The First Jubilee

The Jubilee is a yearlong celebration of Roman Catholics, in which they can get a full remission of their sins. It usually happens about once a generation, and draws millions of people to Rome and other events around the world. How did this tradition start in the Middle Ages?

As the year 1300 was about to begin, the residents of Rome began to see more than the usual number pilgrims streaming into the city. They were coming from all corners of Europe with big expectations – the change from the year 1299 to 1300 was seen as a monumental event and it seemed that everyone wanted to be at the centre of Christendom when it happened. However, not everyone was impressed by the thousands of faithful that were coming to the Eternal City – one Cardinal even asked, “Why are these fools expecting the end of the world?”


However, as Gary Dickson writes in his article, ‘The crowd at the feet of Pope Boniface VIII: pilgrimage, crusade and the first Roman Jubilee (1300)”:

in so far as we can gauge the popular mood from the chroniclers and from the papal sources, which admittedly were disinclined towards apocalypticism, the year 1300 was awaited in Rome not so much with nervous apprehension, as with optimistic anticipation. It was this widespread expectation of transformation which culminated in what was apparently the first centennial collective rite-de-passage to be celebrated in European history.


In medieval Rome Christmas Day also marked the start of the new year, and on Christmas Eve, 1299, crowds of pilgrims flocked to St.Peter’s where rumours spread quickly that pardons would be granted for all sins. These stories soon reached the ears of Pope Boniface VIII, who ordered an investigation into what was happening. No records existed that the beginning of the century meant that there was going to be some kind of indulgence handed out, like those given to crusaders.

BonifaceVIII and the First Jubilee

The Pope then spoke with a man who said he was 107 years old. He told Boniface that his father had come to Rome in the year 1200, and had gained an indulgence, and that this was a tradition that had gone back many centuries before.

Turning to the the Bible, the Pope also found something similar had happened in the ancient past. The Old Testament Book of Leviticus explained  that the “fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.”

Boniface VIII has not gone down in history as the most religious of popes – he was more of a lawyer who spent his seven-year reign arguing with other rulers in Italy and around Europe. However, he was astute enough to see an opportunity when it came walking to his door. On February 22, 1300, Boniface published the Papal Bull “Antiquorum fida relatio”, which decreed that this would be a Jubilee Year, and that any Christian could get remission from all sins if they made their confession and went on a pilgrimage to Rome before the end of the year. Once they arrived in Rome, the pilgrims were required to visit the basilicas of St Peter and St Paul daily for fifteen days. Roman residents could also do this, but had to visit the basilicas for thirty days.


As news of the Papal Bull travelled outside of Rome, even more pilgrims would arrive. The Italian chronicler Giovanni Villani describes the scene: “the most marvellous thing that was ever seen, for throughout the year, without a break, there were in Rome, besides the inhabitants of the city, 200,000 pilgrims…and all was well ordered, and without tumult…”

It was an exaggeration to say that it was well-ordered – there were also reports of pilgrims being trampled or crushed to death in the huge crowds – but the year was generally peaceful and considered a success. Moreover, the Jubilee also brought much needed money to the Papal treasury. However, not everyone was welcome – on the same day Boniface issued his Papal Bull he issued another order stating the indulgence would not apply to his political enemies, including King Frederick III of Sicily.

Boniface VIII intended the Jubilee to be a once-in-a-century event, but by 1350 one of his successors was persuaded to repeat it. The Jubilee Year was held again in 1387, 1400, 1423, 1450 and 1475 – after which it mostly continued its practice of being held every 25 years.