Printing for Purgatory: Indulgences and Related Documents in England, 1476 to 1536

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As Peter Stallybrass has recently insisted in no uncertain terms, printers do not print books, they print sheets. What happens to those sheets after they have been printed is none of their concern, unless the printer is also the publisher. Books naturally attract the attention of bibliographers, but printed sheets do not have to be turned into books. This is potentially important for historians of print and print culture, for in the early days of the new technology (as, indeed, even now) many sheets were single-sided products, speedily produced and distributed. Even if books, they did not have to be large: small pamphlets and other material could also be run off relatively speedily. Such minor printing, often intentionally produced as ephemeral, has rightly been identified as one of the foundations of a successful printing house. (2) In the market, such products might be considered as "cheap print," although there was no automatic correlation between such printing and market price: in some circumstances, the products might be inexpensive to produce yet still be sold dearly if the distributor could command the market.

Large quantities of single-sheet printed material were produced in England between 1476 and 1536, a good deal of it being linked to the advertising, marketing, and distribution of the various spiritual privileges which fall under the generic heading of "indulgences." (3) The terminal dates are themselves watersheds in English printing history: an indulgence-related document, a confessional letter issued in 1476 for the collection to fund warfare against the Turks, was among Caxton's first products at Westminster, (4) while 1536 effectively marks the Henrician Reformation's elimination of indulgences from English religion, (5) ending a printing tradition which arguably had played a vital part in the shift to the new technology over the preceding sixty years as an important--but neglected--chapter in the history of early English printing. (6) As a category of "cheap print," these documents certainly merit consideration but raise their own specific issues. Three points particularly call for attention: the relationship between print and manuscript "cultures" as print became increasingly accepted in England; the significance of such printing tasks for the printers themselves and for the establishment of print; and finally, issues of textual control and validation in the new technology.

Some preliminary comment is needed on the actual documents. They can be separated into four classes, although separation and allocation are not always easy or straightforward. (7) Moreover, boundaries become fluid as the emphasis moves away from indulgences (sometimes in conjunction with other aspects of devotion) and towards other types of devotional printing. Four categories are identified here, but subsequent discussion will focus almost exclusively on the first two.

The most important documents were the "confessional letters" or "letters of confraternity." (8) These were in effect sold, the printed sheets being equivalent to receipts for the purchases. (9) Such letters generally gave their holders the power to choose a confessor to confer plenary absolution at the point of death and usually also offered promises of remission of the sufferings which might be imposed by God in Purgatory after death as satisfaction for sins incompletely expunged whilst alive. The letters were usually in Latin but were occasionally printed in English; (10) and were almost always printed on parchment or vellum (probably because they had to be robust as portable documents with an uncertain but potentially long aftersales life). (11) They were printed as form documents, with gaps left at appropriate points to allow the purchaser's name and the date and place of purchase to be inserted by hand. (As printing became more sophisticated, some letters also left spaces to allow Latin word endings to be adjusted for the gender and number of purchasers for each form, as in printed forms issued on behalf of the Roman hospital of Santo Spirito from around 1515 to 1520. …