In this answer, it is mentioned that the times listed for various indulgences

corresponds not to that amount of time off Purgatory, but to a remission equivalent to what one would get from performing "old-school" penance for that duration.

The poster quoted a specific example of such an indulgence:

An indulgence of three hundred days is granted to all the Faithful who read the Holy Gospels at least a quarter of an hour.... 13 December, 1898. LEO XIII.

Doing the math, this results in the ratio of the effectiveness of this Bible reading indulgence over "old-school" penance being 28,800:1, a truly staggering gain. This makes me wonder what was really involved in old-style penance, which apparently was cosmically super-ineffective compared to 19th century indulgences.

What was actually involved in this "old-school" or old-style penance?

To be clear, I'm not asking for an analysis of penance or indulgence calculations or equivalencies, but in what a person doing "old-school" penance actually did. What a person does to obtain a modern Indulgence is pretty well defined - say this prayer 10 times, read the Bible for 15 minutes, wear this medallion for a month, pray at least 30 minutes at this shrine on Christmas, etc.

Ken Graham's mention of "Some indulgences in the 'old days' carried the phrase as being equivalent of doing a 40 day fast of quarantine." is hinting at what I am asking. What would be involved in doing a fast of quarantine? I know you have to fast, but how strict is that and what specific rules must be followed (e.g. things one is permitted to do, things one is forbidden from doing, serious violations that invalidate the penance or reset it back to zero days)?

Suppose (hypothetically) I went back in time to the days of "old-school" penance and went to confess to a priest, who advised me to do 40 days of penance. Being an ignorant 21st century time traveler, I ask him, "I've never done that, what is it I actually do?". Would any of the following be remotely close to what he would say?

  • Do I have to put on a sackcloth robe and go live in the woods for 40 days, surviving on leaves and mushrooms?
  • Do I get assigned a set of prayers to say or Bible verses to read for each of the 40 days, but otherwise go about my life normally?
  • Do I have to do self-flagellation each day for 40 days?
  • Do I go live at a designated Penance Center, which is kind of like a modern Retreat Center, but, y'know, harsher?
  • Do I just mope around feeling sorry for myself for 40 days and make sure to drink fewer than two alcoholic beverages a day, except on Tuesdays, when I can have three as long as I avoid red meat for the rest of the week?
  • Something completely different?

Whether or not "old-school" penance is still done in modern Catholicism (e.g. can be assigned by a priest, has some sort of spiritual effect, etc.) is a completely separate question that someone could ask, but it's not this question.

  • 1
    Penances and indulgences are two different things. A penance is "the punishment by which one atones for sins committed". An indulgence is "the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins forgiven".
    – Geremia
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:14
  • Also, penitential manuals ("penitentials") were guides for (lazy…) confessors instructing them exactly what sort of penances to give for myriads of particular scenarios. See McNeill & Gamer's Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal "Libri Pœnitentiales" and Selections From Related Documents.
    – Geremia
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 4:19
  • 2
    A 2019 Q asked if ancient indulgences decreed by previous Popes are still valid. It referred to a 1676 book saying indulgences are granted to people who wear their rosary. The one answer given shows the complexity of arriving at any answer. It gave a link to 1967 new rules by Paul VI (which may, or may not be, helpful for this Q). christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/69509/…
    – Anne
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


What was the old style of penance, before modern indulgences?

What was actually involved in this "old-school" or old-style penance?

In the early days of the Church, before it was officially adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire, Christians, as members of a small, obscure, and persecuted sect held themselves to extremely high moral standards. Quite nasty rumours about what Christians did in their "secret rituals" were in circulation; Church leaders responded by trying to ensure that Christians were beyond moral reproach as much as possible. Public confession of sins was part of this (although private confession followed by public penance gained acceptance after the official conversion of Rome). The penalties for even minor sins at this point were fairly significant: Penitents were required to kneel outside the church, wearing sackcloth and ashes, during Mass and were not allowed to participate in the Eucharist. Gradually, they would be allowed to return inside, first into the back of the church, then to their usual places but abstaining from the Eucharist, then finally, to full privileges . For major, or "deadly" sins, the length of this penance could number in years, and one could only be absolved once of such a sin before one was excommunicated.

Gradually, however, this system of harsh penance declined, partially because of the widespread acceptance of Christianity, and partially because many of the newly-converted Germanic peoples preferred a much less ascetic version of the faith. The act of confession ceased to be done publicly, and unlimited confession of "deadly" sins (by now solidifying as pride, wrath, envy, lust, sloth, avarice, and gluttony, though sometimes an eighth sin, dejection, was added) was now permitted, provided that the confessor did the appropriate penance. Around the sixth century the first penitentials appeared. These were guides written for clergy involved in hearing confessions, and consisted at this point in lists of various sins and the appropriate penance for each. - Going to Confession in the Middle Ages

The penance would not be the same as now-a-days penances as given out in confession. They would definitely be stiffer. Strictly speaking, an indulgence is a remission of some portion of a penance. In the Middle Ages penances became protracted to the point they could not done in a lifetime. In the seminary, I learned that for murder one might be asked to do a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands or fast for “x” number of years.

As for the act of penance itself, what it all entailed is a bit obscured. No doubt because it was another one of those items too common to set down. Outside of the canonical public penance of the ancient church, it appears to be at its heart a set of vigils to be performed for a given length of time. Added to this were fasts, or restrictions to bread and water, restrictions of conjugal relations with one’s spouse, prayers, pilgrimages, genuflexions, almsgiving, and “discipline” or scourging. The length of time could stretch from a day to a lifetime. Periods of forty days or seven years were quite common. - Penance in the Middle Ages

Please check out the following article for more examples: The Very Basics About Medieval Penitentials

Depending on the manual, the penitent’s social status, age, gender, job, health, etc. a penance could be harsher or more lenient. For example, if a member of the clergy murdered a person, how long they had to fast for depended on their position in the church hierarchy. A bishop had to fast for twelve years, a priest or monk had to fast for ten years, and a deacon had to fast for seven years. And no matter the clergyman’s status, they were defrocked. Another example is sodomy. (Sodomy here meaning any kind of sex act that cannot possibly result in the creation of a child.) If you were younger and confessed to committing to it your punishment would be significantly less long compared to an adult’s penance. The reasoning behind this was that if you were an adult you were supposed to know better. And if you were an adult over forty (and married!) you were really supposed to know better! That being said, it’s interesting to look at penances for sodomy and how much they varied. Different acts were given different penances in different penitentials.

Susan Carroll-Clark explains these penance as follows:

Penance by this time was much more widely varied and depended not only on the priest assigning it, but also on who the person confessing was. Many may remember that Henry II was forced to do public penance on his knees for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Taking a crusaders' vow became a popular form of penance for the knightly class in the twelfth century and for all classes in the thirteenth century; pilgrimages to holy shrines were also popular. Less drastic forms of penance included fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Making sure that the penance matched the means of the confessor and was not impossible to complete was part of the priest's job.

The thirteenth century also saw the rise of indulgences. In order to raise money for the work of the Church (including building projects), the Pope authorized certain agents to sell indulgences for sin. Though the practice soon got out of hand, there was nothing uncanonical about the idea - in exchange for almsgiving (long a form of penance), the Pope summarily reduced one's allotted penance for a certain period of time (often forty days). By the sixteenth century, however, the practice of indulgence selling had become corrupt, and for Martin Luther, was a symptom of the disease he believed infected the whole Church. The Reformation would produce a new view of confession for Protestants. No longer was it necessary, in their view, to go through the intermediary of a priest; one could confess silently directly to God, and perform whatever penance he or she felt was appropriate. - Going to Confession in the Middle Ages

There are several things we have to take into consideration to somehow answer this question, and even then I am hoping that this is actually what you are asking about.

Having been around before the changes involving indulgences, I can say this much off the cuff. Prior to 1967, priests generally gave out stiffer penance than they do today. But I rather doubt that is what you are asking about.

In the ecclesiastical history of indulgences, the "Crusade Indulgence" is known as the first official plenary indulgence.

In order to gain an indulgence, whether partial or plenary, one has to be in the state of grace. Serious sins must be confessed to a priest in order that one may be able to be restored to a state of grace and be able to receive a plenary indulgence or partial indulgence.

The earliest record of a plenary indulgence was Pope Urban II's declaration at the Council of Clermont (1095) that he remitted all penance incurred by crusaders who had confessed their sins in the Sacrament of Penance, considering participation in the crusade equivalent to a complete penance.

More can be gleaned here.

Indulgences are not feats of magic and in order to gain any indulgence certain rules must be met. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that mortal sins must be confessed in the Sacrament of Penance. Indulgences have never nor could not ever substitute this fact.

A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached (e.g. praying a partially indulgenced prayer), or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence.

The word indulgence originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Is., lxi, 1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio. - Indulgences

Thus indulgences are a remission of temporal punishments due to sin which have been sacramentally confessed and then absolved, thus making our purification in purgatory shorter. Indulgences do not affect consequences of sin, like gaining HIV from fornication!

How do indulgences remit temporal punishment?

More in relationship to your question is the penance attached to indulgences prayers or act of piety.

The “old school” way of expressing the merit of a certain prayer or act of piety was to say one had 100 days (or 50 days or 30 days, etc.) off their time in purgatory. The modern way of phrasing indulgences makes much more sense: they are simply either partial or plenary. No math involved!!!

Some indulgences in the ”old days” carried the phrase as being equivalent of doing a 40 day fast of quarantine. The is the phraseology that I believe you this in part is what you are looking for also.

"Quarantines" is an expression frequently used in the grants of indulgences, and signifies a strict ecclesiastical penance of forty days, performed according to the practice of the early Church. Hence an indulgence of seven quarantines, for instance, implies the remission of as much temporal punishment as would be blotted out by the corresponding amount of ecclesiastical penance. - Quarantines

The following articles may be of interest to some.

  • 2
    You mention the "40 day fast of quarantine". What my question was really more about was what that involved. Like, did you have to go live in a tent in the woods and eat nothing but leaves and mushrooms for 40 days, or was it more like no drinking or partying after 9 PM for 40 days? Were there specific prayers you had to say? Did you have to wear a special sackcloth robe? Did you have to separate from your spouse? The New Advent article you referenced doesn't give any information except that it was done "according to the practice of the early Church". My question is, what was that practice? Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 3:08
  • "remitted all penance incurred by crusaders who had confessed their sins in the Sacrament of Penance, considering participation in the crusade equivalent to a complete penance." Out of curiosity, what of sins committed during the crusade? If participation by an individual in the crusade is equivalent to complete penance for sins committed by that individual during that crusade then the person is essentially atoning for themselves, right? Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 13:53
  • @MikeBorden Obviously a crusader that commits new serious sin nulls his acts of penance since his heart has not truly turned to God. Some crusaders did commit outrageous acts. One of my links deals with this. If one is not in the state of grace prances and forgiveness mean nothing unless mitigated by genuine perfect contrition. If one is truly sorry for one sins, efforts to atone for them are necessary.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 13:58
  • 1
    I'm not asking about new sins. I'm asking about sins committed during a crusade, participation in which was equivalent to full penance for those sins. It sounds kind of like a retroactive carte blanche. A violent man joins a crusade, commits violent sins, confesses those sins, and his participation in the crusade equals penance for those sins. He actually does the penance while committing the sin! Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 14:11
  • @MikeBorden Please pose a question or go to chat. This is not in the scope of this question. Does my last link not help you.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 14:15

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