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Robert W. Shaffern: Dominicans, Indulgences, and Imperial Rivalry in Fourteenth-Century Germany, Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press 2014, XII + 255 S., ISBN 978-0-7734-4315-0, USD 159,95
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Rezension von:
Michael A. Vargas
Department of History, State University of New York at New Paltz
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Ralf Lützelschwab
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Michael A. Vargas: Rezension von: Robert W. Shaffern: Dominicans, Indulgences, and Imperial Rivalry in Fourteenth-Century Germany, Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press 2014, in: sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 5 [15.05.2015], URL:

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Robert W. Shaffern: Dominicans, Indulgences, and Imperial Rivalry in Fourteenth-Century Germany

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Professor Shaffern continues here his efforts to redeem indulgences - remittances of the penalty owed for sin administered by bishops or their representatives - from the confessional historiographies that have constrained their study. The particular contribution of this book is to recognize that late medieval Catholic proponents of the proliferation of indulgences could use the treasury of merits as fuel for some very earthly political fights. But there is much rehearsal of basics before we get there.

Chapter one opens by introducing and then moving quickly past the contentious debates between nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Protestant and Catholic partisans about the extent to which the promotion of indulgences by medieval churchmen constituted an abuse of pastoral responsibility. Indulgences appeared in the eleventh century, too early for their mere existence to be a justification for Protestant antagonisms. What matters is how their use changed with time. Within a few hundred years popes and bishops had offered partial indulgences to persons who financed public works like churches and bridges, to participants in charitable acts assisting prostitutes and the poor, as well as to Christian warriors fighting against Muslim infidels. Few in their time found these public goods or the indulgences associated with them controversial. Nonetheless, indulgences also promoted a range of episcopal and papal political projects, as when Innocent IV used indulgences to undermine the authority of the Emperor Frederick II. In addition to partial remissions of sin, by 1200 popes and bishops were offering plenary indulgences, which removed the penalty for the entirety of one's sins, although only in the context of crusading. In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII offered a plenary indulgence to pilgrim visitors to Rome, which, although it certainly speaks of his pecuniary desires, was also much sought after by pilgrims. These and many examples speak to the widespread use of indulgences by prelates, their acceptance by the Catholic faithful, and a rapid and dramatic expansion of indulgences in a range of guises.

Whether or not the expansion of opportunities for proffering and garnering indulgences amounts to abuse is a question that Shaffern links to the pastoral needs of Christian society. The broad acceptance and appeal of indulgences among the faithful is measured in chapter two, largely by confirming that theologians, decretalists and providers of pastoral care like the Dominicans and Franciscans broadly recognized the efficacy of the indulgence as a pastoral tool. Huggucio and Johannes Teutonicus, Alain de Lille and Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and John of Freiburg - all of these intellectual stars justified and promoted the use of indulgences. There were quibbles, for example whether the sellers of indulgences could themselves calculate the amount of remission they put up for sale, or whether the purchase of an indulgence could come to good effect only if the purchaser also undertook an interior conversion. Shaffern asserts that by the end of the thirteenth century most disagreements about indulgences had been subsumed by the metaphor of the treasury of merits: with the advancing commercialization of the medieval European world came an increased propensity to count the costs of sin and the benefits of penance and satisfaction; growing fears about the price paid for sin in purgatory weighed heavily; only an inexhaustibly rich load of merits gained by Christ and the saints could reduce the heft of purgatorial payback. The author does a good job here of reminding readers that indulgences proliferated because the laity wanted to have them. On the other hand, I would have appreciated a more rigorous parallel presentation of the criticisms. Abelard's for instance. It is unfortunate that the mention of him at the start of the chapter does not show readers how he directed his prescient intelligence to what he saw as a close relationship between sale of indulgences and a propensity to greed among some clerics.

Chapters three through five turn to John of Dambach (c. 1288-1372). By Shaffern's own admission, Dambach is a dull subject for a book. He was a Dominican friar, although what we learn about his training and career profile within the order is weakened by ample use of the word "probably". Dambach composed sixteen pastoral treatises, which readers will not find listed in the text or notes. Like many Dominicans, Dambach wrote in part to defend his Dominican Order against a society that resented the privileged position of the friars. The two treatises which are the focus here, De virtute indulgenciarum and De quantitate indulgenciarum, play their part in this effort. Unfortunately, as Shaffern admits, "the two treatises on indulgences lack originality". Dambach's view of purgatory, full of the fear that imagines it just at the borders of a hell that delivers licking flames and terrible sorrows, had become by the time of his writing "a standard conceptualization". Less standard and more vigorously partisan is Dambach's effort to carve out a jurisdictional space for Dominicans, beyond the reach of bishops and archbishops, as papal appointees given rights to manage the meaning and use of indulgences. Dambach's treatises show him combating the conciliar theorists who sought to limit the papal fullness of power on which the Dominicans' religious and political arts depended.

I could find no reference in the entire book to the relationship of various contentious matters to the "imperial rivalry" of the title. For that matter, there is not really so much about Dominicans either, except as we read Dominican practice through the narrow lens of one author's two treatises. At issue in the title's misdirection, perhaps, is the perceived right of publishers to invent a book title that may appeal to a broad readership and thus sell more books. This is no minor complaint in the context of this book's many structural weaknesses. The first of these deficits is that much of what is presented here duplicates what one can find in Shaffern's other writings. His expert articles and earlier book offer richer arguments on the same matters of indulgences, the same Dominicans, and the same Dambach. The bibliography lists these. What is not found in the exceedingly thin bibliography is anything published after 1995, excepting the six items that include Shaffern's own earlier contributions. Robert N. Swanson's Indulgences in Late Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 2007) appears in the notes (2) but not in the bibliography. The volume edited by Swanson, Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits (Brill, 2006) does not appear, even though Shaffern has an important article there. Missing here, too, are recent researches in canon law and in internal Dominican governance that would widen the context for understanding Dambach's work. Evidence from the text and apparatus suggests that this book got rushed to press without the customary safeguards that assure a quality production.

Michael A. Vargas