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friars

friars (from fratres, i.e. brothers) belonged to the so-called mendicant (i.e. begging) monastic orders. The four most important were the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. In addition most orders had communities of associated nuns. The friars emerged in the early 13th cent., partly as a response to the spiritual needs of a changing society, particularly increasing urbanization, and the concomitant growth of a literate laity, partly to combat heresy (itself primarily an urban phenomenon) by teaching and example. Ecclesiastical institutions (including the great majority of the foundations of the ‘new’ monastic orders) were primarily directed to the needs of rural society. Into the vacuum had come evangelizing wandering preachers who represented a potential threat to ecclesiastical authority. Several such groups, e.g. the Waldensians, were condemned as heretical. A few, like the Dominicans and Franciscans, were fortunate enough to gain the conditional support of Pope Innocent III in his struggle against heresy and dissent.

The friars, though frequently following variants of older monastic rules, differed from monks in fundamental respects. Adopting a life of individual and corporate poverty, they refused endowments and property, relying instead on begging; unlike ‘traditional’ monks they lacked ‘stability’ but were licensed to travel, moving from place to place at the behest of the order to preach, study, or administer; their raison d'être was engagement with, rather than seclusion from, the secular world. The mendicant orders, particularly the Dominicans, developed a supranational organization directed by provincial and general chapters and ultimately subject to the papacy.

As orthodox evangelists they placed much emphasis on learning both within their own communities and in the universities, and it is no coincidence that almost all of the leading intellectuals of late medieval Europe, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, were friars. Though the friars attracted much hostility and satirical comment in the late Middle Ages, there can be little doubt of their continuing appeal to the urban laity until the Reformation.

Brian Golding

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