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People think of indulgence-sellers as catering mostly to the wealthy, that is, a duke in Italy sponsors a new fresco in the chapel, and he might get away with screwing his cousin. Or offing her. Or doing both. The truth was that selling indulgences were mostly pitched to the Norden poor. 

Fact is, if a priest wanted to get you to feel guilty, he could make you do so no matter what. Even if you were married, even thinking about having sex with your wife on a feast day would put you in danger. Or a fast day. Or if she was breast-feeding, or on a Wednesday. The same was true of all manner of small matters. 

Let’s see how a medieval confessor would handle gluttony. Well, eating too much is gluttony, so is being an alcoholic. Or, by extension, a drug addict. In Medieval thought, these are moral and spiritual failings. The hurts that drove you to doing whatever you did should have brought you to the Church, not to the tavern. Nowadays, we say that they’re diseases, but…they’re also symptoms of spiritual malaise. So far, so good. What would they make of a gluten-free raw food vegan with a Sakara membership? She would also be a glutton, since she would be spending nearly a thousand dollars a week, just to eat. Too much, too little, too finicky, too willing…it was all the same. 

The point being, everyone’s a sinner, and some, could also be in danger of hell fire. So? What’s to do?

Indulgence sellers are down there with witch finders, televangelists, and Scientologists as being sleazes in the Name of God. Getting  indulgences is less a private contract, than like a country fair.

 Usually arriving during Advent or Lent, the indulgence-seller would be met at the city limits by the local clergy, accompanied by various city officials, torch and banner bearers, and a choir.  Amid the boom of church bells ringing and the sound of voices raised in pious song, the Papal emissary would be shown to a raised platform. The actual Papal indulgence — that is, a license to act in the Pope’s name, including collecting fees, lay in a brocade scroll bag, on an equally lavish pillow, under firm lock and key on a decorated cart with barred or glass windows, which formed the centerpiece of the show, in front of the platform. 

Once the laity were assembled, the Dominican friar would preach a hair-raising brimstone and hellfire sermon about the fate of the unrepentant soul. Burning fires, freezing cold, blind birds circling hurtful trees…stinging  insects, and all manner of body horror lay before anyone who came to the Pearly Gates with less than a clean conscience. Even lesser sins would mean working out what you’d done wrong until the end of the world. But if  they paid the fee…

What followed, according to one particular onlooker, who wrote a rather detailed account of one such named Texel, sounds less like a late Medieval monk than a latter-day infomercial. …they’d receive an acknowledgement. This could be applied to any sin, at any time: new sins or old, and even those they hadn’t even thought of yet. They could even be given as gifts: perfect for a birthday, Confirmation, or wedding! Even the departed might get their sins erased, he hinted, if the money was sufficient. Six confessionals are available, and priests were standing by…

    You can see the results in Rome, at the Vatican, and elsewhere. The wealth of the Popes of the Renaissance was staggering. Acres of gold leaf, miles of frescos, architecture that surpassed even the grandest conceptions of the Ancients, and the manpower to maintain them, each and every inch of which had been bought and paid for by one or another of thousands of pious souls, distraught over an impious thought, a rude word, or a too-heavy meal…

Little wonder the Reformation happened.

Taken from Will and Ariel Durant, with some contemporary interpolation...