[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]The Mendicant Friars

Dictionary and Thesaurus

There was very little the Church could do to attack the underlying problems that had given rise to the popular heresies of the twelfth century. Innocent III and his immediate successors attacked the symptoms of these problems, and used the weapons of the Inquisition and the crusade to crush anti-clericalism and heresy wherever possible. One should note that the evil reputation of the Inquisition is largely undeserved. In 16th-century Spain, the monarchs gained control of the Inquisition and used it as a thought police and as a way of attacking enemies who were guilty of no crimes under secular law. The medieval Inquisition, formally organized at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, was a repressive institution, but was not guilty of the excesses characteristic of the early modern period.

Bishops had always had the power to question and try alleged heretics in their episcopal courts, but the Inquisition brought this function under a single organization that developed a standard procedure and regulations. Alleged heretics were interviewed at length and, if they were found to hold beliefs contrary to the "revealed truth" taught by the Church, were instructed in correct doctrine and allowed to recant (renounce) that belief and accept the Church's teaching. They were then allowed to go free, although often required to perform heavy penance. If they were charged with having returned to their old beliefs, they were subjected to a much more intensive questioning (although torture was not employed). If it was found that they had in fact returned to their error, they could be declared heretics and excommunicated, or expelled from the community of the faithful. They were then turned over to secular authorities, and usually imprisoned or executed, the latter often being done in savage and cruel ways.

Although the Inquisition was in many ways hypocritical and unjust, it was an effective tool against heretical movements. In the long run, however, it was an admission of moral failure and buttressed the Church's position by instilling fear rather than promoting faith. It was a negative solution. The rise of the mendicant friars provided the positive answer to the challenge presented by the popular heresies.


Dominic His organization took the name of the Order of Preaching Friars and adopted the Augustinian Rule modified to meet his special aims. The Order followed the example of the Albigensians and Waldensians. Although its members took monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they were to work in the secular world, traveling about in pairs, preaching in the vernacular, and -- in order to avoid the suspicion that they represented the wealth and power of the Church -- to beg their food from the laity. They were also expected to be learned, and, to achieve this end, Dominic began to set up training centers and bases from which his followers could operate. The movement proved quite attractive to men with high ideals, and, by 1221, there were some sixty Dominican centers in operation.

Since Dominic realized that it was necessary for the Church to keep the loyalty of the educated classes, Dominicans soon began working within the new universities, as students themselves, as masters offering their own courses of study, attracting students, setting up student hospices, establishing the equivalent of scholarships, and training the next generation of faculty. Quite soon, Dominicans such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were gaining the Order considerable respect among the educated and intellectuals of western Europe.

To sum up, the Dominicans followed an ascetic way of life that did much to allay middle class suspicions of the Church's apparent preoccupation with wealth and ostentation. They made an effective appeal to the intelligentsia, thus strengthening their own Order and strengthening the loyalty of the educated classes. Their evangelism was quite effective, and they set a pattern which increased the popularity of the sermon as a tool of religious instruction and broadened the use of confession in focusing the Church's attention on the needs of the individual. Their concern for the common people emphasized the social functions of the Church at a time when those functions needed greater attention. The Dominicans eventually came to provide the personnel for the Inquisition, and contributed a great deal to the discretion and humanity that characterized that institution in its early days.

As they grew more and more successful, however, the laity began to endow the Order with more property and wealth. Although they tried to separate themselves from the management of these possessions, by the end of the thirteenth century, they were suffering from their own success, had become wealthy, and were attracting new members more impressed by the Order's wealth and prestige than its original aims. This was perhaps a result of the tendency of the Dominicans to consider their practices as means to an end rather than a good in and of themselves. Consequently, they failed to develop the intense and all-encompassing ideal of Christian action that the times required. This achievement was reserved for the Franciscans.


It would not be too sweeping a statement to say that Francis of Assisi (1182- 1226) embodied the true religious aspirations of the men and women of thirteenth- century Europe or that he has become the most beloved figure of the entire medieval period. It is important to realize, however, that he was also a revolutionary figure and that the Church was hard-pressed to contain and control the social forces that he inspired. He was both beloved and quite dangerous.

Francis was born in the north Italian hill-town of Assisi, the indulged son of a rich silk merchant. He led a more or less wild life, taking the troubadours and chivalric nobles as his ideals. At the age of twenty, he left on a military expedition, but fell ill and had to return home. After recovering, he threw all of his friends a raucous banquet and, after considerable drinking, led them in an impromptu parade through the streets of the town. When his friends found that he was missing, they retraced their steps and found him deep in a trance. He had undergone that sudden and intense inner conversion that the men and women of the period called "religion." He began to spend money lavishly in charity to the poor, so much so that his father took steps to disown him before he could bankrupt the family. Francis responded by stripping himself naked, giving everything that he had back to his father, and going into the forest to live as a hermit in a hut of twigs. He was soon joined by some of his young drinking- companions and began wondering what God wanted him to do. In a divination practice common in the period, he opened a Bible three times to a passage chosen at random. Each time, his finger lit on the passage "Give all that thou hast to the poor, and follow me."

He and his friends decided that they were suppose to pattern their lives on Jess and his disciples. After a while, they began to go out from their mountainside wilderness in pairs like the Albigensians and Waldensians, preaching and practicing acts of charity. They resolved to own nothing and the beg jobs in return for their daily meals, making absolutely no provision for the morrow. They soon found that this abandonment of secular concerns had given them a great sense of freedom and began experiencing ecstatic trances and mystic experiences. The pattern of the Franciscan movement, as embodied in Francis himself, took shape during this period.


  • Service to humanity, particularly the poor and helpless.
  • This was, curiously enough, combined with the ideal of the crusade. Francis believed that they should seek to convert the Muslims rather than simply fighting them.
  • Francis was uninterested in intellectual pursuits. He felt that religion was a matter of the heart, not of the mind.
  • He was imbued with a romantic ideal, considering himself a troubadour of God and a wooer of Our Lady Poverty.
  • He also felt himself to be a part of the natural world, a startling break with the past tradition of viewing Nature as an enemy to be subdued.
  • He did not view humility as an exercise to subdue the sense of self, but was humble because he felt himself to be humble. Humility was, for Francis and his followers, a recognition and acceptance of one's self.
  • He was a practical mystic, emphasizing the need for personal, direct and individual union with God.
  • His sense of piety was a natural one. His obedience to the Church was based upon his own lack of interest in theological matters.
  • He and his followers were filled with a sense of personal joy that was evident to all who crossed their paths.


In 1209, Francis went to Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) to appeal for recognition. Innocent doubted that Francis and his followers could follow the life of poverty they had set out for themselves, but was perhaps unaware that many people in Europe lived in exactly this fashion. At any rate, he gave a somewhat vague and oral permission for them to pursue what they had proposed.

The movement gained force rapidly, and was recognized in 1217 in the Fourth Lateran Council as the Friars Minor, "little brothers," or "lesser brothers," perhaps to distinguish them from the Dominicans. They were given the right to preach, and began to attract great numbers. Francis more or less adopted Clara of Assisi, daughter of a rich merchant of the city, and assisted her is pursuing much the same sort of self-abnegation as he had adopted. Clare succeeded in this endeavor and eventually formed a women's order, The Poor Clares, that extended the appeal of Francis's principles into a part of society often ignored by religious reformers and advocates of a new spirituality. Francis, meanwhile, established The Third Order for people who could not become Franciscans but wished to live a life as close to that ideal as possible. In a few years, there were more than 100,000 Franciscans and at least 500,000 members of the Third Order. The reasons for this growth were several. Franciscans were expected to take the normal monastic vows, but did not have to pass through a novitiate (a probationary period, normally a year, before applicants were allowed to join a monastic order), and, unlike other orders, they could leave the ranks of the Franciscans whenever they wished. Then, too, many people lived lives of poverty not inferior to those of the Franciscans, and, but becoming Franciscans themselves, they not only gave those lives a sense of purpose and dignity, but doubtless enjoyed better treatment as Franciscans than they had experienced as mere homeless indigents.

Nevertheless, others joined who were less attracted to the standards that Francis had established. The Order had grown so large that it needed administrators and some of these managers felt that the demands should be more moderate and that the Order should have the prestige and dignity enjoyed by the Dominicans and others. In 1220, while Francis was away in Egypt accompanying the Fifth Crusade, some of these administrators took control of the movement and began to establish regulations that would have changed it into something more like the Dominicans. Francis hurried back, but was able to save the situation only by agreeing to accept the Church's direction in rewriting the simple Rule that he had established in 1210. The first steps were that a novitiate had to be established and the right to leave the Order was abolished. A regular hierarchy was established and houses, again like those of the Dominicans, were established. University attendance and teaching were not only allowed, but encouraged. After having accepted these changes in the Rule of 1223, Francis withdrew from any position of leadership. When he died in 1226, he left the Testament, i which he pleaded for the original ideals of the movement.

The Order soon broke into factions, the Spiritual Franciscans struggled to return the Order to its original conception, while others tried to moderate the rule of poverty. By the middle of the century, the Order was headed by John of Parma, a Spiritual who was attuned to the tendency of his fellows to return to the mysticism of the early days. He and others faced increasing pressure by Church authorities to moderate the Order's standards in many areas and to control the preaching of individual Franciscans more closely. It was a time of increasing class conflict, and Franciscans, particularly Spiritual Franciscans, were often found encouraging and supporting the lower classes against the upper classes favored by the Church. John (and others) responded with mystic tracts that foresaw the dawning of a new age in which the established order of things would be overthrown and the promise that Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth would be fulfilled. The Spirituals went too far with this and several, including John of Parma, were declared heretics. John was expelled from his position of leadership and imprisoned. The Order was turned over to Bonaventure and began a steady course toward more moderate practices and ideals in better harmony with those of the Church as a whole.

It is tempting to view the early Franciscans as heroes and the Church as the betrayer of a noble ideal, but the matter is not as simple as that. The fact is that the population of Western Europe was growing more rapidly than its production of food, clothing, housing, fuel, and job opportunities. The Franciscans' voluntary embrace of poverty did nothing to solve the problem of poverty, and even the greatest degree of charitable sharing would have done nothing but reduce everyone to hunger at the same rate. Indeed, a cynic might say that the Franciscans were a feeble attempt to convince the indigent masses that poverty was fun. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable part of history. An economist once said that only a well-to-do society can afford to have charitable ideals. The Franciscan movement shows that this is not necessarily the case. More than that, it purchased the unified Church another three centuries of existence. It also gave the Western tradition an example of self-sacrifice and concern for the needy that has contributed greatly to our modern attitudes toward those who fall by the wayside.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

Hosted at WWW Virtual Library @ www.vlib.us