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Letters of indulgence - comprehensive cover for the next world von Michael Achhammer

To meet its growing financial needs, the Church developed one of the most ingenious financial models in history - the trade in indulgences.

„Tetzel's Ablaßkram”, picture 1860 (Image: © epd-bild / akg-images)

Anyone wanting to avoid purgatory had to pay. And if you wanted to be really sure, you could buy forgiveness for your deceased friends and relatives too. All this was made possible by indulgences, a kind of insurance policy which meant that for a couple of bob you could protect yourself against the torment of purgatory.

Scaled according to income

Although it may seem incomprehensible today, in the late Middle Ages this fear was very real. Given the high mortality rate, death could take anyone before they had time to do penance for their sins. Depending on the severity of those sins, the consequences could be years of torment in the flames.

To the relief of many, the system of indulgences emerged in the Middle Ages, giving believers the opportunity to reduce the punishment for their sins. These letters of indulgence could only be granted by the Pope, cardinals, bishops or legates. In order to receive indulgence, the believers, having repented and confessed their sins, accepted certain obligations - often for money. And an insurance policy wasn’t cheap.

Like our contributions to a health plan today, the prices were scaled according to income. People paid what they could afford: prelates and counts paid six to ten gold florins, burghers and merchants three, and tradesmen just one. By way of comparison, a good pair of shoes cost about a florin. Those without means could pray and fast – which might mean a whole year of fasting, living on bread and water alone. 

The sale of indulgences became a good source of income as the Curia began to require more and more money. The popes used it to finance their luxurious lifestyles, the wars fought by the Papal States and the construction of cathedrals, roads and bridges. The rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome made Pope Leo X particularly dependent on sales of “holy goods”. Princes and bishops also profited from the sale of letters, since part of the money went into their coffers.

Indulgence box in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg. Before the Reformation, such boxes were used by the Catholic Church to collect money from the trade in indulgences that Martin Luther criticised. (Image: Norbert Neetz)

The “Tetzel box”

Inventive preachers of indulgence like the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel (ca. 1400–1519) used boxes in their catchment areas to collect the proceeds of these sales. In order to encourage people to spend their money, he had the boxes decorated with a devil tormenting the poor souls in purgatory. These “indulgence shops” were further adorned with his famous slogan:

“When a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”. Thus the “Tetzel box” was born. Letters of absolution were also offered: those who bought them could be absolved of their sins without having to confess them. Buying such a letter bought absolution twice in a lifetime – at a time of the buyer’s choice and upon his death. It was even possible to buy a document pardoning relatives who had died.

But indulgence preachers were not doing anything that was forbidden – on the contrary, at the time papal indulgences were modern and successful, albeit the subject of notoriety. It was probably the typical work of a preacher and inquisitor that brought Tetzel to Jüterbog around Easter in 1517, where he continued his campaign of indulgences – in the immediate vicinity of Wittenberg. Up stepped Martin Luther, who had recently attacked this abusive system in his sermons. And so began a revolution in the Church and society – the Reformation.