awarded by the Catholic Church as a remission of sin, earned either
by prayer or, especially in the later Middle Ages, through a donation
A letter of indulgence took the form of
ready-made receipts leaving an empty space for the name of the purchaser,
who was meant to take it to a father confessor as proof of having
obtained the right to the forgiveness of sins.
Nicholas V, from The Nuremberg Chronicle
Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 12 July 1493. Larger
It now seems possible that Gutenberg printed indulgences as early
as 1452, at the request of Nicolaus Cusanus, the prominent German
cardinal - a very early connection between printing and the bureaucratic
needs of the Church. But none of the indulgences which may have
been printed in 1452 has survived.
On 12 April 1451, in order to
assist the defence of Cyprus against a Turkish invasion, Pope Nicholas
V granted to John II, King of Cyprus, the income raised from an
indulgence. On 6 January 1452, John II appointed as his commissary
Paulinus Zappe or Chappe, a Cypriot nobleman. The indulgence was
valid between 1 May 1452 and 30 April 1455.
The British Library copy was sold at Neuss (near Düsseldorf)
to Hinricus Mais, Pastor in Rosellen (near Neuss), his sister Greta
Pinenkranss, and another of his female relatives, on 29 April 1455
- the day before the permission to sell the indulgence expired.
It is printed on vellum, as are all surviving printed copies of
the indulgence, and measures 157 x 235 mm. It was acquired by the
Library in June 1845.
Shelfmark: IA.53. BMC I 17; GW 6555; ISTC No: ic00422400
Sale of indulgences
For the printer, indulgences could have meant cash, paid for by
the Church, much needed during or after a capital intensive venture.
For the Church it meant a rationalisation of an otherwise labour-intensive
bureaucratic procedure: thousands of identical letters of indulgence
could be required at a single visit to a town. Compared with writing
them out by hand, they could now be produced at much reduced cost.
Printing provided an efficient solution to a bureaucratic problem.
We do not know how many copies of this indulgence were printed.
By the end of the century, one indulgence was said to have been
printed in as many as 142,950 copies.
The sale of indulgences in the Middle Ages was satirised by Chaucer
in 'The Pardoner's Tale', a pardoner being someone who sold indulgences.
You can find more information on indulgences in England on our Caxton
On the possibility that Gutenberg printed indulgences already in
1452, see Kai-Michael Sprenger, '"volumus tamen, quod expressio
fiat ante finem mensis Mai presentis". Sollte Gutenberg 1452
im Auftrag Nicolaus von Kues' Ablaßbriefe drucken', Gutenberg-Jahrbuch,
74 (1999), 42-57.