Indulgences were awarded by the Catholic Church as a remission of sin, earned either by prayer or, especially in the later Middle Ages, through a donation of money.
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.
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 website.
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.
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