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MENDICANCY . As a religious term, mendicancy (from the Latin mendicare, "to beg") denotes renunciation of all worldly possessions and the practice of begging alms from door to door. The custom is of ancient origin and, although its observance has varied in character from place to place, the general impetus for the phenomenon seems to have derived from an idea that the discipline of living solely on alms is conducive to the attainment of spiritual goals. Early in the Vedic period, brahman mendicants had precise rules for soliciting alms, and among the ancient Greeks, mendicant priests went from place to place in quest of alms on behalf of their favorite deities (e.g., Isis and Artemis Opis). Among the Romans, certain priests who were bound by vows of temperance received support from public almsgiving. (According to some critics, these mendicants had occasionally to be reminded to restrain their extravagant demands; see Cicero, On the Laws 50.) Although religious mendicancy is a phenomenon that still finds acceptance in varying degrees in a number of cultures, it is chiefly within the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic traditions that it has won sanction as a religious practice.

In the Hindu tradition, pious men with sons to carry on the family line have long had open to them a renunciant ideal by which they may give away their possessions to brahmans and go forth into homelessness, first as a hermit (vanaprastha ) and later as a mendicant (sanyāsin ) who begs from door to door. Individuals from different ranks of society have sometimes chosen to devote themselves to a life of poverty and meditation, dependent for support upon others. The Hindu mystic's quest for illumination, for union with ultimate reality, generally promotes such an attitude of indifference to worldly concerns, and, since liberation (moka ) from them is one of the recognized aims of a Hindu's life, the asceticism of the mendicant is perceived as a positive means for achieving that goal.

In Buddhism, the monastic enterprise instituted by Gautama Buddha was probably derived from even more ancient Vedic ascetic movements. For the Buddhist, renunciation of the world is considered meritorious in that it allows the devotee to dedicate his or her energies to the task of delivering people from suffering. Both laypersons and monastics subscribe to mendicancy as a practice leading to the lessening of attachment and, hence, ultimately to nirvāa. The daily life of the monastic mendicants usually includes regular rounds from house to house for the purpose of gathering alms; whatever food is placed in their bowls is to be accepted gratefully. Monks and nuns are exhorted to follow specific rules (e.g., not discriminating between houses when begging, eating solely from an alms bowl, eating only one meal per day, etc.). They are instructed that no real value obtains in external performances; only if alms-gathering is attended by the desire for nirvāa can this discipline be meritorious. Although the practice of begging food and alms still prevails in most countries where Buddhist monasticism exists, meals are also often brought to the monasteries so that the laypeople may acquire extra merit.

In early Christian history, pious mendicants (Lat., solitarii, gyrovagi ) wandered through city and countryside, preaching and begging alms, but they usually did not meet with popular acceptance. Jerome, for example, complained that some of these solitarii were accustomed to wandering from house to house, often leading people astray and living a life of luxury at the expense of other Christians. Monastic or semimonastic communities were in existence by the beginning of the fourth century and, although their inhabitants may have had to resort to begging during hard times, they generally sustained themselves by their own labors. It was not until the time of Francis of Assisi and Dominic (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) that mendicant orders as such arose and eventually became sanctioned by the church hierarchy. The appearance of these mendicant orders ensued as a protest against the corruption within certain established monastic communities (a problem with which the mendicant orders themselves had to deal at a later time, when abuses crept into their own communities).

Four mendicant orders were approved by the Council of Lyons (1274): Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians. Francis insisted that his followers own nothing whatever, for they were to be "pilgrims and strangers in this world," living with confidence in God's care and subsisting on alms received from those among whom they preached and worked. After the deaths of Francis and Dominic, however, church authorities mitigated the orders' rules to allow for possession of worldly goods. From time to time, members of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches have, in an attempt to return to the simplicity of the message of the Gospel, initiated reform movements that included mendicancy. Their belief was that through ascetic practices such as begging, Christians might rid themselves of the imperfections and sins that kept them from union with Godespecially by placing one's daily life in God's hands (divina providentia )by complete reliance on God for subsistence one might more quickly achieve that union with the divine. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, mendicancy as a religious practice was prohibited by the Roman Catholic church because of various abuses that had crept into the system.

Within Islamic tradition, there has generally been disagreement as to the value of mendicancy. Some have argued that, since the Qurʾān contains injunctions against begging, it is debatable whether dependence upon others for one's sustenance is more virtuous than having independent means. Mendicancy on a broad scale came into vogue with the ninth-century ūfīs; these were Muslim ascetics who interpreted zuhd ("renunciation") in a strictly spiritual sense, viewing it as the abandonment of all that diverts one from God.

Many of the early ūfīs carried the Islamic theory of tawakkul ("trust [in God]") to an extreme, defining it as renunciation of all personal initiative and volition. Since everything is in God's hands, ūfīs were neither to beg nor work for pay but to depend on what God has sent as a gift, either directly or through the generous alms of others. This system often proved ineffective, and some ūfīs wandered from place to place, trusting in God to provide their livelihood. At times, the result was starvation and, gradually, ūfīs concluded that trust in God and seeking a livelihood were not mutually exclusive. The words faqīr and darwīsh (Arabic and Persian for "poor") are terms for religious mendicants who ask for food or money in the name of God. They profess a life of poverty and withdrawal from worldly pursuits for the purpose of deepening their spiritual insights and communing more intimately with God. Some mendicants follow their careers independently, and others (like their Christian counterparts) live communally. The doctrines of these mendicants and their orders are derived from ūfī principles and beliefs, particularly those that stress dependence upon God.

Within these four religious traditions, mendicancy has generally connoted withdrawal from worldly possessions and worldly pursuits for the purpose of demonstrating and experiencing a sense of dependency upon God and/or a supreme life principle. Wherever mendicancy has become accepted as a religious practice, almsgiving also has been elevated to an act of merit whose efficacy is rarely surpassed by other virtues. It, too, is considered in positive terms as a way of distancing oneself from society in order to transcend the material world.

See Also

Almsgiving; Eremitism; Religious Communities, article on Christian Religious Orders; Sanyāsa.


Although there are no specific monographs on mendicancy, the following encyclopedias, dictionaries, and texts provide relevant material on the topic.

Boyle, L. E. "Mendicant Orders." In New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 9. New York, 1967.

Brandon, S. G. F., ed. A Dictionary of Comparative Religion. London, 1970.

Hastings, James, ed. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. 13 vols. Edinburgh, 19081926. See the index, s. v. Mendicant orders.

Hughes, Thomas P. A Dictionary of Islam. London, 1885.

Macdonald, D. B. Religious Attitude and Life in Islam.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions. Philadelphia, 1971.

Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society. New York, 1970.

Stutley, Margaret, and James Stutley. A Dictionary of Hinduism. London, 1977.

New Sources

Bailey, Michael. "Religious Poverty, Mendicancy and Reform in the Late Middle Ages." Church History 72 (September 2003): 457484.

Jotischley, Andrew. The Carmelites and Antiquity: Mendicants and Their Pasts in the Middle Ages. New York, 2002.

Lawrence, C. H. The Friars: The Impact of the Early Mendicant Movement on Western Society. New York, 1994.

Lu, Hanchao. "Becoming Urban: Mendicancy and Vagrants in Modern Shanghai." Journal of Social History 33 (Fall 1999): 737.

Munzer, Stephen. "Heroism, Spiritual Development and Triadic Bonds in Jain and Christian Almsgiving." Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 48 (2001): 4780.

Rosemary Rader (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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