09.09.13, Swanson, Indulgences in Late Medieval England

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James Brodman

The Medieval Review 09.09.13

Swanson, R. N.. Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise?. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 579. ISBN: 9780521881203 .

Reviewed by:
James Brodman
University of Central Arkansas

This dense and detailed study argues that indulgences (or pardons), despite the criticisms unleashed by Luther's Reformation, were an important part of the fabric of lay religious life in late medieval England. To make this point, an impressive array of theological and canonistic writings, vernacular literature, sermons, secular and ecclesiastical records, household accounts, and devotional books are assembled to demonstrate the ubiquity of indulgences, their acceptance by English Christians irrespective of class or educational attainment, and the difficulties encountered by modern historians who, as Swanson, wish to reconstruct their history and assess their significance.

The introduction notes that indulgences disappeared quickly and without fuss during the Henrician Reformation. Indeed, histories of this event, whatever their historiographical bent, ignore indulgences as an issue as do earlier histories of medieval English religion. Swanson tells us that his intention here is not the rehabilitation of indulgences as a religious practice but rather to discover their place within traditional religion between 1300 and 1547.

Chapter One deals with the theology of indulgences, particularly Purgatory, the Treasury of Merits and the distinction between sin's culpa (blame), from which the penitent could be released through priestly absolution, and pena (punishment), which would have to be expiated through penance or remitted by indulgences. Indulgences became a manifestation of hierarchical power that opened the possibility of salvation to laymen unable to live as austerely as monks. Consequently, Swanson argues, the primary impetus for both the theological development of indulgences and for their wide availability was lay demand, which accelerated after 1476 when indulgences were extended to the already deceased. For the Church, pardons afforded a means to exploit lay spiritual aspirations by channelling actions onto certain charitable and devotional paths.

Chapter Two reveals the many forms that indulgences could take. Since indulgences were an exercise of jurisdiction, a basic distinction is drawn between the episcopal indulgence, generally limited to 40 days, and the papal, which might offer as much as a full or plenary remission of purgatorial punishment. Indulgences could aid such charities as hospitals or bridges or individuals in need, such as captives or lepers, or they could be devotional in nature. In England, they supported large international organizations, national and regional confraternities, and individual churches or house of charity. Pardons were granted for making a pilgrimage, praying for the departed, reading a catechism, attending mass or hearing a sermon. They encouraged membership in charitable and devotional confraternities and donations for the upkeep of cathedral and other churches. All indulgences, whatever their sort, involved a quid pro quo. In the fifteenth century, this might be delineated in a confessional letter, typically offered by a confraternity or religious order. In return for a donation, the beneficiary might receive favors that included burial privileges, a specific pardon and often the right to select a confessor who at death was empowered to absolve fully both the blame and punishment of sins. By 1500, Swanson argues that England was "soaked" in a religious culture in which indulgences were a major and universal component.

Chapter Three surveys the patchy evidence for indulgences. While most were too local to have left any documentary traces, papal and episcopal registers record the more significant grants and the latter licenses that pardoners were often required to seek from local bishops. While there is no money trail for devotional indulgences, arguably the more common, those that asked for donations often produced a financial record. Other evidence is incidental: a surviving Book of Hours with its inscribed indulgence, confessional letters or mention in a literary source or theological tract. Indulgences, however, at best are difficult to document given their personal character. The vicissitudes of history, furthermore, have eroded what was already a sketchy record.

Chapter Four outlines the marketing, distribution and administration of indulgences. Topics include the conditions to be fulfilled before an indulgence took effect (e.g., confession, absolution, right intent), the process for obtaining the right to offer an indulgence, the methods of collection, and the securing of the proceeds. Examples are highly anecdotal. There is also a section on the marketing of indulgences: the various methods of publicity (criers, posters, leaflets), the mass production of confessional letters, and strategies used to convince consumers of the value and authenticity of the product--to use Swanson's words, the commoditization and commercialization of indulgences.

Chapter Five addresses pardoners, the agents who marketed indulgences to the public. At first most were clerics, but later lay people came to predominate. Despite the topos of the fraudulent pardoner found in Chaucer, Swanson finds scant evidence of malpractice. Some pardoners in fact came from respected mercantile families. Yet, it was difficult for larger organizations to supervise locally hired agents and so there were complaints of fraud, malfeasance and improper behavior. Indulgence farmers, under pressure to earn back what they had guaranteed, might be tempted to oversell their pardon or minimize its obligations. The honest pardoner, whose good behaviour has left no record, could not preach. His duty was to announce the indulgence and its conditions and to ask humbly for support--at a mass or in some other venue. In short, pardoners in the main were respectable and ubiquitous figures on the social landscape. If anything, Swanson argues, they were proto-capitalists who discovered a need and exploited it for financial gain.

Chapter Six addresses devotional pardons earned through prayers and pious acts rather than money. Apart from those attached to major pilgrim sites, virtually all of these were limited grants by bishops. Some of these promoted catechesis through attendance at sermons, reading the catechism or avoiding the last-minute rush for Easter confession. Others sought prayers for good weather, victory in war or deliverance from the plague. Some pertained to particular churches or to specific relics and statues. The humble could earn indulgences by reciting paternosters and avemarias while the literate had the option of reading books of hours. Recitation of the rosary, pronouncing the name of Jesus, wearing a prayer amulet, or attending mass at which an indulgenced chalice was used could also each earn a pardon. While poorly documented individually, Swanson conveys the sense that the opportunities to earn devotional indulgences were pervasive.

Chapter Seven deals with academic reservations and criticisms voiced against indulgences prior to the Reformation, with the caveat that these do not seem to have penetrated very deeply into society. Orthodox critics only challenged points of practice. More substantive was the critique of John Wycliffe, who placed the forgiveness of sins in the hands of Christ, not prelates. The major point of the chapter, however, seems to be that indulgences were never seriously challenged and the attack even by Wycliffe was indirect and incidental.

Chapter Eight assesses the popularity of indulgences with limited results. At pilgrim sites, for example, Swanson finds no evidence that they increased traffic. Sifting through financial data extant from religious orders and confraternities, he finds evidence of both success and failure. The only somewhat secure conclusion proposed is that the popularity of an indulgence was a factor of its novelty; older pardons attracted fewer takers. Apart from some scanty anecdotal instances of individuals avidly collecting indulgences, there is little solid evidence upon which to answer the question posed by the chapter. Sixtus IV's extension of indulgences to the already dead in 1476 does have echoes in wills as bequests begin to appear for the purchase of post mortem indulgences. The concern shown for the validity of indulgences is one suggested marker for their popularity, and so there is a discussion of how some pardons were tied to historically important saints and local cults. Swanson also reiterates an earlier contention that most grants of indulgence were the result of lay demand--and thus evidence for their popularity--rather than ecclesiastical fiat. On the other hand, the ease with which the Henrician reformers excised indulgences suggests that, in the giving of charity, love of neighbor, not the reception of a spiritual bonus, was the primary motive.

Chapter Nine addresses the economic impact of pardons. Here Swanson discusses the collections made in coin and kind, expenses and how the funds might be spent. Before the Reformation, indulgences might have generated upwards of 6,500 annually, which, the author maintains, represented a stimulus to the economy and an important source of support for the poor.

Chapter Ten is devoted to the eradication of indulgences during the reign of Henry VIII. From 1509-29, in an England still Catholic, indulgences maintained their status and perhaps even showed growth as a result of improved marketing. 1529-34 saw challenges to Catholic orthodoxy but few to indulgences per se. Between 1534-47, however, indulgences died a slow death. In 1536 papal grants were banned but some episcopal and older papal indulgences lingered into the mid-1540s. The prohibition against new pardons, the eradication of religious houses and confraternities attached to religious orders, the demolition of religious shrines, and the destruction of religious images all contributed to the demise of pardons. In commenting upon the debate whether the English Reformation was an act of state or an act of conscience, Swanson sees indulgences as evidence for the former. The indulgence system had to be eradicated; it did not collapse. Yet, there is also little evidence that indulgences were ever a central issue; indeed little effort was made by English Catholics to revive them during Mary's reign. Swanson's explanation is that the elimination of indulgences did not represent any fundamental change in English ideas of salvation. Here Luther's ideas of justification were modified to retain the medieval concept of the Treasury of Merits, which now would be dispensed directly by Christ through his Passion rather than indirectly through papal or episcopal pardoners.

In concluding remarks, Swanson depicts indulgences as a reasonable response to the fear of death. It allowed the living to plan for death and to aid those already deceased. The system, however, rested upon insecure intellectual and practical foundations and was never central to the Catholic theory of salvation. Nonetheless, in practice, Swanson argues that indulgences were an important part of the Catholic preparation for death and their elimination profoundly changed the experience of religion. They were also paradoxical: criticized yet popular, important for charity yet mired in scandal, central to religious experience yet quick to disappear.

There is much to admire about this work. First of all, it provides a unique general survey of the medieval indulgence in its many forms. Secondly, the work addresses a central problem faced by all who toil in the field of medieval lay religion: how to get at and understand a phenomenon that generally went unrecorded by elite and clerical writers? Swanson marshals an impressive array of evidence to document the existence, use, practice and administration of indulgences. If at times the author becomes too pedantic or belabors questions that can never be answered, still this study does much to demonstrate the breadth and vibrancy of lay religious practice in the two centuries before the Reformation. His work thus adds significant grist to the ongoing debate over the origins and character of the English Reformation. He is correct, I believe, in situating indulgences within a larger context of caritas but does not develop this theme to its full potential. Did, for example, the elimination of indulgences lead to a reduction of caritas as W.K. Jordan once argued? The work also demonstrates how well integrated the English Church was into the broader Catholic community of late medieval Europe. I was surprised, for example, at the level of concern shown for Mediterranean captives and at the following achieved by such international orders as those of the Hospital, St. Anthony or the Holy Trinity. Unfortunately, however, Swanson consulted none of the standard histories of these organizations and so is unaware of the real contribution he has made to our understanding of these charity orders. Finally, I found it curious that, while terms such as "Reformation" and "Protestant" are always capitalized, "Catholic" is consistently rendered in the lower case.

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James Brodman

University of Central Arkansas