On indulgences

The other day, friend of and contributor to the blog, and my writing partner the infinitely talented Dr Sara Öberg Strådal made a very good and funny point about a bunch of Evangelicals who are trying to … NFT prayers. Witness it, and laugh:

Now Sara is, as usual, right. But it got me thinking about the fact that most people in majority Protestant countries – even Evangelical Protestants who would tell you they were opposed to indulgences if you asked them – don’t actually understand what an indulgence is other than a nebulous idea that it is “bad”. So today I thought we would quickly remedy that, the better to make fun of a bunch of NFT grifters. Yes? Yes.

OK so the concept of indulgences is one that goes back to the late Antique period. During the Christian persecutions in Rome, some Christians would still sacrifice to the Roman gods in order to avoid persecution. And you know what? Seems fair. However, they still felt bad about it, so they would get a written statement from a priest, or a Christian who was waiting for martyrdom (a popular option at the time) called a libellus to prove that they hadn’t necessarily become pagans again, and should be considered as Christians. Even at the time people pushed back against this and wanted pretty severe penances assigned to any of who they called the lapsi who tried to use a libellus as a mulligan. However, by 517 the Council of Epaone was convened and established an official two year period of fasting to prove that you didn’t mean it.

A libellus fond at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, dating to the Decian Persecution.

As the medieval period was in full swing and penitentials (the guide books that told priests what penance to give people and what questions to ask during confession) were on the rise, suddenly we see what we would more usually think of as indulgences crop up. For example oftentimes people might be told to fast on bread and water on specific days for a few years because they had committed a particular sin. But some penitentials instead started to say that instead people could pay a certain amount of money and get the same outcome. So, for example in the Old Irish Penitential we find reference to the fact that “If the offender can pay fines his penance is less in proportion.”[1] Elsewhere, we see that both fines and fasting and prayers would be given as penance. So say you murdered someone – you were meant to pay a fine to the victim’s family as a part of getting right with God.

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Over the period other forms of payments in return for the remissions of sin began to creep in. You could, for example, found a monastery or give a huge monetary gift to a church in order to say that you were sorry about whatever sin that you had committed. By the high medieval period we see that the concept had changed. People weren’t so much thought of as paying to get out of penance, but they were doing so as a part of what we in the business refer to as “temporal punishment”. Temporal punishment is the sort of sin that you can make up for in the physical world, but if you don’t do so before your death you will end up in purgatory.

At the same time new ideas of indulgence – particularly connected to crusade or pilgrimage came about. The earliest example here is Pope Urban II (c. 1035 – 1099) who declared that those who confessed their sins and then went on crusade would be granted what was called “plenary indulgence” or a total remission of temporal punishment. So here we see a sort of two-fold idea at work. Going on crusade could be your idea – and if you confessed and went freely of your own volition then you got an indulgence. However, we also see examples of people who were told that they had to go on crusade in order to receive forgiveness, which is to say it was used more specifically as penance.

A fourteenth-century indulgence, possibly from Avignon. Morgan Library MS M.697.

As the Church gained authority and became more of a legal authority, the idea that the Church could just make the decision to give people Get Out of Purgatory Free cards began to take on popularity. One of the first to argue for this idea was French cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher (c. 1200 – 1263) who argued that the Church had a “treasury of merit” that, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church “can never be exhausted [because of] Christ’s merits … before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father.” Now the good JC gave the largest donation of sin wash to this theoretical treasury, but it was also fed by the saints. So, in the words of historian Robert W. Shaffern, “[i]ndulgences were a kind of withdrawal from the superabundant merit contained in the treasury, which also meant that Christians could keep a spiritual accounting as they made satisfaction for sin, whether an indulgence was worth forty days, one hundred days, or several years of penance.”[2]

This was super comforting to a lot of medieval Christians, because it quantified what would otherwise be a sort of existential dread about how to make up for all the sinning that people do. Sure you were never going to have a totally sin-free life, but you could at least keep track of where and how you were making up for said sin. So it began to be a thing that people asked for specifically. For example, when my man the Emperor Charles IV set up a new feast day in 1355 – the Feast of the Holy Lance and Nail – he petitioned the pope to give a three-and-a-half-year indulgence for anyone who came to see his collection of relics on the designated day, the Friday after the octave of Easter Sunday.[3] In other words, you would be granted the equivalent of three and a half years of penance for doing so. But it wasn’t just Emperors who could ask for and be granted indulgences for grand projects. People began to ask for indulgences for all sorts of stuff like producing mystery plays, or going on pilgrimage, saying prayers, or doing good works. You know, all the sorts of things that would often be given to you as a form of penance, except here the people were doing them proactively. Overall, the interest in indulgences is, according to historian David d’Avray better understood as a religious movement than an issue in the late medieval Church. People wanted indulgences and saw them as an expression of their faith, largely linked to good works, and the Church responded to those requests.[4]

However, while a great many people wanted indulgences, a lot of people were not into them at all and thought they were a total cop out.  John Wycliffe (c. 1331 – 1384), for example, argued that indulgences couldn’t be granted by the Church because the actual scriptures never say anything about it. His biggest fan, and blog-obsession Jan Hus (1372-1415) concurred with this, saying that individuals were responsible for their own souls. In 1412 three of his followers were executed for preaching against indulgences, and Hus was told that he had to stop preaching as well as a result. This lead to, well, you know all the martyrdom.

Satan prodává odpustky, or Satan selling indulgences, from the Jenský kodex. Knihovna Národního muzea, Prague.

This did not stop the Church, especially when they wanted to do big new projects. So when own-brand Jan Hus, aka Martin Luther (1483-1546) began to write against indulgences in the sixteenth century, this was explicitly linked to the Church attempting to raise funds for the new St. Peter’s Basilica. Because Pope Leo X ( 1475-1521) was basic and wanted a big new Renaissance building instead of what I can only presume was an absolutely incredible and very good, actually, late antique and medieval basilica, someone had to pay for it. As a result, an aggressive campaign of just straight up selling indulgences to get ready cash began.

Overall then, the basic idea of indulgences is linked to earlier concepts of penance. Most of the time, they were a thing you could do to sort of front-load penance and were linked to the sort of stuff you might be asked to do when you confessed that you had sinned. So yes, there were payments made, but prayers, fasting, pilgrimage and crusade were all the sort of stuff that you could get indulgences for, and more usually what people did.

That is why what these little Christian NFT grifters (I know I know, redundant) is doing is so funny. Protestants are supposed to have expressly rejected the concept of indulgences in favour of their own forms of intercession with God, most particularly prayer. Even more, an antipathy to the very idea of indulgences is codified into the basic understandings of a lot of forms of Protestantism, especially the Evangelical American types. However, knee-jerk reactions against indulgences based more particularly on dodgy revenue raising campaigns from the very late medieval period obscure the fact that they existed because people wanted them.

A printed Cyprus Indulgence, 31 Lines. printed by Johann Gutenberg from 1454, Princeton University Library. See more Guttenberg printed indulgences here!

We have been socialised to think of any number of thinks as bankable: energy, money, even hours of labour or vacation time. So saying something like “you can bank a prayer forever” isn’t necessarily going to get anyone thinking that something dodgy is going on in this context. And here is the thing – when all you are ever taught about indulgences is that it is trading cash for a piece of paper that says you get to go to heaven*, then you aren’t going to know that when someone springs up to offer you bankable prayers you are being offered an indulgence. But make no mistake, that is exactly what this is! A service that offers you a way of banking a good work that you would ordinarily perform in praise or to obviate your sin.

My position on this, as with all NFTs, is that it is incredibly wack. You know I am team Hus and will continue to be, so of course that is what I am going to say. Still, this is hilarious, and it shows you what religious STEM bros will get up to if they aren’t sat down and actually made to learn about history at some point in their lives. Having said that, this is so offensive, and such a caricature of the limitations both of our modern economy and American religiosity that it might end up being popular. I mean, yeah it is a total mockery of everything that Protestants are supposed to hold dear but is it worse than, say, the popularity of Hillsong albums? I would say no. Still, I am going to bank this to make fun of these people for eternity. Just not on the blockchain. In my brain. And possibly on twitter.

[1] John T. McNeill, Medieval Handbooks of Penance: a Translation of the Principal “libri Poenitentiales” and Selections From Related Documents, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 36.
[2] Robert W. Shaffern, “Indulgences and Saintly Devotionalisms in the Middle Ages.” The Catholic Historical Review 84, no. 4 (1998), 649.
[3] Krabice of Weitmil, Beneš, Chronicon ecclesiae Pragensis, in Josef Emler (ed.), Fontes Rerum Bohemicarum, vol.IV (Prague: Nakl. Musea Království českého, 1884),  p. 519.
[4] David L. D’Avray,”Papal Authority and Religious Sentiment in the Late Middle Ages,” in Diana Wood (ed.), The Church and Sovereignty, c. 950-1918, “Studies in Church History,” Subsidia, 9, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 395.

For more on some of the medieval religious issued covered here, see:

A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leader you’ve never heard of
On dildos and penance
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

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4 thoughts on “On indulgences”

  1. I was raised Roman Catholic & my understanding of Christianity is that anyone who is not Catholic or Greek Orthodox is that they are Protestant. However, in the late 90s, I married a man who belonged to a Church of Christ church & his pastor said emphatically that they were NOT Protestants. They were Evangelicals. I mean, whatever … he also thought that Catholics never read the Bible.


    1. OMG that is extremely funny to me. I suppose that one of the things that Protestantism has to answer for is the “you can just do whatever” mindset of Evangelicals et al. I love this though and am going to repeat it forever.


    2. The thing is, I sort of agree with this pastor. There is a pretty good basis for arguing that modern White American Evangelicalism, and those world churches it directly influences, are something different from traditional Protestantism. I once had an Evangelical tell me with a straight face that my Lutheran church wasn’t really Protestant, as it had only gone part of the way. I take this pastor as saying the same thing but with less offensive vocabulary.

      Oh, and the Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches would like to have a word with you about the taxonomy of Christianity you were taught.


  2. I have given a lot of thought to White American Evangelical Protestantism and how it differs from other versions of Protestantism, including British Evangelicalism and mainline Protestant churches such as the Methodists, who used to be classified as Evangelical but are no longer. To be blunt, where did WAEP go wrong? I think it goes back to the opening of the frontier following the American Revolution. The race was on, with white settlers running ahead of the eastern churches. How well these churches responded varied. The Presbyterians did well as a quasi-ethnic church. The Lutherans and Reformed did well in those areas with large German settlement. But the big winners, becoming the general American Protestant churches, were the Methodists and especially the Baptists. The key to Baptist success was that they had absolutely no academic standards for their preachers. This was built in to their absence of any doctrine apart from adult baptism. With no expensive education required, anyone who felt so moved could get a license to preach and head west. The Methodists had some standards, but frankly not very high in 19th century American. So they were only slowed down somewhat. The result is that the generic country church was Baptist while the big church in town was Methodist.

    So far so good. But now think to that frontier preacher. How is he going to attract parishioners? There is little social pressure to profess Christianity, and a churchgoer can jump to a different church any time he feels so moved. The winning strategy for the preacher on the rise is to tell people what they want to hear. So we get the move from Jonathan Edwards telling his parishioners that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God to a Baptist preacher telling his parishioners that Those People over in the wrong church down the road are the loathsome insects held over the flame.

    This explains the Southern Baptist split from other Baptists. The Southern Baptist parishioners very much wanted to hear that chattel slavery of Blacks was good Biblical Christianity, and their preachers were willing to tell them this. Then there was the rise of fundamentalism. The only-somewhat over-simplified version is that archaeologists discovered all those Near Eastern tablets. Once they were deciphered it became obvious that chunks of Genesis are part of an ancient Near Eastern literary tradition. Some churches looked to this fact as shedding light on how to understand the Bibles. The fundamentalists were the churches that stuck their fingers in their ears and chanted “I’m not listening!” The next step I have never gotten a full grasp on, where the non-fundie Evangelical churches got recategorized as “mainline.” I don’t know how or why this happened, but it was in the mid-20th century. This freed up the word “Evangelical” for the fundies to take over, relegating “fundamentalist” to mean “those crazies over there, not nice people like us.” The final step was the rise of Billy Graham who, unlike nearly every other fundamentalist ever, was a big tent guy. He didn’t pick fights and set up armed camps. He brought the Pentecostals into the Evangelical tent. I regard this as something of a tragedy. There is nothing that says that a church opening a direct channel to the Holy Spirit has to end up as right wing assholes. Just look at the Quakers. In any case, the dirty little secret of modern Evangelicalism is that it is the Pentecostal wing that is growing.

    So my point here is that modern White American Evangelical Protestantism is the natural culmination of two centuries of telling them what they want to hear. This in turn is the natural outcome of not having any actual theology. Reinvent indulgences? Sure! Why not?


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