Indulgences after Luther: the fall and rise of pardons in Counter-Reformation France




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When Martin Luther issued his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, or Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, he was writing in a long tradition of criticism of easy routes to salvation and the complacency of sinners. He did not intend to cause a schism in the Catholic Church. But the catalyst given to debates about the means by which humans receive divine grace, rent apart western Christendom. Indulgences rapidly passed into memory as the cause of Reformation. Forty-five years later in December 1563, at the final session of the Council of Trent, a ruling on indulgences ended the meeting and thereby opened the formal Counter Reformation, at least in traditional histories. Thus, in both Protestant and Catholic Reformations, indulgences had a formative role.

Despite their notoriety as an abuse of the late Medieval Catholic Church, indulgences survived the Reformation and religious wars of the sixteenth century to became again an important form of intercession for living and dead souls. By 1700 they were available all over Catholic Europe, at pilgrimage shrines and parish altars, through confraternity membership and private prayer, by donation to pious causes and in the possession of special objects. Indulgences were a ubiquitous devotional presence, available to rich and poor, men and women, young and old. They transcended popular and elite religion, a tradition in which Catholics of all social backgrounds participated. But indulgences have received limited attention for the early modern era and we know little about the reasons for their renewed popularity. This essay offers a short survey of the fate of indulgences, contextualized in a study of France, across the wars of religion and the ‘century of saints’



Indulgences, Luther, Counter-Reformation, France


Tingle, E. (2017) Indulgences after Luther: the fall and rise of pardons in Counter-Reformation France. In: Catto, M. and Prosperi, A. (eds.) Trent and Beyond. The Council, Other Powers, Other Cultures, Turnhout: Brepols,


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Institute of History