In the 15th century, a deeply superstitious population believed that hell looked something like the painting to the left. Eternal damnation was obviously much scarier then our consumer focused secular world. We worry about the economy. They worried about their souls. Covet your neighbor’s wife? Well, you just mind end up in the eternal fires of Hades with demons pecking out your brains. Ok a bit dramatic, but Bosch didn’t paint this painting because life was a bed of roses.
If you did sin, the first step in forgiveness was to show you were really, really sorry. Just pick up your whip and join the flagellants. All you needed was a rod and the ability to whip yourself repeatedly. King Henry III was a big fan of the movement. And like Henry, most people believed that their debauchery was forgiven once they whipped themselves into a frenzy. We can imagine that all that blood flying around probably only spread more plague and pestilence…the very thing people were hoping to stop.
Saint Relics… Your Mummy will heal you
Another way to reach divine forgiveness was to pray to the body part of a deceased saint. People traveled miles on pilgrimages to visit the toe or the finger of a beloved saint. Anne Boleyn got especially persnickety when she found out the nuns of Hailes Abbey were serving up duck’s blood instead of the blood of the blessed virgin. She ordered the virgin hoax removed.
Often, if a prince could not come to the saint, then you could always bring the saint to the prince. Such was the case with young heir of Philip II, Don Carlos who took a nasty tumble down the stairs while chasing a servant girl. His doctors prescribed an ingenious remedy – put the mummified body of saint Friar Diego in bed with the young prince. Ironically, Don Carlos did feel better after he slept with his mummy. Sorry…couldn’t resist.
The Golden Ticket to Heaven
Playing on the fears of the people, Pope Leo X saw an ingenious way to fill the papal coffers back up with gold and goodies and save thousands of wary souls….papal indulgences. Papal indulgences usually looked like rolled up scrolls with the pope’s stamp of approval and cost just a few pennies. Anyone who purchased one could basically buy an entry to heaven and forgiveness. Steal your neighbors’ pig? No worries. Just pay the fiddler and you would be immediately forgiven. Papal indulgences became so popular that they even outsold the bible. And people not only bought them for the living, but also for the dead. It was believed a deceased relative could enter the pearly gates of heaven if they had a papal indulgence purchased in their name. Today we think we are lucky if we have life insurance, but 500 years ago people had death insurance.
Pope Leo X sent his friar, Johann Tetzel to do the dirty work of collecting money for indulgences throughout Germany. Everyone thought the money being raised was going toward St. Peter’s Basilica, but guess what? A huge junk was used to bankroll Leo’s soriees. Leo’s justification for his extravagances was really simple. He said, 'Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.' And enjoy it he did.
The Door that Changed History
By the 16th century, one spunky monk named Martin Luther had had just about enough of the pope living like a rap star. Luther slapped his 95 Thesis on the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg condemning the sale of papal offices, indulgences, simony and the general widespread corruption. And the rest is a raucous tale…