Indulgences: Deliverance from Penance or from Purgatory?

Worcester Cathedral Library has a small early sixteenth-century Book of Hours which contains several beautifully illustrated pages of prayers said to be able to gain indulgences of a few days, a few years or in one case 14,000 years! It may not be clear to modern Christians what this exactly meant – and indeed it was a matter of some dispute at the time! The book is catalogued Q.108, and this is what it looks like:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


A book of hours was a prayer book. Hours were regular times of day for religious practices, and the books were filled with traditional sets of prayers and readings for each day of the year, and for each time of day. Books were often individually compiled for their owners and included prayers for causes of particular interest to each person. They were very popular and many survive today.

An indulgence was a kind of pardon, the cancellation of a debt. Sins could be forgiven but penalties were due and reparations required. In the early Christian Church in times of persecution some Christians made sacrifices to the Roman gods, and it was a matter of debate whether they should ever be allowed back into the Christian community. One way was for the offender to obtain a letter signed by a martyr interceding for a pardon or indulgence. In later years going on a Crusade was said to remit all punishment for sin and hence to see the granting of a plenary indulgence.

But in late medieval Europe most people had little experience of persecution or opportunity to travel to the Holy Land and fight their way into Heaven. But belief had grown that there was a place of punishment after death, and that great pain must be endured to atone for all wrongdoing in life if Heaven was ever to be attained. This place was Purgatory. The pains and punishments would there be as bad as those in Hell, but they would one day come to an end. And indulgences could spare everyone some of those pains and punishments.

Here is one of the illustrated prayer pages from manuscript Q.108:


 Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


There is a golden capital letter O at the head of the page and the right-hand border is filled flowers in green, blue, red and gold. The golden letter is made from actual gold leaf, raised above the page with a filling of gum and burnished with a polished stone. It still shines brightly 500 years later! The Latin prayer reads and translates as follows:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


This is the opening of a well-known prayer said to have been composed by Gregory I, Pope between 590 and 604 and venerated as a Saint. It had been chosen for a special reason set out in red ink on the opposite page of the manuscript and called the rubric:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The instruments that injured Christ were the crown of thorns, the scourge, the cross, the nails hammered through his hands and feet, and the lance that pierced his side. The prayer must be said in front of a picture that included all these things. All that can be easily understood. But what was the meaning of the 14,000 years of indulgence?

The meaning was disputed even at the time. Officially it was the equivalent of performing penance for sin for each day of all those years, but the popular mind assumed that it was a sort of insurance policy that would reduce the amount of time spent after death in Purgatory. The huge number was the product of a kind of indulgence inflation encouraged by some late medieval Popes, and the final straw for Reformation theologians was that such indulgences could be bought for money!

Other pages carry a similar message:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


This page is divided into three sections. The first part in black ink is the ending of a previous prayer. The second part is another rubric which we will look at in a moment. The third part begins with the golden letter S and the first three lines of another prayer, the thirteenth-century Stabat Mater:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The introductory rubric says that Pope Boniface grants seven years indulgence and forty days karenas or fasting to anyone who reads the prayer with a faithful heart. The forty days were also known as the Quarantine and at first meant living on bread and water, following Christ’s forty days in the wilderness before beginning his mission among the people. And this does bear the original meaning of an indulgence as relief from penance not Purgatory!

On almost the last page of the Book there is a prayer which the preceding rubric describes as gaining indulgences for people crossing a cemetery or church. The prayer begins “All those faithful to the spirit of Christ know that Jesus Christ gives you peace which is the true peace” and the preceding rubric explains:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


This Book of Hours seems to have been produced in Holland and its original owner, man or woman, may have been Dutch or German. There is Dutch writing inside the cover, but some of the contents are written in German and the binding is recognised as being German too. The prayers follow the usage and practice of Cologne Cathedral.

And what is the answer to the question posed by the title? Did people believe that indulgences gave deliverance from penance or from Purgatory? The true answer is perhaps both! Officially it was penance but popularly it was Purgatory.


Tim O’Mara

















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