Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise?

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise?

Article excerpt

Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? By R. N. Swanson. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2008. Pp. xiv, 579. $120.00. ISBN 978-0-521-88120-3.)

Indulgences may have been recognized as the catalyst for Martin Luther's Reformation, but in all other respects they have been curiously neglected by historians. This is particularly true in the case of England, where even the Reformers of the sixteenth century had little to say on the subject and where subsequent historians have given them only passing mention. Yet as R. N. Swanson demonstrates in this lengthy and impressively detailed study, indulgences were an extremely important part of late-medieval religion, central to the understanding of penance, charity, death, and commemoration. It appears that they may have been one of those features of preReformation belief and practice that have been overlooked precisely because of their ubiquity and the extent to which they were taken for granted by contemporaries.

An "indulgence" could mean many things, since the word signified forgiveness of all sorts, and indulgences which were obtained for money came in many different guises. This book charts every aspect of their existence, surveying the official definition of "pardons" and how they evolved over time, exploring the different categories, uncovering the mechanics and the economics of the indulgence trade, evaluating how they were perceived and received by those who obtained them, and charting how they were finally abolished during the reign of Henry VIII. With profound and delicate scholarship, Swanson uncovers a complex array of sources, teasing out their signification whilst acknowledging their difficulties. His modest ambition, to show "that indulgences had a lively and eventful history in late medieval England" (p. 7), is comprehensively fulfilled-this is a major contribution to the field.

Swanson underlines that the acquisition of an indulgence went beyond a mere monetary transaction, and was conditional on a certain level of commitment to be demonstrated by the purchaser. It was part of a process of penance in which there were no guarantees: nobody knew how long anyone would be in purgatory, and pardons would not work without contrition and devotion. The right to issue an indulgence was granted in a huge variety of circumstances. …

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