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The Catholic Historical Review VOL.LXXXIVOCTOBER, 1998No. 4 INDULGENCES AND SAINTLY DEVOTIONALISMS IN THE MIDDLE AGES BY Robert W Shaffern* 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 "Dr. Shaffern is an assistant professor of history in the University of Scranton. He wishes to thank Professors David L. D'Avray, Richard Kieckhefer, William J. Dohar, C.S.C, and Timothy M. Thibodeau for their invaluable comments and suggestions. 'Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Wallis (New York, 1968),I, 119-120, for instance, claimed that indulgences were the worst abuse in the later medieval Church. Henry C. Lea,A History ofAuricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church (New York, 1896), III, 1, claimed that by the end of the Middle Ages indulgences were solely a revenue-producing scheme of the papacy and religious orders. Richard W. Souther, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York, 1970), pp. 136-143, attributed the increasing numbers of indulgences in the later Middle Ages to the desire of the popes to extend their authority, though he sympathized with Sixtus rV's desire to accommodate his cardinal's pleas for remission. More recently Thomas Tender,who little used saints' lives in Sin and Confession on the Eve ofthe Reformation (Princeton, 1977), pp. xv-xvi, argued that "when the horrors of purgatory are preached, and sinners urged to take up a harder regime ofpenitential exercises, or take advantage of indulgences, the simplicity of control by guilt and comfort by absolution is belied." 2John Gerson, Opusculum de indulgentia in L. Dupin (ed.), Opera omnia (Antwerp, 1706), II, 515. Indulgences, probably apocryphal, of 40,000 years have been found in late medieval books of hours. See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, 1992), p. 287. 643 644INDULGENCES AND SAINTLY DEVOTIONAUSMS IN THE MIDDLE AGES 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 'In Heiko Oberman,Forerunners ofthe Reformation (New York, 1966), pp. 99-119.A translation of Wycliffe's criticism of indulgences may be found in Robert Vaughan (ed.), Tracts and Treatises ofJohn de Wycliffe (London, 1845), pp. 195-198. Another fourteenth-century dispute over indulgences is described by Robert W Shaffern,"A New Canonistic Text on Indulgences: De quantitate indulgenciarum of John of Dambach, O.P. (1288-1372),"Bulletin ofMedieval Canon Law, 21 (1991...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0708
Print ISSN
0008-8080
Pages
pp. 643-661
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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