95 Theses in 59 Instalments – 3. Johan Tetzel
Chris Waddle was a quality football player. He played for Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Marsellies and Sheffield Wednesday, and made 62 appearances for England. But say Chris Waddle to most people and they’ll immediately think of that penalty in the semi-final against Germany in the 1990 World Cup sending England out of the tournament. That’s just the way life is.
Say 'Johan Tetzel' to anyone who knows anything about the Reformation and they’ll say that he was the man who sold Indulgences in a way that caused Martin Luther to send Germany out of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tetzel, however, had had a long ecclesiastical career as a Dominican friar, taking religion to the people in the marketplaces and town squares as a preacher, which included teaching about Purgatory – the place the Roman church believes Christians go to in order to be purged of their sins before entering heaven. More on that another time.
In January 1517, Tetzel was working for the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg, and commissioned to preach and sell Certificates of Indulgence. Commission is a good word here, as commission was involved. Tetzel was raising money for Albrecht who had big debts to pay off. After all, Albrecht had bought the position of Archbishop of Mainz, not least because it brought in an income. You could buy church positions back then and no-one seemed too bothered. More on church abuses another time.
Luther focussed his objections on what Tetzel was selling, explaining that Indulgences were being sold incorrectly and that a grave theological error was being perpetuated. But nobody seemed too bothered by that either. Tetzel was on a roll. A ditty was at least attributed to him: "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs." Presumably the German version of that rhymes.
One of Luther’s objections was that the money raised by Tetzel was being sent to Rome to pay for the new St Peter’s Basilica, commissioned by Pope Julius II. This is what really caused the stink in the months that followed October 1517. In thesis 89 or the 95, Luther says "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" Ouch. This was war.
While the dispute was still raging, Tetzel, who had triggered this embarrassing spat, was accused of fraud and embezzlement by papal envoy, Karl von Miltitz. The allegations did not stand up, and there was very little evidence that Tetzel was personally on the take. He really seemed to think he was doing the right thing for the right reasons, but who doesn’t? The damage had been done, and Tetzel died in some ignominy in Leipzig in 1519.
To find out more about the Reformation - with jokes - why not seek out a performance of a Monk's Tale?