The Reformation as Media Event (Part 2)- Indulgences

The following excerpt is the second portion of Read Mercer Schuchardt’s piece, The Reformation as Media Event. This excerpt explores the ways in which the printing press produced the cause of the Reformation. A version of this paper was published in The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible in April 2017, which was itself a print version of a talk given in 2016 at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The book can be purchased here and the video can be viewed here

The Printing Press Mass Produced the Problem of the Protestant Reformation

It is a lesser known fact of printing press history that the Gutenberg Bible was not the first item to come hot off the presses.  In fact, the medieval Catholic indulgence holds this honor.  Gutenberg first printed Indulgences for the aid of the kingdom of Cyprus in 1454[1] and 1455, the first of which is dated October 21, 1454 and “represents the earliest piece of western typography with an exact date.”[2]  The cost of an indulgence would have been between four and five gulden[3], or roughly 1.2 to 1.5 percent of a German citizen’s annual income.[4]  Print runs of Catholic indulgences ran anywhere from as low as 1,000 to as high as 190,000[5].  Keep in mind that the city of Mainz at Gutenberg’s time had only between five and ten thousand inhabitants, and the city of Wittenberg in 1500 had only around two thousand inhabitants.

“By his own words Martin Luther only learned of the issue of indulgences from his parishioners when in around 1514, as monk and professor, he was appointed to an additional office as preacher in the parish church.”[6]

The changeover from manuscript letters of indulgence to printed letters of indulgence represents a change from scarcity and value to mass production and affordability.  So under manuscript conditions, it is entirely possible that Luther would not have written so extensively and lengthily on the subject.  But under printing press conditions, these were the most blatant forms of spiritual taxation without representation of his time.  The Ninety-Five Theses mention the word indulgence 45 times, and all but a few of Luther’s theses are directly aimed at his grievances about them.  But the visual stress that writing produces in an oral culture also produces a changeover from group salvation to individual salvation.  This shift is further illustrated by the practice, under manuscript conditions, of issuing group indulgences  to cloisters, families, and monasteries (pictured above), which the printing press obsolesced and replaced with the near exclusive distribution of indulgences for individuals.  The cultural change to writing created a new possibility of private identity, and with it came an individual conscience, and the responsibility to attain one’s private salvation.  Now these matters were largely imperceptible to the illiterate masses, but in the age of the printing press, even the illiterates became aware of the power of written words that they themselves could not read.  To have a piece of paper printed by the Church’s authority, with your name, date, and place of issuance handwritten upon it, was to know that you had attained a special status for your mortal state or immortal soul, or both.  And to be fair, Tetzel was primarily exaggerating the official teachings of the Church when he said that “each time a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs” — his rhetoric and salesmanship skills were more likely products of the printing press as well than a reflection of official theology of Rome:  without the press producing such a supply of the product, what could be expected of the professional pardoners (quaestores) except for the production of greater demand?

One unexplored facet of economic history lies in the fact that indulgences are the very first instance of representative money in mass-produced form, before that phenomenon officially took hold with the Bank of Stockholm issuing paper notes in 1661.  As a unit of measure, store of value, and medium of exchange, the medieval printed indulgence met all the requirements of paper money, especially as their real economic value was measured by the seller against four or five golden coins (i.e., commodity money), while to the purchaser their value was measured in eternity: years off of purgatory for penance due already forgiven sins in this life.  If the medium of paper could be a store holder of eternal value whose ultimate source was Christ’s unlimited treasury of merits, perhaps these documents were the Pavlovian conditioning necessary for two hundred years prior to the ultimate bait-and-switch of paper currency?  Of course, if one considers indulgences as the first paper receipts (that is, indicators of money received as the medieval Latin from which the word receipt is derived indicates), it becomes feasible to perceive banking receipts as the desacralized indicator of received money; as the desacralized indulgence. Without this conditioning, it seems hardly plausible that a reasonable person would exchange gold coins for paper receipts that “represented gold coins” in the late middle ages unless she had first been conditioned to believe that the medium of paper was capable of carrying the very authority of God as message.

In the particular case of Johann Tetzel, the details help to illustrate this point.

The indulgence for sale in the Archbishopric of Magdeburg from 1515, for example, served the ostensible purpose of financing the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome…In reality, the 1515 indulgence was intended to raise the money that Duke Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Magdeburg, needed to pay the debts he had made with the Holy See in his bid for the Archbishopric of Mainz.  Plurality of offices was prohibited, and moreover, church law stated that Albrecht was too young for his office.  Special papal licenses had to be bought for several thousand florins.  The powerful Fugger banking house in Augsburg gave the hopeful candidate a loan, and Albrecht commissioned one of the most brilliant salesman of indulgences… Johann Tetzel…The money Tetzel collected was put into an indulgence chest that had at least three locks whose keys were in the custody of different persons, including representatives of the Fugger banking house and ecclesiastic notaries.[7]

The reason that the Fugger’s held one of the keys to the indulgence chest is that the security for the loan money (for Duke Albrecht to become Archbishopric of Mainz) were guaranteed to the Fugger bank by future sales of indulgences!  Here the story returns us to Mainz, just 300 miles away from Wittenberg and where, only 98 years earlier, Gutenberg’s father was working for the Ecclesiastic mint.  While this historical fact has largely been overlooked by academia and historians alike, this should be understood as the first instance of the “printing of money” in the contemporary fiat currency sense.  Instead of running the presses and producing currency that have the commodity value of green toilet paper, as we do today, the Fugger’s loan turns into a repayment scheme by Duke Albrecht, involving printing paper indulgences in currency that would produce genuine commodity money. Roughly half of this money remained in Albrecht’s pocket and the other half was sent to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Luther began preaching against this in the spring of 1517, because his own parishioners were demanding to have absolution in confession while denying the need for contrition and satisfaction.[8]  By October of that year, Luther wrote a letter to his superior in the church hierarchy, the very Archbishop Albrecht of Magdeburg who was running the local scheme, and complained about his inability to provide sufficient pastoral care under the currently soul-damaging dangers of the indulgence trade.  Enclosed in his letter was a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses he nailed to the Wittenberg door.  “The archbishop made no reply, but, suspecting heresy, forwarded the documents to Rome.  The planned disputation never took place.”[9]  As Rupp notes, Luther “had invited a public disputation and nobody had come to dispute.” Then, “by a stroke of magic, he found himself addressing the whole world.”[10]  Eisenstein adds that here “is an example of revolutionary causation where normally useful distinctions between precondition and precipitant are difficult to maintain.”[11]

Note well how the fact of the Ninety-Five Theses is a series of complaints against this one product of the printing press, and yet how thesis number 62 is an explicit argument in favor of another product of the printing press: “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”  The aforementioned theses found fulfillment by March of 1522, when Luther at the Wartburg castle translated the New Testament from the original Greek (of Erasmus’ version) to vernacular German. He had produced the world’s first best-seller, a Bible so popular it sold three thousand copies between May and September, and had to be reprinted in an edition of 1500 by December just to meet demand.[12]  Note well how Luther’s choice of the vernacular put him directly in touch with the spoken word of his parishioners, the majority of whom could not read his translation even though it was in their own “mother tongue.”  But also note how, in choosing to promote his translation of Scripture over the abusive indulgence trade, Luther was effectively saying — not their printing press products, but mine.  Furthermore, by printing in vernacular German and thereby connecting Latin with the acoustic traditions of Rome, Luther is implying the dissemination of the monopoly of knowledge in the papacy and the rearrangement of sense ratios due to print. In a word, that which desacralizes a given reality, in turn, becomes the new sacred; Luther’s Reformation depended on the devaluation of Latin and the mystic, central Roman authority.  Even more, keep in mind that by 1500, books had dropped in price by 95% since 1454, so even for the illiterate the idea of buying a book as cultural accessory suddenly becomes very affordable (and is a cultural pattern not totally unlike today’s digital aliterates, who can read but choose not to, and use the book as a fashion accessory more than a source of information).  So, by 1517, an entire generation would be accustomed to the fashion and social capital which had come to be associated with books; not unlike the fashion and social capital we have come to associate with smart phone technology. All this to say that while it is a well-known historical truism that the printing press helped spread the “cure” of the Reformation, it needs to be mentioned that it first produced the “problem.” Without the printing press mass producing indulgences for sixty-three years in Germany prior to Luther’s posting, and three years in his own neighborhood in a way that wrecked his conscience, Martin Luther would have had very little to complain about in his Ninety-Five Theses. Perhaps so little, that he never would have come to the conclusion that the printing press might be better served creating and re-creating copies of the Scriptures in the German vernacular.

Access the introduction, parts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or the full article

[1] Kapr, p. 63.

[2] Kapr, p. 189.

[3] Kapr, p. 191.

[4] Kiermayer, p. 310.

[5] Fussel, p. 26.

[6] Treu, p. 29

[7] Treu, pp. 25-27.

[8] Treu, p. 31

[9] Treu, pp. 31-32

[10] Rupp, quoted in Eisenstein, p. 170.

[11] Eisenstein, 170.

[12] Treu, p. 55

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About the Contributor

Read Mercer Schuchardt

Read Mercer Schuchardt
Read Mercer Schuchardt is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of Second Nature and is an Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College. He is the co-author of Understanding Jacques Ellul. He and his wife Rachel have ten children and live in Wheaton, IL. 

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