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  • Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? by R. N. Swanson
  • Lucy Wooding
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 [End Page 596] 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 pre-Reformation 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. What emerges from this study is that this was less the exploitation of the credulous laity by duplicitous clergy than an example of the pragmatism with which the medieval Church encouraged charitable giving and pious practice, and strengthened the social fabric. It should be noted that in almost all cases, the papacy was not the beneficiary of the sale of indulgences. Indulgences helped raise money to pay ransoms for prisoners of war, to found hospitals, and to repair churches; they encouraged attendance at sermons and participation in pilgrimages. Indulgences encouraging donations to fund roads and bridges were frequently sought by the hermits who did the work.

Swanson’s work does not aim at the rehabilitation of indulgences, being chiefly a very convincing argument that they should be given greater historical prominence. Nonetheless, a much more positive assessment seems possible on the basis of this extensive and nuanced study. Indulgences may have been bought and sold, but this process was understood in terms of charitable giving and remained indissolubly linked to the necessity of prayers and penance. The extravagant grants of thousands of years’ remission of the pains of purgatory should be seen in the context of devotion to Christ’s Passion with its emphasis on the boundless generosity of Christ’s sacrifice; the contrast between divine love and human weakness was reflected in the numbers. Contemporaries were wary of false indulgences, and duplicitous pardoners were satirized by Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, John Bale, and others. Yet there is clear evidence of church authorities dealing successfully with miscreants and engaging in lively debate about indulgences and their proper application. There also is arresting evidence of just how popular they were. This becomes particularly evident [End Page 597] after the arrival of print; in 1522–23 Richard Pynson supplied 4000 parchment “letters,” 4000 “briefs,” and 2000 “Jubilees” for the Boston guild of Our Lady...


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