and Halberstadt as well as in Mainz. An agent of the Fuggers accompanied each of Albrecht’s preachers, checked expenses and receipts, and kept one of the keys to the strongbox that held the funds.1
Albrecht’s principal agent was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who had acquired skill and reputation as a money-raiser. Since 1500 his main occupation had been in disposing of indulgences. Usually, on these missions, he received the aid of the local clergy: when he entered a town a procession of priests, magistrates, and pious laity welcomed him with banners, candles, and song, and bore the bull of indulgence aloft on a velvet or golden cushion, while church bells pealed and organs played.2 So propped, Tetzel offered, in an impressive formula, a plenary indulgence to those who would penitently confess their sins and contribute according to their means to the building of a new St. Peter’s:
May our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on thee, and absolve thee by the merits of His most holy Passion. And I, by His authority, that of his blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of the most holy Pope, granted and committed to me in these parts, do absolve thee, first from all ecclesiastical censures, in whatever manner they may have been incurred, and then from all thy sins, transgressions, and excesses, how enormous soever they may be, even from such as are reserved for the cognizance of the Holy See; and as far as the keys of the Holy Church extend, I remit to you all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on their account, and I restore you to the holy sacraments of the Church .... and to that innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism; so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut, and the gates of the paradise of delight shall be opened; and if you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.3
This splendid bargain for a believer was in harmony with the official conception of indulgences for the living. Tetzel was again within the letter of his archiepiscopal instructions when he dispensed with preliminary confession if the contributor applied the indulgence to a soul in purgatory. Says a Catholic historian:
There is no doubt that Tetzel did, according to what he considered his authoritative instructions, proclaim as Christian doctrine that nothing but an offering of money was required to gain the indulgence for the dead, without there being any question of contrition or confession. He also taught, in accordance with the opinion then held, that an indulgence could be applied to any given soul with unfailing effect. Starting from this assumption, there is no doubt that his doctrine was virtually that of the drastic proverb: “As soon as the money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory’s fire springs.” The papal bull of indulgence gave no sanction whatever to this proposition. It was a vague Scholastic opinion .... not any doctrine of the Church.4
Myconius, a Franciscan friar perhaps hostile to the Dominicans, heard Tetzel perform, and reported, for this year 1517: “It is incredible what this ignorant monk said and preached. He gave sealed letters stating that even the sins which a man was intending to commit would be forgiven. The pope, he said, had more power than all the Apostles, all the angels and saints, more even than the Virgin Mary herself; for these were all subject to Christ, but the pope was equal to Christ.” This is probably an exaggeration, but that such a description could be given by an eyewitness suggests the antipathy that Tetzel aroused. A like hostility appears in the rumor mentioned skeptically by Luther,5 which quoted Tetzel as having said at Halle that even if, per impossibile, a man had violated the Mother of God the indulgence would wipe away his sin. Tetzel obtained certificates from civil and ecclesiastical authorities at Halle that they had never heard the story.6 He was an enthusiastic salesman, but not quite conscienceless.
He would have escaped history had he not approached too closely to the lands of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony.* Frederick was a pious and provident ruler. He had no theoretical objection to indulgences; he had gathered 19,000 saintly relics into his Castle Church at Wittenberg,7 and had arranged to have an indulgence attached to their veneration; he had procured another indulgence for contributors to the building of a bridge at Torgau, and had engaged Tetzel to advertise the benefits of that pontifical indulgence.8 However, he had withheld from Pope Alexander VI (1501) the sum raised in Electoral Saxony by an indulgence for donations to a crusade against the Turks; he would release the money, he said, when the crusade materialized. It did not; Frederick the Wise kept the funds, and applied them to the University of Wittenberg.9 Now, moved by reluctance to let coin of Saxony emigrate, and perhaps by reports of Tetzel’s hyperboles, he forbade the preaching of the 1517 indulgence in his territory. But Tetzel came so close to the frontiers that people in Wittenberg crossed the border to obtain the indulgence. Several purchasers brought these “papal letters” to Martin Luther, professor of theology in the university, and asked him to attest their efficacy. He refused. The refusal came to Tetzel’s ears; he denounced Luther, and became immortal.
He had underestimated the pugnacity of the professor. Luther quickly composed in Latin ninety-five theses, which he entitled Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (Disputation for Clarification of the Power of Indulgences). He did not consider his propositions heretical, nor were they indubitably so. He was still a fervent Catholic who had no thought of upsetting the Church; his purpose was to refute the extravagant claims made for indulgences, and to correct the abuses that had developed in their distribution. He felt that the facile issuance and mercenary dissemination of indulgences had weakened the contrition that sin should arouse, had indeed made sin a trivial matter to be amicably adjusted over a bargain counter with a peddler of pardons. He did not yet deny the papal “power of the keys” to forgive sins; he conceded the authority of the pope to absolve the confessing penitent from the terrestrial penalties imposed by churchmen; but in Luther’s view the power of the pope to free souls from purgatory, or to lessen their term of punishment there, depended not on the power of the keys—which did not reach beyond the grave—but on the intercessory influence of papal prayers, which might or might not be heard. (Theses 20–22.) Moreover, Luther argued, all Christians shared automatically in the treasury of merits earned by Christ and the saints, even without the grant of such a share by a papal letter of indulgence. He exonerated the popes from responsibility for the excesses of the preachers, but slyly added: “This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due the pope from .... the shrewd questionings of the laity, to wit: ‘Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems a .... number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?’” (Theses 81–82.)
At noon on October 31, 1517, Luther affixed his theses to the main door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. Annually, on November 1—All Saints’ Day—the relics collected by the Elector were displayed there, and a large crowd could be expected. The practice of publicly announcing theses, which the proponent offered to defend against all challengers, was an old custom in medieval universities, and the door that Luther used for his proclamation had been regularly employed as an academic bulletin board. To the theses he prefixed an amiable invitation:
Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter.
To make sure that the theses would be widely understood, Luther had a German translation circulated among the people. With characteristic audacity he sent a copy of the theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. Courteously, piously, unwittingly, the Reformation had begun.