Ten of Caxton’s surviving Latin editions
are so small that they cannot even count as books – they are
small pieces of parchment printed on one side only: letters of indulgence.
Indulgence for the benefit of the Knights of Rhodes.
Singular issue. [Westminster: William Caxton], 1480 [before 31 Mar.]
On vellum. The British Library. IA.55024. The spaces are filled
in for ‘Symoni Mountfort et Emme uxori eius’, Simon
Mountford and Emma his wife, with the date 31 March. Larger
Indulgences depended on fear of an afterlife where people were
punished for sins committed during their life on earth. They were
believed to make the period of punishment in purgatory briefer.
They could be granted in return for prayers or other acts of penance,
such as going on a pilgrimage, for instance to Canterbury.
A group of rich pilgrims outside Canterbury. Only
the well-off could afford a horse. Chaucer’s host, in the
Canterbury Tales, acutely aware of social divisions, places
his fellow travellers socially by the quality of their horses. John
Lydgate, Troy Book and Story of Thebes. The British Library
MS Royal 18 D ii f.148
The recitation of specific prayers listed
in 15th-century printed Books of Hours was stated to reduce the
time one spent in purgatory by a few days or hundreds or even thousands
of years. But letters of indulgence depended on payment –
although, in theory, a doctrinal requirement of repentance was retained.
Printed indulgences were ready-made receipts with a space left for
the name of the purchasers.
The Church used indulgences to raise money for
specified purposes, although it was often doubted how much of the
money was actually spent that way. The sale of indulgences was farmed
out to commissioners, contractors who would keep a proportion of
the takings as payment. Chaucer’s Pardoner sold such indulgences,
although it is not mentioned that he actually gave out written letters
by way of receipt.
The Pardoner. From the second edition of the Canterbury
Tales, f.ff8 v. The British Library G.11586
For the Church, having indulgences printed
meant a rationalisation of an otherwise labour-intensive procedure.
Compared with writing them out by hand, they could be produced at
much reduced cost and much faster. A printer could probably produce
nearly a thousand a day, from a single press. For the printer this
type of publishing would have provided a very welcome income, especially
in times when he had substantial sums tied up in the production
of large books.
Caxton’s first surviving indulgence
is from 1476, the year in which he probably also finished the first
edition of the Canterbury Tales. We do not know how many
copies were printed of any of Caxton’s indulgences, but we
do know that a London institution, which farmed out the sale of
indulgences, received payments corresponding to the sale of about
30,000 a year. Despite the few surviving copies, indulgences may
have played an important role in Caxton’s financial success
as a printer.
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