UW Today

November 16, 2012

Documents that Changed the World: Gutenberg indulgence, 1454

News and Information

Joe Janes information school professor

Joseph Janes

Joe Janes goes back to the fifteenth century and the work of Johannes Gutenberg for the latest installment in his series of podcasts, Documents that Changed the World.

In the series, Janes, professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known.

Though Gutenberg is known for his invention of moveable type and bringing printing, and printed Bibles, to Europe, Janes studied work the inventor did along the way, printing up “indulgences,” or documents used to seek the forgiveness of sins.

Gutenberg made money printing indulgences as a sort of side business even as he printed Bibles, not unlike an author selling short stories to support a novel in progress. “Indulgences had been around for centuries, an opportunity for the faithful to atone and have their sins remitted by, say, good works, fasting, going on Crusade or a pious donation,” Janes wrote. The first instance of Gutenberg printing them was in 1454.

“The document itself is just a form, boilerplate as we say today. Take that to your confessor, be in a state of grace, and you’ve gotten yourself out of Purgatory. This was big business for everybody involved, for the printers but mainly for the church. Print runs ran into the thousands, and in one case at least 190,000 indulgences were printed.

“Gutenberg’s legacy is obvious — the printing processes he pioneered spread widely within decades, helping to nourish the emerging Renaissance and Enlightenment that led Europe out of the Middle Ages,” Janes wrote.

Several decades later, complaints about abuses in the indulgence process led to the creation of “broadsides,” a format that led to the development of newspapers.

Taking about this installment, Janes said Gutenberg’s indulgences seemed “an ideal topic” for his podcast. “Just off-stage of one of the best-known innovations of the previous millennium was the actual first achievement, the warm-up act, if you like, that not only got the kinks out of the process but also paid to keep the doors open — and then unintentionally opened doors of quite a different nature a few decades later.”

This is the eighth podcast in the Documents that Changed the World series. Janes continues to research and record new installments.

UW Today offers the podcasts as an occasional series, and they are also available at the iSchool website and on iTunes, where the series has passed its 16,000th download.