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  • Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe
  • Lawrence G. Duggan
Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe. Edited by R. N. Swanson. [Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, Vol. 5.] (Leiden: Brill. 2006. Pp. xii, 360. $124.00; €95,00.)

Since indulgences were arguably the keystone of later medieval religious practice and certainly at the heart of Luther's attack on the entire penitential and sacramental system, it is odd indeed that they have not elicited more systematic attention from scholars. The standard work, R. N. Swanson says, remains Nikolaus Paulus' three-volume Geschichte des Ablasses im Mittelalter, originally published in 1922–23 and reprinted in 2000, and recently supplemented in part by the study of collective indulgences by Alexander Siebold, Sammelindulgenzen. Ablassurkunden des Spätmittelalters und der Frühneuzeit (2001). This is not quite correct, for if one consults the germane bibliographical entry in the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997), one encounters such formidable names as Henry Charles Lea, Bernhard Poschmann, and Karl Rahner; yet it remains true that in the last half-century or so indulgences have not loomed as large as one might expect, partly perhaps because so many great scholars have gone before.

To remedy this defect, therefore, Swanson, a distinguished scholar of late medieval religion, has assembled this collection of thirteen highly diverse essays to which he has provided a succinct, if incomplete, introduction (pp. 1–9). The authors and their contributions are as follows: Robert Shaffern,"The Medieval Theology of Indulgences" (pp. 11–36); Giovanna Casagrande, "Confraternities and Indulgences in Italy in the Later Middle Ages" (pp. 37–63); Charles Caspers, "Indulgences in the Low Countries, c. 1300-c. 1520" (pp. 65– 99); Eva Dolezalova et al., "The Reception and Criticism of Indulgences in the Late Medieval Czech Lands" (pp. 101–45); John Edwards, " 'Espana es diferente'? [End Page 143] Indulgences and the Spiritual Economy in Late Medieval Spain" (pp. 147–68); Alastair Minnis, "The Construction of Chaucer's Pardoner" (pp. 169– 95); Anne Hudson, "Dangerous Fictions: Indulgences in the Thought of Wyclif and His Followers" (pp. 197–214); R. N. Swanson, "Praying for Pardon: Devotional Indulgences in Late Medieval England" (pp. 215–40); Diana Webb, "Pardons and Pilgrims" (pp. 241–75); Norman Housley, "Indulgences for Crusading, 1417–1517" (pp. 277–307); Falk Eisermann, "The Indulgence as a Media Event: Developments in Communication through Broadsides in the Fifteenth Century" (pp. 309–30); and David Bagchi, "Luther's Ninety-Five Theses and the Contemporary Criticism of Indulgences" (pp. 331–55).

Since one cannot possibly comment on all these essays, I shall confine myself to a few observations here. In the "Introduction" Swanson notes that, curiously, indulgences figured very little in later medieval pastoral and sermon literature, a lacuna which Peter Dykema discovered while researching this subject and which caused him to abandon a projected essay for this volume. Robert Shaffern's discussion of the theology of indulgences, especially in the period 1175–1260, is useful, but he fails to situate his specific contribution within the historiographic tradition, to appreciate the mess created by Pope Urban II's vague promises offered at Clermont in November 1095, which the "crown lawyers" (the theologians and canonists) then had to clean up, or to underscore the novel elements involved in the full emergence of indulgences, including the fateful connection with money. Caspers' study of indulgences in the Low Countries is rich with concrete examples of the system in action at its best (e.g., indulgences for the poor [pp. 95–97]) and at its most distorted (the three-year "dike" indulgence obtained by Charles V in 1515, which yielded 53,445 ducats for St. Peter's in Rome and 75,000 for the dikes [pp. 83–86]). This essay complements nicely the kind of information to be found in the extremely important but little-known work by Paulus, Indulgences as a Social Factor in the Middle Ages (1922), to my knowledge the only work of Paulus ever translated into English.

Swanson's own contribution to this collection endeavors to investigate devotional indulgences in England that were not connected with money...


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