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Indulgence and reformation: two points of view on the financial pyramid of the late Middle Ages

Indulgence and reformation: two points of view on the financial pyramid of the late Middle Ages

During the period of the late Middle Ages people were considered both by Church and feudal leaders as a flock of sheep which requires a shepherd. Seeing Christians as a "flock” led a Catholic Church to the perception of this "flock” as a source of money. The Church required resources for building St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome and these resources could have been achieved from the "flock”. The Church also required money for the war with Turks and the resources were expected to be achieved from the "flock”. That is why the Church used its role as an institution which takes care of the Christians’ souls and the role of being a shepherd of each Christian’s soul in order to use the resources of the "flock” which was eloquently mentioned by M. Luther: St. Paul’s Cathedral was built of bones, meat and skin of its sheep. At this time the Church started looking its morality itself.

In such conditions indulgence, the church institution, which had traditionally high moral purpose was transformed into a common good after a long period of trading with it and which consequently lost its role. Initially indulgencies were aimed to be given Christians for their good actions, for those who wished to honestly confess in their sins and they made people free of being punished for their sins by means of giving gifts from "the Christ’s treasury and the treasury of saints”. So, in the 15th century the indulgencies which were bought for money made Christians free from this temporary punishment, not taking into account the fact of whether they confessed in their sins or not. Moreover, indulgencies even made people free from Purgatory by sending them directly to Heaven. Confession for committing a sin whatever hard it might be loses its value in the face of indulgence bought for money from the tradesman. Thus, indulgencies lose their value as a means of making a person temporarily free from punishment, in which the person confessed by making them just a valuable paper the value of which was based on the status of the Church.

What is more, the church ritual as such became a profanation which was focused on the obligation of Christians to buy the indulgencies.

Taking into account the fact that indulgencies were a means of a large profit for the Church, Christians, especially on German lands, wanted to buy them. Namely, it was impossible to refuse from buying indulgencies at the time of the total dictatorship of the Church. German lands which were politically separated and were hardly integrated in a cultural way still were the nation with the highest population in Europe. German nation together with four other European nations (French, Italian, English and Spanish) expressed itself at the Council of Constance in 1415. The population of German lands was sufficiently wealthy which occurred of the basis of the European economic revival on the border between 15th and 16th centuries. That is why Church considered these lands and a great possibility to "trim” all the resources it needed from the "flock of sheep” the shepherd of which it was. It is clear that these conditions could not have been left unnoticed by the social power and the bishop of the German lands.

In fact Church together with all its representatives took a responsibility of taking the resources from the people living on these lands.

When analyzing the problem of the selling of indulgencies at the end of Middle Ages period and the beginning of the new age it is worth mentioning one of the theses by Martin Luther: the treasure of indulgencies are the nests used for catching the people’s money. On the border between the Middle Ages and a New Age indulgencies are a getting bought for coins. So, when looking at the meaning of indulgence of that time one can clearly see two material manifestations, money and valuable paper which contained the information for which the money was paid. The value of this paper was uniquely in the examination of the possessor of commonly accepted values and subjects which had a relation to these values. All these characteristics can be also referred to stocks, circulating notes. However, indulgence as a valuable paper was rather liquid at that time, while a lot of people willingly bought them. Indulgence trade in the 16th century was a means to save church from a deep financial crisis.

In the present situation there is a need to underline equal accumulative character of the concept of money (as an exchanging equivalent) and the "Church’s treasuries”. Even though "the treasuries” according to the Church’s arguments did not include the material characteristics, but during that time the indulgencies became a means of getting the "voiced coin”. One can also notice here one more similarity.

When money is stored, under favorable conditions it is transformed into a capital. Money becomes a capital when it works on its multiplication and has an impact on creation of material and moral values, get invested. In such a way "the treasuries of the Christ’s and saint’s merits” were turned in to the invested capital when the person who committed a sin wished to be purified in the eyes of the Church and in the eyes of community. The person who bought the indulgence bought at the same time the particular status in the society and this made a favorable conditions for the church to accumulate its "treasury’s” fund by investing it into the people’s ambitions and at the same time multiplying its financial capital. It is clear that in order to convert these "treasuries” into the financial capital there should be the perception of a high value and the essence of indulgence in the minds of the society. The prerequisite for that was a deep understanding by people living in Middle Ages their sinful nature. The person at that time was very weak and helpless before the sin because almost in all cases he or she realized that they were acting in a sinful way and in most cases could not simply fight against the sin. Everyone knew about the sinfulness of everyone and each person separately knew about his or her own sinfulness and sinfulness of each other. That is why, sinfulness becomes a special kind of "problem” solving of which acquired a vital importance for each Christian who wished to "solve this problem” in order to look in the eyes of people as type of a proper Christian created in the society’s ideas about him. The person was obliged to confess in his or her sins, was obliged to take a "temporary punishment” which was applied to him or her by the priest. It is important to note that this punishment was consciously perceived by a person and its inevitability was understood even before taking confession. Taking into account the fact that punishment for sins was inevitable and everyone in the community was aware of that, buying of indulgence was for the person a fact of a voluntary accepting and going through the "punishment” for his or her sins.

In this case one can also notice another similarity between "the treasuries of the Christ’s and saint’s merits” and money. If to speak about money in the bureaucratic society, in this case money to some way testifies the guaranty of the reliable governmental equivalent. Moreover, the government guaranties the reliability of the equivalent by means of its economic strength as well as the apparatus of violence. In fact, money is considered to be a bureaucratic proof of the country’s power. In the same way indulgence duding the Middle Ages became a bureaucratic proof of the power of the Church over the society’s mind, the people’s belief in the absolute rightness of the Church. The manifestation of the person’s weakness and defenselessness before the sin was powerful over the perception of a collective mindless society concerning the inevitable sinfulness of each member of society. That is why, each person felt that there was a need to do something in order to get rid of the feeling of sinfulness, they had to dispose of it by means of punishment after the realization of the sin and confession. Each person is aware of this feeling, which is similar to the situation when you don’t love your child enough or when you don’t do everything possible which you could have done and which depended on you, that is why you must do something, but it is not always clear what exactly should be done. Church had a valuable contribution in taking this feeling away by means of punishment and by means of making a person free from "temporary punishment” by offering indulgencies. Taking into consideration the fact that a person achieved from a Church a clear confidence in the fact that thanks to a Church a person received a clear understanding of what he or she should do in order to be confident that he or she did everything possible for taking away the consequences of his or her sins. That is why indulgence had a role of a notification that a person did everything possible in order to perceive a very valuable resource which is nowadays called "a good reputation”. In other words, Church having accumulated grace, invested it into the people’s desire to possess a good reputation and to quench the thirst of everyone willing to have a guaranty that they did everything possible to have a good reputation.

"Treasures” from "the treasuries of merits” were converted into the financial capital and overcome inflation and thus, lost their value. This issue led to the uncertainties concerning the value of indulgencies as an equivalent in the social relations. That is why, it is possible to notice that the crisis which provoked the Reformation was in its nature similar to financial crisis which happened because of the people’s unlimited and unconscious desire to achieve maximum of the invested capital. Similarly to the person who invested his or her financial capital into stocks or other valuable papers, she wished to multiply the capital with the help of dividends, the person living in the Middle Ages wished with the help of "good reputation” to get dividends which would let him or her use all the goods of a social position of the pious Christian. The Christian did what he was obliged to do in order to get rid of the punishment for sin! That is why, having bought the indulgence the person had a proof of his ability to pay, the proof that he or she was far away from bankruptcy, creditworthy. All these issues are similar to the ones related to person who was successful in investing into his or her capital. In both cases which were mentioned one can see the person it is worth dealing with, namely doing business, with each of them depending on the appropriate epoch and conditions. Particularly this people’s desire gave the possibility for a church to exchange merit into other resources and thus, accumulate the volumes of the received financial capital. But this trade was led to the speculating measure and the pyramid built by the Church from the "treasures” "the treasuries of the Christ’s and saint’s merits” was ruined.

The aspect which had an influence on the pyramid’s ruin was the fact that buying indulgence was no longer connected with the descent with to lead the Christian to the confession, to the perception of sin’s heaviness and motivation for not committing the sin in the future. Buying of indulgency was a formal and easy way to get rid of the oppressive feeling of sinfulness. These issues were used to formalize the moral essence of Christianity and this led to the inflation of Christian values.

That is why, the principle which was raised by Luther in one of his theses was logical: "One has to teach Christians the following; the pope’s confessions are useful if they are not entrusted with hope and they may be very harmful if people loose the fear of God because of them”. In other words, confession which is not supported by moral accumulated liquidity may lose it value.

It is also important to note that the population of the German land in the period of active trade with indulgencies on the border of 15th and 16th century starts the movement of the creation of the German nation. Catholic Church considered this nation to be an amiable flock, the source of the material resources. This point of view of the Church on the German nation provoked the perception of the German Church as a unity. Thus, the German society created the social background for the Reformation. УДК 130.31

Pavel Satskiy