By: Ashley
Was the medieval church corrupt?

The Importance of Indulgences during Medieval Christianity
Ashley Crawford
Mercer University

The Importance of Indulgences during Medieval Christianity
The purpose of this paper is to explore the importance of indulgences as an innovation of the church around the thirteenth century. In Catholic theology, an indulgence is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven (Wikipedia Worldwide Encyclopedia, 2011). By the sixteenth century the institution of indulgence had undergone a long evolution serving as revenue generating instrument as well as agents of Christian justice (Kiermayer, 1986). The theological context of indulgences now became a thing of the past with a direct emphasis on the financial aspects of indulgences and how they were used or abused. It was claimed that the Catholic Church invented the doctrine on indulgences in order to extract money from the faithful (Fama, 2001). It could be argued that along with the monetary benefits indulgence held for the church, there was a psychological component which kept the faithful in a state of fear of purgatory or even worse hell. Protestants argued that this was one of the major abuses and signs of corruption in the Catholic Church (Bornstein, 2010).
Dr. Martin Luther was one of the main opponents of the way the Catholic Church used indulgences as a means of economic and political power, specifically Archbishop Albert of Mainz and of Magdeburg (Kiermayer, 1986). This seemed to take place at a crucial time when there was a battle of economic and political power between the Romans and a select German population. Dr. Martin Luther was not necessarily opposed to the concept of indulgences but the misuse of it by those in power to exhibit more power and control over the masses. Martin Luther initiated a more complex look at the overall dynamics of what indulgences were and how they were being used, which created a shift in how indulgences would be perceived from that time forward.
Dr. Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 in Eisleben Germany. Brought to the church through a desire to find peace, he was a loyal servant of the church. He received advanced degrees and became a priest in 1507 (Sydow, 1999). As time progressed Martin Luther found himself unable to gain spiritual peace from the sacraments of the church, which begged him to question himself and the church. The church offered forgiveness in the confessional but it was contingent on conditions which Luther found unacceptable or he could not afford (Sydow, 1999). Much of the early 16th century ecclesiastical debate involved correction of abuses such as the use of indulgences to finance confirmation proceedings for Albert of Brandenburg election as archbishop of Mainz (Kiermayer, 1986). The reformation was primarily a spiritual and theological movement which also had political, social, and cultural ramifications, and Dr. Martin Luther was the catalyst.
Indulgences seem to spiral out of control and made into a business rather than a way of atonement, which was its original purpose. As Martin Luther found, the concept of indulgence originated with all in mind and had been turned into the center of salvation which only a few could afford. As was stated by Bornstein (2010) indulgences could be viewed as one having the means to control their own soul and the amount of suffering one had to endure. At one point and time the price for an indulgence was 1.2 or even 1.5 percent of the annual income for citizens (Kiermayer, 1986). Could you imagine if we in today’s society would have to pay 1.5 percent of our salaries for each wrongdoing according to the doctrines of the church, and our salvation was dependent on our abilities to pay? Martin Luther found that even as a significant member of the church body that if his access to indulgences was limited then other saints were really in trouble. It would be easy to see indulgences as something bad that should never had happened but to the contrary, the concept and use of indulgences is responsible for significant changes in the church as we know it today.
What’s important to note is the reasons it was so very important for indulgences to evolve into a means for salvation. The churches were directly tied into politics and laws of the land, there was very little distinction between what was holy and what was not. Much of the church was constructed of people who were wealthy and in positions of power; this was an avenue to exercise that power a bit more. Scribes and Pharisees were abundant in the church and were a major part of that mindset that one’s work can get them into heaven. Much of the reform brought about by Martin Luther challenged the notion of purgatory, and therefore the significance of indulgences the way the church was misusing them (Bornstein, 2010). Contributions around 1518 for indulgences had taken an incredible hit due to the opposition of Martin Luther, with more affluent communities that had previously been involved in the process not as involved. This could not be more evident than at the indulgence box opening ceremony in Heiligenstadt Germany, where not a single member of the civic community was present (Kiermayer, 1986).
A large unspoken aspect of Marin Luther’s reformation had to do with making sure that education was emphasized along with spirituality. It was Marin Luther’s thought that people needed to be able to read and understand laws and practices practiced in their communities (Sydow, 1999). The indulgence campaign of 1518 clearly identifies the importance and significance of growing civic awareness along with an anticlericalism attitude among the community (Kiermayer, 1986). There is little residue of this type of misuse of indulgences in our churches today, but Martin Luther may say that there are still some concern, even though it may not seem money is the motivating factor.


In the sixteenth century indulgences had already taken on the characteristic of a purely money making act. Indulgences had moved from its intended purpose which was a means for forgiveness and pardon of sins to a way of creating revenue. On the surface this did not seem that bad due to the fact that indulgence money had been used to finance legitimate Christian programs (Kiermayer, 1986). Indulgences evolved into a tool which some in the church would use for personal gains that did not necessarily have anything to do with the church or community. Indulgences became a tool of salvation which seemed to create an atmosphere of fear that the church played on for its own profit. Martin Luther saw some major concerns with the very church in which he was a part of. Marin Luther’s ability to stand up and question the merit of indulgences and they way they were being used created a revolution that created a somewhat new church.
This assignment was challenging and welcome at the same time, challenging me to think in a broader scope. It is easy to see how new information can be met with conflict because it temporarily throws one in a state of chaos. Reading various articles challenged me to think a different way, including me learning a new meaning for the term indulgences. It was easy to see how something that happened so long ago still has a great effect on our practices today, no matter what religious group we are a part of. It is amazing how a good concept can spin out of control and go from productive to counterproductive so quickly. But the shining light is the Martin Luther’s of the world. Even as he grew older in his wisdom and intelligence he was challenged with new information about the Jews and was able to make subtle changes. One of the things I liked about Marin Luther was that he preached being educated and informed as a part of spiritual growth. Even though this was tough, one of the toughest papers I have ever written, it was a welcome challenge.

By: Ashley
Was the medieval church corrupt?

Focus: Luther argued that the church abused the use of indulgence. Indulgence was sold for profit and personal gain. The church did not look out for the best interest of the community or the salvation of the people.

Main Idea
Indulgence on the rise
Maniuz magauburg and Albert Brandenburg appointed themselves high ranking positions such as commissioner so they would have sole control over indulgences(p307)
In attempt to cover up misappropriation of funds Maniz and Albert claimed all indulgences where used to recover lost church property.
Misappropriation of indulgence
Due to the high sales of Indulgence banks no longer saw indulgence as a way to earn salvation in the church but as a business(p.308).
The sale of indulgence spiraled out of control.
Was the medieval church corrupt?

Many people begin to wonder if the church was using indulgence as a profit verses a way to salvation. They wanted evidence to prove the church was not being misleading.
Leaders gathered to open the box that housed important indulgence info. The evidence found or lack of evidence further convinced critics of wrong doings(p.316)
The Fall of indulgence
The efforts of Luther and many others raised enough controversy to get people doing their own investigations on indulgence in the church.
People where no longer convinced that indulgence granted them salvation and sales hit an all time low forcing Mainz out of business.

Implications: Overall efforts of Luther and many others raised enough controversy to prove the church was misusing indulgence as a profit and not for the salvation of the people.

Focus: Was the medieval church corrupt? The author argued that the Catholic Church invented the doctrine of indulgence in order to extract the money from the faithful.

Main Idea
Corruption in the church
The Church used the fear of God and hell as a way to promote indulgence.
Signs of abuse and corruption
Cost of Indulgence
Indulgence came at a very high cost. Many could not afford indulgence but those who could where promised salvation.
Conditions of indulgence

Indulgence moved from its intended purpose to a way of creating revenue.
The intended purpose of indulgence was to pay for ones sins through indulgence in return you would receive salvation.


Implications: The catholic Church used indulgence as a way to obtain politically, socially, and finically status. The sole purpose of indulgence a way to receive forgiveness and salvation was lost due to greed.

Bornstein, D. E. (2010). Medieval Christainity . Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Fama, S. R. (2001). And you will know; How to explain and defend the Catholic Faith.
Kiermayer, R. (1986). How much money was actually in the Indulgence Chest. The Sixteenth Century Journal , 17 (3), 303-318.
Sydow, M. (1999). Martin Luther, reformation theologian and educator. Journal of Theology , 39 (4), 1-11.
Wikipedia Worldwide Encyclopedia. (2011, April 26). Retrieved April 26, 2011, from Wikipedia Encyclopedia website:

Medieval Church in Armenia.
Medieval Church in Armenia.