Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Indulgences and Saintly Devotionalisms in the Middle Ages

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Indulgences and Saintly Devotionalisms in the Middle Ages

Article excerpt


Indulgences, which were (and still are) remissions of temporal penalty for sin granted by the episcopal authority of the Catholic Church, have long been associated with mechanicalism, decadence, and formalism in later medieval Christianity.1 This association originated in the medieval period itself and was, of course, inherited by the Protestant Reformation. Critics such as Jean Gerson (c. 1420) lamented the numbers of indulgences and sizes of the remissions being granted by Christendom's prelates as an attack on true penitence and contrition.2

John Wycliffe (c. 1380) and Wessel Gansfort (c. 1489)3 questioned seriously the Church's authority to remit penalties for sin because indulgences lacked scriptural authority, an argument that may also be found in the earliest discussions of the Schoolmen. Indulgences, however, remained popular throughout the later Middle Ages despite the eloquence and prestige of these critics, and so historians in recent years have begun to examine the popularity of indulgences as a part of medieval spirituality. In a recent study of the relation between papal authority and religious movements, David L. D'Avray argued that the proliferation of indulgences ought more properly to be understood as a religious movement than as a problem within the later medieval church.4 The traditional perspective, in his view, results from "an obtrusive consciousness of the eventual reaction."5 Not only the critics but the enthusiasts must also be heard.

To that end, Richard Kieckhefer expressed the need for historians of medieval religion to explore the connection between saintly piety and indulgences in the Middle Ages.6 The medieval saints, who were the models of late medieval devotion and interior spirituality, were zealous collectors of indulgences. At the same time, the saints accepted the need for ecclesiastical mediation in the remission of sin. Church authority itself relied on the intercession and merit of saints who already possessed their eternal reward. Indeed, in addition to the passion of Christ, the merits of deceased saints were invoked to prove the efficacy of indulgences. Papal proclamations of indulgences often called upon the authority ,of Saints Peter and Paul, the two great patrons of Rome.7 For Catherine of Siena, Bridget of Sweden, Peter of Luxembourg, and others, the quest for indulgences accompanied interior conversion to the imitatio Christi. Indulgences and the saints met in several different ways in medieval religion. First, prelates granted indulgences as approval and encouragement to saintly cults. Second, prelates, at the behest of saintly founders, granted indulgences to promote new devotional movements. Third, the saints eagerly sought indulgences for the benefit of their own souls or those of their followers.

Medieval prelates granted untold numbers of indulgences to promote the cult of the saints, the oldest expression of popular piety in the Middle Ages. This promotion usually came in the form of indulgences granted for the visitation of a saint's shrine; so the practice of pilgrimage was also crucial. Indulgences were far less likely to be granted to a shrine built in honor of a long-venerated saint, such as a martyr, or an apostle, or a late antique bishop such as Saint Martin of Tours.8 Bishops and popes were more eager to support the cult of a newly-canonized saint. Pope Clement V presided at the translation of the relics of the holy bishop Bertrand of Comminges in 1309 and granted an unusually liberal indulgence of fifteen years and fifteen quarantaines (one quarantaine equalled forty days) to those who visited the sanctuary on the day of the feast, seven years and seven quarantaines to those who visited during the octave, ten years and ten quarantaines to those who visited on a Marian feast, and three years and three quarantaines to those who visited during the octave of these feasts.9 Pope John XXII thus promoted the veneration of Thomas Aquinas, who was canonized in 1323:

So that a multitude of Christians may more ardently and profitably visit Thomas's venerable tomb, and that the feast of that confessor may be celebrated with joy, we, by the mercy of omnipotent God and by the authority of His saints and apostles Peter and Paul, remit one year and forty days of enjoined penance to all truly penitent and confessed, who shall make visitation there seeking Thomas's suffrages on the anniversary of the feast; and to pilgrims who visit the said tomb within seven days immediately following the feast in subsequent years, one hundred days of enjoined penance. …

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