Buying Forgiveness

by Steve Hartshorne on November 28, 2011

A coffer used to collect mmoney for indulgences at the Luther House in Wittenburg

A coffer used to collect mmoney for indulgences at the Luther House in Wittenburg

“As soon as the coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

I had always heard this saying used to sum up what Martin Luther was objecting to when he nailed his famous manifesto to the church door in Wittenburg, but I didn’t realize it was a slogan that the pardoners actually used to raise money.

The pope was running a special campaign to finish off St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the theme was buying forgiveness for the sins of your dead relatives. That’s what finally set Luther off.

For me, what really stuck in my craw was the ability to buy forgiveness for sins you had not yet committed. That would seem to rule out completely the whole idea of contrition.

In her book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman, one of my favorite authors, has a great chapter on the decadence and venality of the Renaissance popes.

The decadence is kind of summed up in the Banquet of the Chestnuts hosted by Cesar Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander VII, which you can read about in Tuchman’s book or on Wikipedia.

The execution of John Hus

The execution of John Hus

“Prizes were offered — silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats and other garments — for those clergymen who were most successful with the prostitutes.”

The venality was obvious to everyone, too. All church offices were for sale. You could buy a bishopric for your underage nephew and they would make a special exemption.

And everybody knew this. It took a guy like Luther to stand up and say, “Enough.” He ran a very real risk of being burned alive, and in the end it was a very close thing.

One hundred years before, a reformer named John Hus, with many of the same beefs, was burned alive after the Emperor Sigismund failed to honor the safe passage he had given him.

Hus stood before the assembly and said that he had come there trusting in the honor of the emperor, and he looked straight at Sigismund and, it is recorded, Sigismund blushed. OK maybe that’s more than you want to know, but it played a critical role in Luther’s story.

Frederick the Wise of Saxony

A century later, Luther was summoned before the Emperor Charles V of Spain, also emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which, as every schoolboy knows, was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was at the Diet of Worms, not as gross as it sounds; it was a gathering of noblemen at a place called Worms. Luther too had a safe conduct from the emperor

Luther’s views were found to be heretical and in the natural course of things he would have been “turned over to the civil authority” to be burned at the stake, but Charles V, to his eternal credit, said, “I will not blush like Sigismund.” And he allowed Luther to leave.

It was a turning point in history. I think it had a lot to do with Frederick the Wise, the Elector [king] of Saxony, who earned his moniker by protecting Luther. Without Frederick the Wise, Luther would have been just another sad story like John Hus.

Did Luther know, when he posted his manifesto, that Frederick would stick up for him? Probably not. His courageous actions were purely a matter of personal principles.

But Within 20 years, all of northern Europe had joined in the Reformation, which is a good indication of how sick everyone was of the Renaissance popes.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Glenn Harcourt November 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm

JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT COULBN’T GET ANY WORSE DEPARTMENT.
The specific promulgation of indulgences in Saxony that finally set Luther off was part of a beautifully engineered three-way [money laundering] scheme. Albrecht of Brandenburg, the Cardinal Archbishop of Mainz (himself a terrifically interesting fellow) had used the indulgence sale to leverage a huge loan from the famous German banking house of Fugger so that he could pay the pope to grant him an exception to the prohibition on holding multiple ecclesiastical offices. He paid the pope with the Fuggers’ money; then he and the pope split the indulgence take and he used his share to repay the Fuggers. Perfect. (Well maybe, in the actual event, not quite.)
PS: My art history students were always fascinated that hi-jinx of this sort were used, in part and for example, to pay Michelangelo for the Sistine Ceiling and to fund Raphel’s famous stanze — one of which, the Stanza della Segnatura with its School of Athens — is arguably the most perfect Renaissance decorative program.
PPS: Technically speaking, the notions that “when a coin in the coffer rings . . .” and the remission of sins not yet committed were violations of canon law and born of the hucksterism of Dominican pardoners. But, when the treasury is empty, one can perhaps afford to look in the other direction. After all, if you can’t remit your own sins, what good is being the pope? And besides, the poor dupes were “only” Germans.

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Glenn Harcourt November 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm

FINAL PS: great photo!

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Steve Hartshorne November 29, 2011 at 11:20 am

Thanks for the additional information! Very interesting.

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