An Estimated Sin Price List from the Age of Indulgences

An Estimated Sin Price List from the Age of Indulgences

I am not a Catholic man. I am Jewish, in fact, which is pretty wildly different outside their shared weaponization of guilt. But as a naturally curious man and someone who documents fun facts for money on the internet, I have learned things about their ways. Most of which do not make me particularly eager to climb aboard. Im also not going to lie and say I will ever fully grasp what the Popes whole deal is. Devout Catholics, however, dont particularly like that question, especially when you ask it in those exact words.

Another thing Catholics and historians on their side dont like is discussing the period of indulgences. I can see why, since its not exactly a shining moment. After all, the last time there was a big debate about them, they ended up creating the Lutheran movement. Unfortunately for them, the idea of paying to wipe sins away is both deeply funny and remarkably craven, so I sure would like to talk about it more. And that was the basic deal, if youre not aware: for a period of time, the Roman Catholic Church would offer indulgences, which would wipe out punishment for sin in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Theres a lot of religious pedantry about them, with people springing from the ornamental woodwork to explain that indulgences arent a forgiveness of sin. They instead, serve to reduce the additional time a soul spends in Purgatory to atone for sins not fully wiped out before someone bought the farm. Indulgences also werent strictly monetary, and things like joining the Crusades were also considered a way to reduce your souls debt before you got your final bill. Even when financial indulgences started cropping up, they were usually coupled with good, old-fashioned labor of penance through prayer or the like, but that eventually fell by the wayside. At which point, it was a replacement — money to avoid doing time-consuming prayers and such. 

If you ask me, this is a whole lot of wasted breath on slight corrections and complications: At some point, people could pay money and do less atoning for sins. No need for a dog and pony show to justify it.

Public Domain

“The Devil Is Selling Indulgences” from the Jensky codex, and not a great look for the Church.

It didnt help that, even though on paper the Church was very upset about people handing out indulgences so easily, they werent turning down the money, which came from traveling indulgence salesmen. One of the most prominent indulgence distributors, Friar Johann Tetzel, literally showing up in town squares and crowing his catchphrase, “When the gold in the casket rings/the rescued soul towards heaven springs,” didnt offer great optics either. 

The next question I have, of course, as a curious Jew, is: How much are we talking here? Whats the going rate on a bit of adultery?

Well, it turns out, its not sin-specific. Indulgences were more of a strange currency conversion, from shillings and ducats into Purgatory Hours. They also were adjusted both by how rich the person looking to shed sin was, and the level of holy man granting them. According to historian Walter S. Zapotoczny, a good estimation was the following:

  • Kings and Queens: 25 gulden ($11.25)
  • High Counts and Prelates: 10 gulden ($4.50)
  • Low Counts and Prelates: 6 gulden ($2.70)
  • Merchants and Townspeople: 3 gulden ($1.35)
  • Artisans: 1 gulden ($0.45)
  • Others: .5 gulden ($0.23)

The exact amount of time each indulgence was worth is more difficult to find, but one would assume that those with means would stack them high as a hedge against whatever they did (and would do). Obviously, there was a more efficient option, and one that curled the lips of folk like Martin Luther even higher: the plenary indulgence. To put it in modern language, a plenary, or full indulgence, basically cleared your entire sin balance and put you right back at tabula rasa. The most famous of these were the Jubilee indulgences, granted only at church jubilees that occurred once every 25 years, like some sort of long-term, sin-based Labor Day sale. Zapotoczny also gives us values for these, from the Jubilee of 1500:

  • Incomes over £2,000: 3 pounds, 6 shillings, 8 pence
  • Incomes over £1,000: 2 pounds
  • Incomes of £20-40: 1 shilling, 4 pence
  • Under £20: Pay what you can (aka we dont want to stop you from giving us money)

All in all, a pretty good value to avoid purgatory, though its easy to offer value when your product is pure bullshit. Its like purgatory was a vaporware Kickstarter. 

Eventually, monetary indulgences were forbidden altogether by Pope Pius V in 1567, which means youve unfortunately not been able to pay your way out of spiritual oopsies for almost a half-millennium now.

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