British LibraryTreasures in full: Caxton's Chaucer
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2. Pardoners and indulgences

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.

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.

Pilgrims near 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
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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