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On Indulgences

According to a recent story in The New York Times, the Catholic church has brought back the practice of giving out indulgences. Indulgences remit some or all of the penance required by sin (they do not give forgiveness for the guilt of sin itself, which can only be accomplished though confession and absolution). Indulgences, or pardons, can be gained by prayer, pilgrimage, or other devotional practices aimed at purging the punishments for sin. The infamous practice of selling them was prohibited centuries ago, following the Council of Trent during the counter-reformation reforms in the Catholic church, but they only went fully by the wayside more recently, after Vatican II.

So, one might ask, what did Wyclif and his followers think of them? Precious little. This might of course be expected of heretics, but it wasn’t just them. Much contemporary criticism was leveled at the endemic corruption which accompanied their sale (Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale is one of the most famous and trenchant critiques). Invaluable studies such as Jonathan Sumption’s Pilgrimage (1973; repub. as The Age of Pilgrimage in 2003) and Patrick Geary’s Furta Sacra (1978) describe the increasingly materialistic treatment of pilgrimage and pardon during the middle ages. By the later 14th century, Sumption notes,

As well as inveighing against clerical avarice in terms not unlike those used by St. Bernard, John Wyclif condemned the cult of saints as such. He denied that miracles were the proof of holiness, or that canonizations were a good guide to sanctity. He abhorred the multitude of festivals. . . . Wyclif’s Lollard admirers were almost unanimous in their objections to pilgrimage. (2003 edn., 395-96)

Swanson, Indulgences in Late Medieval England

Swanson, Indulgences in Late Medieval England

(Just to be clear, Sumption is actually referring here to a Wycliffite text, not to one by Wyclif himself. Statements by Wyclif might be found in the Dialogus, cap. 24; or the Trialogus, 4.32, both of which are attached to the Bibliography of Primary Sources).

Several recent books study medieval indulgences. One is Robert Shaffern’s The Penitent’s Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom 1175-1375 (U of Scranton P, 2007). As its title indicates, this book ends before Wyclif’s arguments and Chaucer’s critiques. Two more recent volumes, however, both by R.N. Swanson, directly address Wyclif and his followers. In Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? (Cambridge, 2007) he spends most of his final chapter, “Indulgences Debated,” discussing the attacks by Wyclif and his followers; Wyclif’s position is in part predicated on the fact that they aren’t warranted in scripture.

Even more than this great book, however, the collection of essays Swanson edited the same year, entitled Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe (Brill, 2007) will be enormously helpful for the study of Wyclif and his religious and secular contemporaries. The key essay here for Lollard studies is Anne Hudson’s “Dangerous Fictions: Indulgences in the Thought of Wyclif and his Followers.” As Hudson describes, to Wyclif and his followers indulgences

form part of the unjustified power arrogated to the papacy, and they contravene the correct theology of absolution in promising the annulment of sin, with no specification of prior contrition and through the intermediacy of the earthly priesthood. Knighton’s list does not mention the other component in Wycliffite ideas about indulgences, arguably at least as important, that a central part in contemporary practice (even if not a sine qua non in their origin) involved the payment of money from the recipient of the indulgence to some embodiment of the ecclesiastical authority. These three ideas, the assumed powers of the papacy and its subordinates, the asserted powers over sin and its punishment, and the venality of the transaction, form the core of the Lollard attack on indulgences. (197-98)

Other essays in the volume can be seen via the link above. It includes essays which cover a wide range of European countries, including Bohemia during the Hussite period. Both of Swanson’s new volumes will be great resources to mine for further work.

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