Two indulgences

Indulgences, as an infamous instance of the corruption of a theology of good works by the Catholic Church, occupy pride of place in modern conceptions of the Reformation—the conventional date of its beginning is after all entirely determined by a single tract written in opposition to them. Perhaps less often considered is the material shape taken by the indulgences themselves: contractual documents signed and sealed by ecclesiastical authority, indulgences constituted a material guarantee of a spiritual promise, not unlike the instantiation of conceptual economics in material currency. The two pictured here offer two very different portraits of the survival of indulgences as material artifacts. B.53.2, remarkably well preserved, makes it easy for us to imagine what it must have looked like in its prime, and also showcases a key feature that made print as much a boon for the indulgence market as it was for the market in reform-minded texts: not only the capacity for rapid large-scale reproduction, but the ability to produce uniform documents with room for adaptation, as in the filled-in blanks here. B.53.3, battered and fragmentary, tells us a different story: it survived as binding waste in a copy of Erasmus’s Lingua in a beautiful irony of the preservation of Catholic materials by a literary tradition to which they were anathema. BW

CUL: Broadsides B.53.2 and B.53.3

Further Reading

Peter Stallybrass, ‘ “Little Jobs”: Broadsides and the Printing Revolution’, in Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, and Eleanor F. Shevlin (eds), Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (Amherst, 2007), pp. 315-341.

R. N. Swanson, Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? (Cambridge, 2007).

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