Towards the end of the eleventh century there was an increasing desire in many monks to return to the life of the hermit. There was also a desire to emulate the apostles by owning nothing and sharing everything. This was known as the apostolic life. Religious fervour swept through parts of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and more and more people came to live together in religious communities. They were usually lay people, rather than ordained monks. Frequently their beliefs tended towards the heretical – the Cathars and the Albigensians for example. All their beliefs were based on interpretations of the apostolic life and a desire to embrace poverty as Christ had done.
Founded by St Francis in 1209, the Franciscans were the Grey Friars or Friars Minor. ‘Friar’ is a corruption of the Norman French ‘frere’ which in turn came from the Latin ‘frater’ or ‘brother’. The Franciscans were the least intellectual of the mendicant orders, which may explain why they seemed to be rather prone to heresy. They took a vow of poverty and preached with great emotion about the sufferings of Christ.
Francis wanted to return to the simplicity of the early church. He embraced poverty and aspired to preach in the streets as the apostles had. He lived in caves, begging for food and wearing cast-off clothes.
Francis’ aim was to reform the church from within by example. He did not criticise the church, although its faults were very clear to him. His early followers were members of the aristocracy and the merchant class, who had wealth to give up. The call to poverty did not appeal to those who already had next to nothing.
The Franciscans realised that, if they were to evangelise, which was an important element of their interpretation of the apostolic life, they could not live in monasteries, but would have to be in the world. They had houses, between which individuals moved in small groups as directed by their superiors, but the friars did not have permanent homes.
As people living in towns began more frequently to receive an education and there was greater access to books, occasionally even a New Testament in their own language, they began to realise that their parish priests were not well-educated and knew little more than they did themselves, sometimes less. They became critical of their priests and open to the various heresies that arose when people were able to study the New Testament for themselves. By the time the Franciscans started travelling from town to town, town dwellers were used to seeing laymen preach the gospel. The only difficulty was telling the difference between a preacher approved by the church and a heretic.
The Franciscans first arrived in England in 1224, when they established themselves in Canterbury, London and Oxford.
There were constant arguments in the order about whether or not they should become university-trained theologians, or whether they should have servants, or whether they should own property. Within twenty-five years of Francis’ death the minority who insisted on simplicity and poverty became known as the ‘Spirituals’; their opponents were the ‘Conventuals’. At the end of the thirteenth century the Spirituals were accused of heresy and their leaders were burned to death. They had developed extreme views, believing that St Francis had replaced Jesus. They did not accept the authority of the pope.
Early Franciscans had been lay men and this was a great problem for the medieval church, as they could neither hear confessions nor dispense the sacraments. Not long after Francis’ death control of the order passed from lay brothers to ordained brothers, which made the order more acceptable to the rest of the church.
The Franciscans eventually moved into the universities and the intellectual world of the later Middle Ages was dominated by Franciscans like Alexander of Hales (1185 – 1245), Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), Duns Scotus (c. 1266- 1308) and William of Occam (1285-1349).
The Dominicans were the Black Friars who gave their name to the area of London between the Thames and St Paul’s. They were founded in 1215 by St Dominic. Their full name was the Order of Friars Preachers, which indicates their rôle. They were mendicants who went from place to place preaching against heresy. They were used to combat the heresies that were rife in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly in southern France. By the middle of the thirteenth century most of the members of the recently formed Inquisition were Dominicans. They encouraged leaning and rational theological debate, as they believed this was the most effective way to combat heresy.
The Dominicans were an ordained order from their inception. They were well-educated and dedicated to preaching. Dominic had been involved in preaching against the Cathar heresy in Languedoc. Very quickly they decided to focus their activity around the universities, initially in Paris and Bologna. When they came to England in 1221 they went to Oxford.
The rule they followed was Augustine’s. This was based on an annotated version of St Augustine of Hippo’s letter number 211, which he wrote for his sister when she entered a religious community. It contained instructions for liturgical prayer, poverty, reading and silence. In this rule study was more important than manual labour.
The Dominicans were the first compilers of Biblical concordances, as they were an aid to preaching. They also collected anecdotes from the lives of the saints as examples for their sermons. By the thirteenth century few parish priests were capable of preaching a sermon, and the situation worsened after the Black Death. The friars stepped into the gap.
A friar had to study for three years before he was permitted to preach. There was a teacher of theology in each house, as well as special schools for friars who were going to teach. From these a few would go on to teach at the universities. Some of the greatest minds of the thirteenth century were Dominicans – Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) and Robert Kilwardby (1215 – 1279).
The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was founded at Mount Carmel in the early thirteenth century. It was approved by the pope in 1226. These were the White Friars. The order’s early members were hermits in the deserts of the Holy Land. The first Carmelite house in England was founded in Aylesford after 1240 when many monks left the East after the failure of the Crusades. The twelfth century Pilgrim’s Hall at Aylesford is pictured above. Aylesford was on the pilgrim route from London to Canterbury and pilgrims were offered hospitality there. The monks were removed from Aylesford in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but returned in 1949, and this photograph shows the modern open air shrine area.
The Carmelites were the most contemplative of the mendicant orders. From the middle of the thirteenth century the emphasis of the order changed to the Franciscan model of mendicant preachers.
The Fourteenth Century
Most parish priests were not well-educated and their parishioners flocked to hear the friars preach, particularly the Dominicans. The friars gave the laity a way of living the Christian life whilst living in the world. Ordinary people saw that they did not have to become monks or priests in order to follow Christ fully.
It was easy for people in general to identify with the poverty of the friars, since that was their own lot in life. Monks in wealthy monasteries seemed very remote from their lives and increasingly irrelevant.
By the mid thirteenth century there were many mendicant orders as well as splinter groups, and the Second Council of Lyons abolished the smaller orders in 1274. Only orders created before 1215 were allowed to continue, save where they had received papal authority. This meant that only the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Austin Friars survived into the fourteenth century.