History of the Reformation, vol. 1


Book 3—The Indulgences and the Theses 1517—May 1518

Chapter 1

Procession—Tetzel—Tetzel’s Sermon—Confession—Four Graces—Sale—Public Penance—Letter of Indulgence—Exceptions—Amusements and Dissipation

A great agitation prevailed at that time among the German people. The Church had opened a vast market upon earth. From the crowds of purchasers, and the shouts and jokes of the sellers, it might have been called a fair, but a fair conducted by monks. The merchandise that they were extolling, and which they offered at a reduced price, was, said they, the salvation of souls! HRSCV1 85.2

These dealers traversed the country in a handsome carriage, accompanied by three horsemen, living in great state, and spending freely. One might have thought it some archbishop on a progress through his diocese, with his retinue and officers, and not a common chapman or a begging monk. When the procession approached a town, a deputy waited on the magistrate, and said, “The Grace of God and of the Holy Father is at your gates.” Instantly everything was in motion in the place. The clergy, the priests and nuns, the council, the schoolmasters and their pupils, the trades with their banners, men and women, young and old, went out to meet these merchants, bearing lighted tapers in their hands, and advancing to the sound of music and of all the bells, “so that they could not have received God himself with greater honor,” says an historian. The salutations being exchanged, the procession moved towards the church. The pontiff’s bull of grace was carried in front on a velvet cushion, or on cloth of gold. The chief of the indulgence-merchants came next, holding a large red wooden cross in his hand. All the procession thus moved along amidst singing, prayers, and the smoke of incense. The sound of the organ, and loud music welcomed the merchant-monk and his attendants into the temple. The cross that he had carried was placed in front of the altar: on it were suspended the arms of the pope, and so long as it remained there, the clergy of the place, the penitentiaries, and the under-commissaries with white wands, came daily after vespers, or before the salutation, to render it homage. This great affair excited a lively sensation in the quiet cities of Germany. HRSCV1 85.3

One person in particular attracted the attention of the spectators at these sales. It was he who carried the red cross, and who played the chief part. He was robed in the Dominican dress, and moved with an air of arrogance. His voice was sonorous, and seemed in its full strength, although he had already attained his sixty-third year. This man, the son of a Leipsic goldsmith name Diez, was known as John Diezel, or Tetzel. He had studied in his native city, had taken the degree of bachelor in 1487, and two years after had entered the Dominican order. Numerous honors had been heaped upon his head. Bachelor of divinity, prior of the Dominicans, apostolic commissary, inquisitor (haereticae pravitatis inquisitor), he had from the year 1502 uninterruptedly filled the office of dealer in indulgences. The skill that he had acquired as subordinate had soon procured him the nomination as chief commissary. HRSCV1 85.4

He received eighty florins a-month; all his expenses were paid; a carriage and three horses were at his disposal; but his subsidiary profits, as may be easily imagined, far exceeded his stipend. In 1507 he gained at Friburg two thousand florins in two days. If he had the office of a mountebank, he possessed the manners also. Convicted at Inspruck of adultery and infamous conduct, his vices had nearly caused his death. The Emperor Maximilian had ordered him to be put into a sack and thrown into the river. The Elector Frederick of Saxony interfered and obtained his pardon. But the lesson that he had received had not taught him modesty. He led two of his children about with him. Miltitz, the pope’s legate, mentions this fact in one of his letters. It would have been difficult to find in all the convents of Germany a man better qualified than Tetzel for the business with which he was charged. To the theology of a monk, to the zeal and spirit of an inquisitor, he united the greatest effrontery; and the circumstance that most especially facilitated his task, was his skill in inventing those extravagant stories by which the people’s minds are captivated. To him all means were good that filled his chest. Raising his voice and displaying the eloquence of a mountebank, he offered his indulgences to all comers, and knew better than any tradesman how to extol his wares. HRSCV1 86.1

When the cross had been erected, and the arms of the pope suspended from it, Tetzel went into the pulpit, and with a tone of assurance began to extol the value of indulgences, in the presence of a crowd whom the ceremony had attracted to the holy place. The people listened and stared as they heard of the admirable virtues that he announced. A Jesuit historian, speaking of the Dominican monks whom Tetzel had taken with him, says: “Some of these preachers failed not, as usual, to go beyond the matter they were treating of, and so far to exaggerate the worth of indulgences, that they gave the people cause to believe that they were assured of their salvation, and of the deliverance of souls from purgatory, so soon as they had given their money.” If such were the disciples, we may easily imagine what the master must have been. Let us listen to one of the harangues he delivered after the elevation of the cross. HRSCV1 86.2

“Indulgences (said he) are the most precious and the most noble of God’s gifts. HRSCV1 86.3

“This cross (pointing to the red cross) has as much efficacy as the very cross of Jesus Christ. HRSCV1 86.4

“Come and I will give you letters, all properly sealed, by which even the sins that you intend to commit may be pardoned. HRSCV1 86.5

“I would not change my privileges for those of St. Peter in heaven; for I have saved more souls by my indulgences than the apostle by his sermons. HRSCV1 86.6

“There is no sin so great, that an indulgence cannot remit; and even if any one (which is doubtless impossible) had offered violence to the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God, let him pay—only let him pay well, and all will be forgiven him. HRSCV1 86.7

“Reflect then, that for every mortal sin you must, after confession and contrition, do penance for seven years, either in this life or in purgatory: now, how many mortal sins are there not committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in a whole life!..... Alas! these sins are almost infinite, and they entail an infinite penalty in the fires of purgatory. And now, by means of these letters of indulgence, you can once in your life, in every case except four, which are reserved for the apostolic see, and afterwards in the article of death, obtain a plenary remission of all your penalties and all your sins!” HRSCV1 86.8

Tetzel even entered into financial calculations. “Do you not know,” said he, “that if any one desires to visit Rome, or any country where travellers incur danger, he sends his money to the bank, and for every hundred florins that he wishes to have, he gives five or six or ten more, that by means of the letters of this bank he may be safely repaid his money at Rome or elsewhere… And you, for a quarter of a florin, will not receive these letters of indulgence, by means of which you may introduce into paradise, not a vile metal, but a divine and immortal soul, without its running any risk.” HRSCV1 86.9

Tetzel then passed to another subject. HRSCV1 86.10

“But more than this,” said he: “indulgences avail not only for the living, but for the dead. HRSCV1 86.11

“For that, repentance is not even necessary. HRSCV1 86.12

“Priest! noble! merchant! wife! youth! maiden! do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the abyss: We are suffering horrible torments! a trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it, and you will not!” HRSCV1 86.13

All shuddered at these words uttered by the thundering voice of the impostor-monk. HRSCV1 86.14

“At the very instant,” continued Tetzel, HRSCV1 86.15

“that the money rattles at the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory, and flies liberated to heaven. HRSCV1 87.1

“O stupid and brutish people, who do not understand the grace so richly offered! Now heaven is everywhere opened! Do you refuse to enter now? When, then will you enter? Now you can ransom so many souls!... Stiffnecked and thoughtless man! with twelve groats you can deliver your father from purgatory, and you are ungrateful enough not to save him! I shall be justified in the day of judgment; but you,—you will be punished so much the more severely for having neglected so great salvation.—I declare to you, though you should have but a single coat, you ought to strip it off and sell it, in order to obtain this grace… The Lord our God no longer reigns. He has resigned all power to the pope.” HRSCV1 87.2

Then seeking to make use of other arms besides, he added: “Do you know why our most Holy Lord distributes so rich a grace? It is to restore the ruined Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, so that it may not have its equal in the world. This Church contains the bodies of the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and those of a multitude of martyrs. These saintly bodies, through the present state of the building, are now, alas! beaten upon, inundated, polluted, dishonored, reduced to rottenness, by the rain and the hail Alas! shall these sacred ashes remain longer in the mire and in degradation?” HRSCV1 87.3

This description failed not to produce an impression on many, who burned with a desire to come to the aid of poor Leo X, who had not the means of sheltering the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul from the weather. HRSCV1 87.4

The orator next turned against the cavillers and traitors who opposed his work: “I declare them excommunicated!” exclaimed he. HRSCV1 87.5

Then addressing the docile souls, and making an impious application of scripture, he exclaimed: “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them!” And in conclusion, pointing to the strong box in which the money was received, he generally finished his pathetic discourse by three appeals to his auditory: “Bring—bring—bring!”—”He used to shout these words with such a horrible bellowing,” wrote Luther, “that one would have said it was a mad bull rushing on the people and goring them with his horns.” When his speech was ended, he left the pulpit, ran towards the money-box, and in sight of all the people flung into it a piece of money, taking care that it should rattle loudly. HRSCV1 87.6

Such were the discourses that Germany listened to with astonishment in the days when God was preparing Luther. HRSCV1 87.7

The speech being concluded, the indulgence was considered as “having established its throne in the place with due solemnity.” Confessionals decorated with the pope’s arms were ranged about: the under-commissaries and the confessors whom they selected were considered the representatives of the apostolic penitentiaries of Rome at the time of a great jubilee; and on each of their confessionals were posted in large characters, their names, surnames, and titles. HRSCV1 87.8

Then thronged the crowd around the confessors. Each came with a piece of money in his hand. Men, women, and children, the poor, and even those who lived on alms—all found money. The penitentiaries, after having explained anew to each individual privately the greatness of the indulgence, addressed this question to the penitents: “How much money can you conscientiously spare to obtain so complete a remission?” The demand, said the Instructions of the Archbishop of Mentz to the Commissaries, should be made at this moment, in order that the penitents might be better disposed to contribute. HRSCV1 87.9

Four precious graces were promised to those who should aid in building the basilic of St. Peter. “The first grace that we announce to you,” said the commissaries, in accordance with the letter of their instructions, “is the full pardon of every sin.” Next followed three other graces: first, the right of choosing a confessor, who, whenever the hour of death appeared at hand, should give absolution from all sin, and even from the greatest crimes reserved for the apostolic see: secondly, a participation in all the blessings, works, and merits of the Catholic Church, prayers, fasts, alms, and pilgrimages; thirdly, redemption of the souls that are in purgatory. HRSCV1 87.10

To obtain the first of these graces, it was requisite to have contrition of heart and confession of mouth, or at least an intention of confessing. But as for the three others, they might be obtained without contrition, without confession, simply by paying. Christopher Columbus, extolling the value of gold, had said ere this with great seriousness: “Whoever possesses it can introduce souls into paradise.” Such was the doctrine taught by the Archbishop of Mentz and by the papal commissaries. HRSCV1 87.11

“As for those,” said they, “who wish to deliver souls from purgatory and procure the pardon of all their offences, let them put money into the chest; contrition of heart or confession of mouth is not necessary. Let them only hasten to bring their money; for thus will they perform a work most useful to the souls of the dead, and to the building of the Church of St. Peter.” Greater blessings could not be offered at a lower rate. HRSCV1 87.12

The confession over, and that was soon done, the faithful hastened to the vendor. One alone was charged with the sale. His stall was near the cross. He cast inquiring looks on those who approached him. He examined their manner, their gait, their dress, and he required a sum proportionate to the appearance of the individual who presented himself. Kings, queens, princes, archbishops, bishops, were, according to the scale, to pay twenty-five ducats for an ordinary indulgence. Abbots, counts, and barons, ten. The other nobles, the rectors, and all those who possessed an income of five hundred florins, paid six. Those who had two hundred florins a-year paid one; and others, only a half. Moreover, of this tariff could not be carried out to the letter, full powers were given the apostolical commissionary; and all was to be arranged according to the data of “sound reason,” and the generosity of the donor. For particular sins, Tetzel had a particular tax. For polygamy it was six ducats; for sacrilege and perjury, nine ducats; for murder, eight ducats; for witchcraft, two ducats. Samson, who exercised the same trade in Switzerland as Tetzel in Germany, had a somewhat different scale. For infanticide he required four livres tournois; and for parricide or fratricide, one ducat. HRSCV1 88.1

The apostolical commissaries sometimes met with difficulties in their trade. It frequently happened, both in towns and villages, that the men were opposed to this traffic, and forbade their wives to give anything to these merchants. What could their pious spouses do? “Have you not your dowry, or other property, at your own disposal?” asked the vendors. “In that case you can dispose of it for so holy a work, against the will of your husbands.” HRSCV1 88.2

The hand that had given the indulgence could not receive the money; this was forbidden under the severest penalties: there were good reasons to fear lest that hand should prove unfaithful. The penitent was himself to drop the price of his pardon into the chest. They showed an angry countenance against all who daringly kept their purses closed. HRSCV1 88.3

If among the crowd of those who thronged the confessionals there should be found a man whose crime had been public, though it was one that the civil laws could not reach, he was to begin by doing public penance. They first led him into a chapel or the vestry; there they stripped off his garments, took off his shoes, and left him nothing but his shirt. They crossed his arms over his bosom: placed a taper in one hand, and a rod in the other. The penitent then walked at the head of a procession to the red cross. Here he remained kneeling until the chants and the offertory were over. After this the commissary struck up the psalm, Miserere Mei! The confessors immediately drew near the penitent, and conducted him through the station towards the commissary, who, taking the rod and striking him thrice gently on the back, said to him: “God have pity on thee, and pardon thy sin!” He then began to sing the Kyrie Eleison: the penitent was led to the front of the cross, where the confessor gave him the apostolical absolution, and declared him reinstated in the communion of the faithful. Sad mummery, concluded by the words of Holy Scripture, that, in such a moment, were mere profanity! HRSCV1 88.4

We give one of these letters of absolution. It is worth while learning the contents of these diplomas which led to the Reformation of the Church. HRSCV1 88.5

“May our Lord Jesus Christ have pity on thee, N.N., and absolve thee by the merits of his most holy passion! And I, in virtue of the apostolical power that has been confided to me, absolve thee from all ecclesiastical censures, judgments, and penalties, which thou mayst have incurred; moreover, from all excesses, sins, and crimes that thou mayst have committed, however great and enormous they may be, and from whatsoever cause, were they even reserved for our most holy father the pope and for the apostolic see. I blot out all the stains of inability and all marks of infamy that thou mayst have drawn upon thyself on this occasion. I remit the penalties that thou shouldst have endured in purgatory. I restore thee anew to participation in the sacraments of the Church. I incorporate thee afresh in the communion of saints, and re-establish thee in the purity and innocence which thou hadst at thy baptism. So that in the hour of death, the gate by which sinners enter the place of torments and punishment shall be closed against thee, and, on the contrary, the gate leading to the paradise of joy shall be open. And if thou shouldst not die for long years, this grace will remain unalterable until thy last hour shall arrive. HRSCV1 88.6

“In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. HRSCV1 88.7

“Friar John Tetzel, commissary, has signed this with his own hand.” HRSCV1 88.8

With what skill are presumptuous and lying words here foisted in between holy and christian expressions! HRSCV1 89.1

All the believers were required to confess in the place where the red cross was set up. None were excepted but the sick and aged, and pregnant women. If, however, there chanced to be in the neighborhood some noble in his castle, some great personage in his palace, there was also an exemption for him, as he would not like to be mixed up with this crowd, and his money was well worth the pains of fetching from his mansion. HRSCV1 89.2

Was there any convent whose chiefs, opposed to Tetzel’s commerce, forbade their monks to visit the places where the Indulgence had set up its throne, they found means of remedying the evil by sending them confessors, who were empowered to absolve them contrary to the rules of their order and the will of their superiors. There was no vein in the gold mine that they did not find the means of working. HRSCV1 89.3

Then came what was the end and aim of the whole business: the reckoning of the money. For greater security, the chest had three keys: one was in Tetzel’s keeping; the second in that of a treasurer delegated by the house of Fugger of Augsburg, to whom this vast enterprise has been consigned; the third was confided to the civil authority. When the time was come, the money-boxes were opened before a public notary, and the contents were duly counted and registered. Must not Christ arise and drive out these profane money changers from the sanctuary? HRSCV1 89.4

When the mission was over, the dealers relaxed from their toils. The instructions of the commissary-general forbade them, it is true, to frequent taverns and places of bad repute; but they cared little for this prohibition. Sin could have but few terrors for those who made so easy a traffic in it. “The collectors led a disorderly life,” says a Romanist historian; “they squandered in taverns, gambling-houses, and places of ill-fame, all that the people had saved from their necessities.” It has even been asserted, that when they were in the taverns they would often stake the salvation of souls on a throw of the dice. HRSCV1 89.5