Nowadays the papers might call it ‘Indulgence-gate’, but at the time corruption was common in the church’s highest offices. Leo X was Pope in Rome, a member of the high-living de Medici family. He dished out bishoprics to his favorite relatives and tapped the Vatican treasury to support his extravagant lifestyle. When the money ran out, he made use of a fairly new fundraising scheme—selling forgiveness of sins. For a fee, bereaved relatives could get a deceased loved one out of Purgatory. At the right price, they could also save up for their own future sins—sort of a spiritual IRA. Indulgences, they called them.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Albert of Brandenburg was a young professional on the fast track of church success. At age 23, he was archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of Halberstadt. It was against canon law to hold more than one office, but everyone was doing it. It was a great way to play politics. So when the archbishopric of Mainz became available, Prince Albert sought to add a third office to his resume—this the most politically powerful of all. The problem was, Albert was low on cash. Seems he had spent his liquid assets in getting the posts he already held, and Pope Leo was asking a colossal sum to consider him for the job in Mainz. The normal strategy, passing the cost on to the common folk in the form of taxes or fees, was impractical, since Mainz had gone through four archbishops in ten years and was nearly bankrupt from supporting all those pay-offs. But Albert had a good credit rating, and was able to borrow from the bank of Jacob Fugger, an Austrian merchant who was the money mogul of Europe at the time. How to pay back the loan? Indulgences. Pope Leo authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany, with ...

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