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Preaching Among Heretics.

The Dominican Order of Friars was founded by an Augustinian canon named Domingo (Dominic) de Guzman from the cathedral at Osma in Spain. Dominic left his duties at the cathedral when he developed an interest in doing missionary preaching among the heretical Cathars in Languedoc. During 1203, while traveling through Toulouse in the southeastern part of France with his companion Diego Acevedo, the bishop of Osma, Dominic first encountered the Cathars. Upon their return, the two clerics petitioned Rome for a commission to preach. It was Diego's idea that conversion might be accomplished by competing with the Cathar Perfects, living an austere apostolic life of self-denial with no concern for material goods. Depending upon others for their daily bread, they were able to move about the countryside freely, preaching and interacting with the Cathars. This plan met with some success. In 1207, Dominic and Diego established a nunnery for converted Cathar women at Prouille. During that year, Diego died and it was left up to Dominic to carry on the mission. With the help of Peter Seila, a wealthy benefactor from Toulouse, houses were donated for the work, and Dominic was given charge of a group of diocesan preachers to address the Cathar heresy. Dominic and his ministers went on foot to preach the word of God in evangelical poverty, living according to the Augustinian Rule and the usages of Prémontré. The preachers recited divine offices, had a daily chapter of faults (a community meeting to confess their failings or have their imperfections pointed out), and followed the penitential directives of the Premonstratensians. In 1217 Pope Honorius gave official confirmation to the Order of Friars Preachers (fratres praedicatores), a name suggested by Honorius himself, but around the time of Dominic's death, the order began to be referred to more affectionately as the Dominicans. Later that year, preaching associates were sent to Paris, Bologna, Rome, and Madrid to study, preach, and found houses. They adopted a mendicant lifestyle (that is, they lived by begging) and did not own material possessions; they began to work among the urban poor. General Chapters (an assembly of all the heads of houses) were called during 1220 and 1221 in order to give some direction to the new movement. A Master General of the order was chosen for life to oversee the geographic provinces, which were each supervised by a provincial prior; individual houses also had their own local priors. Since Dominic had hoped that new recruits would receive solid theological education, headquarters were established in the great university towns of Bologna and Paris. When Dominic died in 1221, his successor Jordan of Saxony, began to target these university areas, seeking young educated recruits. By 1230 there were over fifty Dominican houses and twelve provinces, some as far away as Poland, Denmark, England, Hungary, and the Holy Land.

Dominican Expansion and New Directions.

After this, the order began to expand exponentially. In 1256 there were estimated to be some 13,000 Dominican friars, many located near university towns such as Paris, Bologna, Valencia, Cologne, and Montpellier. By the early 1300s, there were over 600 Dominican houses; about 150 of them were for women. While preaching remained the Dominican focus, teaching, writing, and combating heresy became their strengths. No friar was allowed to preach without at least three years of study with a trained theologian. The thirteenth century produced such great Dominican philosopher/theologians as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. The fourteenth century was famous for the Dominican mystics Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler; the latter devoted himself completely to the spiritual care of the sick during the Black Death. Dominican struggle against heresy waned somewhat after the demise of the Cathars, but it did not completely end. The order continued to be involved in aspects of inquisition (juridical persecution of heresy by special church courts) during the fourteenth century. Figures like Bernard Gui made sure orthodox practice and teaching were preserved throughout institutional Christendom. Participation in rooting out heresy more vehemently resurfaced at the time of the Spanish Inquisition when Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity were suspected of having relapsed and were either directed back to the faith or to their death by infamous fifteenth-century Dominicans such as Tomas de Torquemada.

The Early Career of St. Francis.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) was clearly the most important figure in the early development of the friars. A special place has been given to him in church tradition, some going so far as to call him the quintessential medieval model of Jesus, an example of love and humility to which all Christians should aspire. He was born Giovanni Bernardone in 1181, the son of a merchant family living in Assisi, above Italy's Spoleto Valley. His French-speaking father gave him the nickname Francesco, reminiscent of their heritage. Francis was probably not very well educated as a child. He lived the type of comfortable, carefree, enjoyable existence that his father's success as a cloth merchant afforded him. While he was drawn to luxury, he was also known to be extremely generous. Francis joined a military campaign in his early twenties, fighting a war in Perugia in Italy and spending almost a year in a military prison. Upon his return to Assisi he lived an unsettled existence. While on a pilgrimage to Rome, it is said he encountered two beggars. Francis exchanged clothes with one of them and went about experiencing what it was to live in poverty. In 1205 he again joined a military expedition to fight against the enemies of the pope. At that point, a dream influenced him to abandon his secular life, and he retreated to a hermitage. For the next several years he lived in relative seclusion, befriending lepers and the unfortunate, living in the ruins of the abandoned church of San Damiano outside of Assisi. When he attempted to use some of his father's wealth to rebuild an old church and assist the poor, his father had him dragged before the local magistrate. Shortly after this he completely renounced his heritage, removed his clothing and shoes, and took up living in a coarse garment with a rope for a belt, traveling about the countryside in absolute poverty, begging for his necessities, attempting to live an apostolic life.

The Founding of the Franciscans.

Soon other sons of the merchant class joined him, selling all they owned, becoming mendicants and preachers. In 1210 it is said that Francis walked barefoot to Rome to meet with the pope and petition for official approval of a group, though Pope Innocent III had reservations about such notions of radical poverty and itinerancy. Medieval monasticism had long been troubled by gyrovagi, wandering monks who moved from monastery to monastery in search of the best possible circumstances. Itinerant preachers like Peter Waldo and members of the late twelfth-century lay spiritual movement called the Humiliati had been condemned less than thirty years earlier. Nonetheless, the group was given limited papal approval, and Francis returned to Assisi to begin his ministry. Their lives were extremely simple, not attached to property of any kind, and their daily routines were largely unregulated, save for a few offices they could pray when appropriate or convenient in the midst of ministry. Later popes (Honorius III and Gregory IX) gave formal approval to Franciscan rules, which became more detailed over time. The group called themselves fratres minores (brothers minor). They were given an old Benedictine church, the Portiuncula, outside of Assisi, which they restored and around which they began to build huts. In 1212, this growing brotherhood of mendicants grew to include sisters. The Poor Clares (or second order), who based their community at the restored church of San Damiano, were not allowed to beg or preach, but they did live out the ideal of poverty within their community. Soon Francis and his followers began to travel about southern France and Spain. By 1217 they had organized into provinces with superiors appointed over each area, and in 1221 Francis founded the Tertiaries (or third order), a lay movement that adapted Franciscan ideals to daily life. Francis' order of friars grew so rapidly that they were able to extend their ministry into Eastern Europe and North Africa, though their preaching in Muslim areas did not meet with great success. Francis himself accompanied the Fifth Crusade and even attempted to convert the Sultan al-Kamil. Of great benefit to the order was Francis's friendship with Cardinal Ugolino, who later became Pope Gregory IX. It is said that in 1224 Francis received the stigmata (gift of the wounds of Christ). He died two years later and was canonized (declared a saint) by Pope Gregory in 1228. Legends of Francis' life abound and have been used by Franciscans, as well as Christians in general, as a source of inspiration for their lives.

The Problems of Property and Education.

After Francis' death, the order was forced to deal with two growing problems: how to educate the brothers and whether or not the Franciscans would own their own houses, books, and trappings. The earliest Franciscans had gotten around the issue of ownership by entrusting all their possessions to Rome. While there were some friars who wished to share in the more radical vision of Francis, living in caves or huts and shunning formalized university education, many of the recruits to the Franciscan Order were from the literate and elite classes of society. This tension continued to be present in the order for the next several centuries. By the 1230s the universities of Paris, Padua, Bologna, and Oxford had become a breeding ground for Franciscan ideas. Franciscan scholars like Alexander of Hales, Robert Grosseteste, and Anthony of Padua were among the leading theologians of the day. After 1239, it was decided that all the leaders within the order needed to be priests. When the great theologian and philosopher St. Bonaventure became minister general of the order (1257–1274), admission was limited to clerics who were educated or to lay persons of distinction (something of a contradiction,

Stories of St. Francis

One of the most fascinating legacies of St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) is the wealth of biographical information, anecdotes, stories, and legends connected to his life. Many of these stories were compiled in the thirteenth century during the decades following Francis' death by biographers such as Thomas of Celano. These accounts were written mainly by individuals who had contact with the saint during his life. Later thirteenth-century compilations, such as the work of St. Bonaventure (a second generation Franciscan and Minister General of the Order), reflected the earliest Francis traditions but were also linked to elements of the growing ideological debate over apostolic poverty. Numerous fourteenth-century documents and elaborations trace their roots to writings and oral traditions of Francis' disciples, such as those of Brother Leo who was the famous traveling companion of the saint. The Little Flowers, Considerations on the Holy Stigmata and the Actus Beati Francisci were fourteenth-century creations based upon a variety of earlier accounts.

Among the hundreds of tales he relates, Bonaventure (a spiritualist) was particularly fond of recounting stories he had gathered from individuals who had witnessed Francis' stigmata. In one of his sermons Bonaventure makes a point about the authority of those who had seen the wounds, comparing the many lay witnesses and more than a hundred clergymen who vouched for Francis to the "two or three" who were considered sufficient by Jesus to establish veracity (Matt. 18:16). The fact that the key witnesses were virtuous and holy men who swore under oath is provided as further evidence of the truth of Francis' holy status. Most notable in his account, however, is the description of the marks themselves, which he says are "contrary to the laws of nature"—first because he never wore a bandage, in spite of the fact that the wound in his side was continuously bleeding as he went about his work, and second because the wounds in his hands were not merely piercings that could easily have been counterfeited, since the nails "actually grew out of his flesh, with the head on one side and the point bent back on the other." Bonaventure concluded that such an "extraordinary" sight would convince any Christian that the stigmata were miraculous.

Tensions between the radically active, less austere, and spiritual elements of the fourteenth-century Franciscans are manifest in a particularly moving story from the Little Flowers which demonstrates both Francis' humility and sanctity. It was written by a friar of the Marches around 1330. In it he describes how Francis was praying and weeping aloud through the night until he was so exhausted that he could not walk the next day. His companions went to a local peasant to find a donkey for Francis, and, upon hearing that the animal was for this man who had a reputation for doing so much good, the peasant approached him with advice:

"Well then," said the peasant, "try to be as good as everyone thinks you are, because many people have great faith in you. So I urge you: never let there be anything in you different from what people expect of you." When Francis heard these words, he did not mind being admonished by a peasant, and he did not say to himself, as many proud fellows who wear cowls nowadays would say, "Who is this brute who admonishes me?" But he immediately got off the donkey and threw himself on his knees before the farmer and humbly kissed his feet, thanking him for having deigned to admonish him so charitably.

It may be safe to say that throughout the medieval period, there were few individuals whose legends attesting to their character had such an encompassing effect upon the spirit and development of Christianity. In yet another story, Francis is approached by a friar novice who has obtained his own copy of a book of Psalms, against the usual Franciscan policy of not owning personal possessions such as books. Concerned about this breach of conduct, he approaches Francis, who says to him:

"Once you have a psalter, you will want a breviary. And when you have a breviary, you will sit in a high chair like a great prelate and say to your brother, 'Bring me my breviary.'" As he spoke, blessed Francis in a great fervor of spirit took up a handful of ashes and placed them on his head, and rubbing his hand around his head as though he was washing it, he exclaimed, "I, a breviary, I, a breviary!" And he repeated this many times, passing his hand over his head. And the friar was amazed and ashamed.

since Francis himself had taken only the order of a deacon and had at best a working knowledge of Latin). During this period the order began to grow tremendously. While in 1250 there were fifty Franciscan houses in England and some several hundred in Italy, by the early fourteenth century the order had grown to 1,400 houses. With this growth, debates over the issue of radical poverty and the order's ownership of property intensified. Notions of a new age of religious orders who would come to reshape the world and usher in the final phase of a spiritual church had been predicted by the mystic Joachim of Fiore (1132–1202) in his apocalyptic writings. Members of the Spiritual Franciscans led by Gerard of Borgo San Donnino and various other Fraticelli (general and fringe mendicant groups) took these ideas to heart in the mid-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, attempting to bring Joachim's prophecies to fulfillment. Following the Black Death and a dwindling of numbers in the order, however, there was an increased laxity of practice and tolerance for material possessions. The issue of property and observance continued to agitate the Franciscan Order, and finally in 1415 and again in 1443 the Conventual (the more lax) and Observant (the more traditional) branches were granted separate provinces and eventually their own Vicar Generals. Not until 1517 would there be a formal division between the Conventualists (who felt that they were the real order) and the Observants.

Carmelite Friars.

Both the Carmelite and Augustinian (Austin) friars began as hermits who gradually adopted the practices of the mendicants. The real strength of these movements is that they were able to blend the ministerial ideals of the life of the apostles with the contemplative calling of the earliest Christian desert fathers. The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel originated in mid-twelfth century Palestine where hermits gathered in a community under a common rule at Mount Carmel near Haifa. The group had been founded by a pious crusader named Berthold of Cambria. Tracing their origins to the biblical Elijah, by the early 1200s they undertook a strict rule of asceticism, which was condoned by the Latin patriarch (bishop) of Jerusalem. The Carmelite hermits fasted regularly, avoided meat, and observed lengthy periods of quiet. With the fall of the Holy Land and the demise of the Latin Christian Kingdoms in the early part of the thirteenth century, the Mount Carmel community slowly began to break up into several groups that moved into Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Sicily, southern France, and England. Some Carmelites were said to have come back with troops returning from the Third and Fourth Crusades. At first the European Carmelites continued to live a cloistered existence, but soon they became engaged in a more active life of preaching, poverty, and active study in the world, modeling their new way of life on the Dominicans. Corporate poverty, teaching, preaching, and mendicancy were the cornerstones of their movement. By 1300 there were at least a thousand Carmelites in England alone.

Austin Friars.

The origin of the Austin friars is much more documented than that of the Carmelites. They began with a group of hermits that were spread throughout Italy, particularly in the regions of Tuscany and Lombardy. St. John Buoni of Mantua had begun to organize the group in the mid-thirteenth century. In 1243 Pope Innocent IV prescribed the Rule of St. Augustine for these hermits and in 1255, under Pope Alexander, all hermits living in Italy were brought into one group called the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine. The following year they adopted a constitution similar to that of the Dominicans. Their lifestyle became more mendicant in nature, and they were given exemptions from the control of local bishops. Based upon the influences of the other friar orders, the Austins moved from their hermitages and took up residence in the cities where they began to minister and preach. They also became interested in university education, taking up the formalized study of theology, the scriptures, and the philosophy of St. Augustine. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, they began founding priories throughout Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and England. Gregory of Rimini, who taught at the University of Paris, was possibly their finest scholar. He later became general of the Austin Order in 1357. The most famous of the Augustinians is the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther, who first entered as a hermit in 1505.

The Secular-Mendicant Controversy.

Conflicts between secular clergy and the new mendicant orders began to occur once the friars (who were not under permanent obligation to local bishops) came to urban areas to preach and hear confessions. As the friars moved in, they began to establish schools and build churches. Members of the laity were attracted to these educated friars who were living in poverty, and local secular clerics noticed that the flow of offerings and bequests to their churches was dwindling. The resources of lay nobility that once had gone to the benefices and holdings of the secular clergy were being diverted to build and decorate such magnificent centers of the preachers as Santa Croce in Florence. Around 1250, the Burgundian schoolmaster William of Saint-Amour, who taught in Paris, began to crusade against the rights of the friars to compete with secular clergy for pastoral ministry and even their right to monopolize the chairs at prestigious universities. These arguments spun into an ideological battle over ecclesiology, that is, whether secular priests or religious should hold authority over the teaching and preaching of the church. The friars were seen by some as extensions of lay orders—mendicant, and thus not completely devoted to either institution or rule. Notions of hierarchy, diocesan boundaries, and the rights of local churches were defended by the secularists. Friars such as St. Bonaventure wrote apologia for their orders, defending themselves by appeals to their papal commissions and authentic apostolic lifestyles. The old medieval power of clerics in isolated communities was giving way and being challenged by a European society that was open to mobility, education, competition, and diversity of opinions, all of which the friars brought to the church by way of emerging societal changes and conventions. The erosion of secular church authority continued when the Franciscan pope Martin IV (1281–1285) issued his Ad Fructus Uberes which allowed the friars to perform any pastoral duties they deemed necessary in any diocese where they were present without first seeking a license from the local bishop. A compromise was later struck by Boniface VIII in 1300 which limited the jurisdictions of the friars and returned to the bishops certain controls over them in their diocese. However, remnants of this dispute lingered on to the 1400s. Examples of this are the manuals of instruction for parish priests in England, which questioned whether or not absolution of a penitent by a friar was sufficient or whether it might be helpful and even necessary for the parish priest to re-hear the confession of their parishioner. Another good example is seen in the negative image of the friar described by the character of the Summoner in The Canterbury Tales, a description that illustrates Chaucer's dislike of the friars and support of the secular party in this ongoing conflict.


introduction: Chaucer's Summoner's Tale, one of the stories in the Canterbury Tales from about 1390, indicates the poet's general distaste for friars and brings together many of the conventional charges against them. The Summoner, who was like a bailiff "summoning" or calling offenders to the Bishop's court, was the friar's natural professional enemy, since friars often tried to evade the bishop's control over his diocese when they came to a community to preach, hear confessions, and collect charitable donations, often leaving with monies which the parish priest felt were properly due him. In this excerpt from the Prologue to the Tale, the use of references to excrement and defecation in the treatment of the friar, while coarse, was not at all uncommon in late medieval religious controversy; indeed, many of the attacks over a hundred years later during the Reformation—both by the Lutherans and by those writing against them—employed scatological imagery of a very similar type.

This friar boasts that he knows all about hell—And God knows, that can hardly to be wondered at Since between friars and fiends there is little difference. You have often heard tell How a friar was carried off to hell In the spirit in a vision, And as he was led up and down there By an angel, to show him the various torments, In the entire place he saw not one friar, Though he saw plenty of other people in misery and woe. Then the friar asked the angel, "Now sir, have friars such grace from God That not one of them comes to hell?" "Yes indeed," said the angel, "many millions do," And he led him further down to where Satan dwelt Who had a tail broader than the sail on a barge. "Lift up your tail, Satan," the angel commanded. "Show your arse-hole and let this friar see Where the nest of all his fellow friars is found"—And before five minutes had passed, Just as bees swarm from the hive when troubled, So out of the devil's arse poured forth Some twenty thousand friars in a pack And swarmed all about hell, And then just as rapidly as they came out, Each crept back into Satan's arse. Satan then dropped his tail and lay still.

source: Geoffrey Chaucer Summoner's Prologue, in Canterbury Tales (c. 1390). Text modernized by John Block Friedman.


Decima L. Douie, The Conflict Between the Seculars and the Mendicants at the University of Paris in the Thirteenth Century (London: Blackfriars, 1954).

William Hinnebusch, The History of the Dominican Order: Origin and Growth to 1500 (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1973).

C. H. Lawrence, The Friars (New York: Longman, 1994).

John R. H. Moorman, A History of the Franciscan Order: From Its Origins to the Year 1517 (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1988).

Francis X. Roth, The English Austin Friars 1249–1638. 2 vols. (New York: Augustinian Historical Institute, 1961–1966).

Joachim Smet, The Carmelites: A History of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, ca. 1200 A.D. until the Council of Trent. Rev. ed. 5 vols. (Darien, Ill.: Carmelite Spiritual Center, 1988).

Penn R. Szittya, The Anti-Fraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

see also Fashion: Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress