So called from mendicare, to beg; orders of religious that, when founded, were committed by vow to the renunciation of all possessions, common as well as individual. Since the Council of Trent (Session 25, ch.3; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, 753), however, most of the mendicant orders are permitted to hold goods in common; and there have also been papal concessions to the communal poverty of the Franciscan Conventuals. The Canon Law, of course, still recognizes the original status and privileges of the mendicants; e.g., those orders "which are called Mendicant by institution and are such in fact" have the right in law "to quest," i.e., to gather alms, in any diocese in which they possess a house. Mendicants are subject only to their own religious superior (Codex iuris canonici, c. 621.1).
At its origins the mendicant movement grew out of the religious and economic conditions of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. For, as an urban economy gradually replaced that of feudalism, the newly emerging townships or communes were soon in conflict with an entrenched clergy that, by way of defense, often resorted to punitive measures that on occasion deprived whole towns of the sacraments for long periods. Further, as a prosperous bourgeoisie developed, the poorer classes eagerly turned to those who, like John Valdes and his Poor Men of Lyons (see waldenses), were preaching that clerical affluence was a contradiction of the Gospel. About the same time as unlicensed preachers took the road to proclaim poverty, movements doctrinally more dangerous, such as those of the cathari and albigenses, were sweeping southern France and northern Italy. The various legates, crusades, and missionaries sent out in the name of the Church to bring these movements to heel made no lasting impression; but an answer in kind soon appeared in the Italian francis of assisi, uniting poverty to obedience, and the Spaniard Dominic Guzman, allying learning and apostolic zeal.
After the Fourth lateran council (1215) and its pastoral reforms, the Brethren (Fratres: hence Friars ) of Dominic and Francis blossomed into orders of great influence, academically as well as pastorally. They were followed later by the carmelites (1245) and the augus tinians (1256), together forming the four mendicant orders approved by the second Council of lyons in 1274 (Session 23; Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, 302–303). To these the servites were added some 150 years later; while in 1578 Gregory XIII recognized other orders as mendicants, e.g., the minims, jesuati, trini tarians, and mercedarians.
From their beginning the mendicants have enjoyed a steady ecclesiastical popularity, marred now and then by an outburst such as that of Abp. richard fitzralph of Armagh c. 1350, or by the celebrated action in France against the Friars in the second half of the 13th century. In 1253 the refusal of the dominicans and franciscans to support a strike at the University of paris was the occasion of a spirited attack from the Faculty of Theology, led by william of saint-amour. The Friars were ably defended by apologists such as thomas aquinas and bonaventure; but a more radical campaign was opened by the bishops of France after Clement IV had renewed in 1267 the Friars' privilege of preaching, hearing confessions, and accepting burials, without having to seek the consent of diocesans. For if William of Saint-Amour simply saw the Friars as disruptive of a divinely arranged division of the ministers of the Church into seculars and monks, the bishops, on the other hand, felt that the papacy, by thus granting exemption to the mendicants, was in effect curtailing the jurisdiction of bishops over the pastoral care, if not tampering with the essential structure, of the Church. The problem was largely resolved in 1300 when Boniface VIII in the bull Super cathedram (Corpus iuris canonici clementinae 3.7.2; Friedberg 2.1162–64) limited the scope of the mendicants' privilege, ordering, for example, that licenses should be obtained from diocesans when Friars wished to preach or to hear confessions.
See also: poverty controversy; poverty movement
Bibliography: c. h. lawrence, The Friars: The Impact of the Early Mendicant Movement on Western Society (New York 1994). j. sarnowsky, ed., Mendicants, Military Orders and Regionalism in Medieval Europe (Brookfield 1999). j. rohrkasten, "The Origin and Early Development of the London Mendicant Houses," in The Church in the Medieval Town (Brookfield 1998) 76–99. j. mcintyre, "Aquinas, Gratian, and the Mendicant Controversy," in Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law (Vatican City 1997) 1101–35. j. raitt, b. mcginn, and j. meyendorf, eds., Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation (New York 1987). c. t. maier, Preaching the Crusades: Mendicant Friars and the Cross in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge 1994). e. doyle, "A Bibliographical list by William Woodford, OFM: [with Excerpt from Defensorium Fratrum Menicantium]," in Franciscan Studies, annual 8 (St. Bonaventure, N.Y.1976) 93–106.
[l. e. boyle]