It is the 27th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1343.
The 14th century holds a special place for us here at the Almanac. We’ve referenced Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Calamitous 14th Century,” as an especially fun, if not dizzying, read. But let’s say you wanted a Cliffs Notes version for the entire century. By looking at the 1340s alone, we can see something of a microcosm of that whole century.
This is the decade when a particular strain of Y. Pestis, a bacteria, made its way from marmots to Mongolians on the Black Sea. Through expanded trade networks, by 1347, what they called “the Great Pestilence” and what we call “the Black Death” had begun.
If you were in England or France when news of the plague came, you had already been a decade into what would later be called the Hundred Years War. It’s probably best that early in the war, those guys didn’t know what it would eventually be called. That would be disheartening.
Some historians place the 1340s in the middle of the difficult transition between the so-called Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age. And while Italian banking, especially the De Medici’s, would later flourish, this was in response to the collapse of numerous banking houses in this decade.
And on top of this, the papacy was in distress. Part of this resulted from Pope Boniface VIII and his claims to spiritual and temporal authority at the beginning of the century. After being arrested by the French crown, he died, and the French/Italian conflict led to a schism in the papacy. This is the age of the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy when the Popes were in Avignon, France. We’ve covered some of this before. It was a mess.
In the midst of all of this, Pope Clement VI had to attempt to keep the church together, to try and appease national rivalries, to deal with the disease, and to calm the nerves of an understandably rattled people. And the Tuscan poet laureate Petrarch had an idea.
In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII declared a Jubilee year. In response to several Pilgrims in Rome, he declared a special dispensation for those who used their visit to go to certain cathedrals, spend time in prayer, repentance, and giving alms to the poor. Boniface VIII had declared that the year 1400 would see the next Jubilee. But Petrarch and others argued to the new Pope that 50 years was the appropriate time between Jubilee years. (It’s tricky, but it has to do with seven cycles of 7 years.)
Clement agreed to this to unite the church, revive local economies, and stoke piety. On the 27th of January in 1343, Pope Clement VI proclaimed his Papal Bull “Unigenitus Dei Filius,” which called for a jubilee to be held in 1350. That was big news, of course. But it was Clement’s explanation of a “treasure of merit” that would reverberate for centuries. In his explanation of the Papal dispensation of a Jubilee, he explains that there is a treasure of merit given to the Pope who then can dispense these as indulgences for those who perform meritorious acts.
Please note that this was not immediately the mechanical and decadent practice it would be accused of becoming later. But even then, the doctrine had its critics from Jean Gerson to John Wycliffe.
Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has pointed out how widespread these indulgences were and how they fit into what he calls the “purgatory industry.” Eventually, MacCulloch continues, “the indulgence would become as ubiquitous as a modern Lotto ticket,” and we know the story of Luther and his 95 Theses some 150 years later. But in that calamitous century, they were meant to assure Christians and train them in piety and repentance.
The best-laid plans, etc., etc. It all kicked off when Pope Clement VI proclaimed a coming jubilee and laid out the practice of indulgences on this, the 27th of January in 1343.
The reading for today comes from G.K. Chesterton, “O God of Earth and Altar.”
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the always indulging but never indulgent, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.