Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Influence of the Friars

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The Influence of the Friars  (1892) 
by Mandell Creighton
from Historical Lectures and Addresses. The third of a course of lectures given in St. Paul's Cathedral in November, 1892, and here printed from the reporter's notes.
The reformation of the thirteenth century owed its permanent results to the fact that two Orders of widely different kinds and with widely different aims came into being almost at the same moment; and these two Orders in a marvellous way supplemented one another. Dominic had the sense of organisation; Francis had a new spiritual impulse. These two great factors coming from opposite sides were gradually amalgamated and consequently produced permanent results. Dominic gave to Francis the outward shell which preserved the fruits of his enthusiasm. Had it not been for the organisation which the Franciscans gained from the example of the Dominicans, though their first enthusiasm might have been very beautiful, it would have rapidly vanished. On the other hand, had not Francis given Dominic a new spirit, the revival of the old mechanism at which he aimed would not have been productive of the results which the Dominican Order was afterwards enabled to accomplish. Really the two worked together, a fact which is made plain by the study of the history of the Orders.

Dominic, for instance, received his Rule from the Pope in 1216, the Rule which he had himself created and framed in accordance with the directions he received. The previous negotiations with Dominic served as a model for the Papacy when it became necessary, in 1221, that the movement initiated by Francis should have a distinct organisation.

The two Orders helped one another, and, moreover, in their actual working they drew nearer and nearer to one another, and what was more important in the popular estimate, they became more and more connected. There was no story more current at the time than that of the vision of the chariot with two steeds. The chariot represented the Church and the two horses Dominic and Francis, and he who saw the vision heard a voice from heaven which said, "I have raised up my servant Francis to rebuke the avarice of the clergy, to show the uselessness of riches, to set forth for imitation the boundlessness of compassion, and to declare the dignity of evangelical poverty. And I have raised up my servant Dominic to be the steward of my word, a wondrous preacher, a subduer of the hard heart of unbelief." These words describe exactly what contemporaries thought of the two Orders. They recognised that Francis brought the new spirit and that Dominic simply reinforced the old organisation. To a certain degree the leading characteristics of the two Orders remained the same for some time. It was the object of Francis to preach by his life. Dominic, on the other hand, lived for the purpose of preaching. Living was everything to Francis, practical energy was everything to Dominic. But little by little the ends of the two Orders grew similar. The Dominicans accepted poverty from the Franciscans, and the Franciscans, though grudgingly, accepted training from the Dominicans. Of course to do this was an entire blow to the whole conception which Francis had striven to set forth. Yet it was necessary. For if there was a plain duty which the Franciscans must undertake, that duty was teaching; and if they were to teach when the first enthusiasm passed away, it became obvious that they must be trained to teach. Training, which had been the very essence of the conception of Dominic, was forced on Francis sorely against his will. Once, finding a book, a breviary, in the hands of one of the brethren, Francis had exclaimed: "You do not need to read books; I am your breviary". In the same way Brother Egidius, when he heard of the Franciscans going to the University of Paris, and of their fame there, was horrified, exclaiming: "Paris, Paris, you are destroying the Order of St. Francis!" The first general of the Franciscans in England, when he went into the schools at Oxford, and heard the friars engaged in disputations, was terrified as he listened to metaphysical speculations in which the very existence of the Deity was regarded as a matter to be examined by human reason, and exclaimed: "Woe is me, simple friars enter heaven, while learned friars are disputing if there be a God".

It is obvious that the impulse which Francis gave to society was only with great difficulty reduced to a definite Rule. Properly speaking it was never reduced to a Rule at all. To some extent the Franciscans remained rebels to the end of their existence. Some of them never ceased to be rebellious, and refused to submit to the fetters which it was sought to place upon them, because they felt that the very origin of their Order was a spirit of freedom.

I wish now to proceed to consider the influence of these two Orders upon Europe, and first I will speak of the mode of their influence. It is obvious that when a great wave of enthusiasm passes over a country, and still more when it spreads over the whole of Christendom, it is very difficult for any one to resist its influence. Doubtless when once the movement of the friars had really begun to spread, no one could altogether avoid being affected by it. Still, had the Franciscans alone arisen, it would have been impossible for the more cultured and educated people to be really impressed by the movement The dramatic side, we may almost call it the vulgar side, of the conduct of the Franciscans revolted many of the more educated people, and the only practical way they had of expressing their disgust was to try and create a certain amount of antagonism by favouring the Dominican Order. The Dominicans may be said to have flourished to some extent as being a reaction against the Franciscans. Both Orders associated to themselves a number of other Orders, or as it is ordinarily stated, both Orders created Tertiaries. This is not quite an accurate way of stating the matter. It seems more probable that these Tertiaries of the Orders were not creations either of Francis or Dominic. There had always been religious guilds and brotherhoods, composed of people who had bound themselves for their soul's health to perform certain duties, or to take upon themselves certain religious obligations. When the new movement of the friars was influencing Europe, it was natural that these somewhat vague religious associations should put themselves under the direction of one or other of the new Orders. In consequence it may be said that Tertiaries grew up, they were not created; they were not instituted by Francis or Dominic. Francis instituted nothing. It is necessary to remember this, because it is the key to his influence. He asked nobody to follow his example. That people should gather round him was natural, and when they gathered round him, he gave them maxims to live by, but the Rules of the Tertiaries of St. Francis remained exceedingly vague, and it could not be said that they had any very definite organisation until the end of the century. The Rule of the Order was also adapted for women by Santa Chiara under the direction of Francis. It will thus be seen that in a very short time the organisations of the friars not only spread over Europe but found room for every class of society. The cultured and learned could associate as Tertiaries of the Order of St. Dominic, and the ignorant and vulgar might become Tertiaries of the Order of St Francis. The organisation spread and became complete till it could take in everybody.

If we ask what was the secret of the success of the friars, the answer must be that it was due to their perseverance under all possible difficulties. Few stories are more touching than the account of the arrival of the Franciscans in Germany. They went there, first of all in 1219, sixty of them, of course all Italians, and the only German word they knew was "Ja". When, first of all, they were asked if they wanted food, they answered "Ja" correctly enough; but when they were asked if they were heretics, they answered "Ja" to that also, with the result that they were usually beaten by the peasants, stripped of their clothes and left naked. So, barely escaping with their lives, they returned to Italy in despair. Their failure was discussed at the great chapter in 1221 held at the Portiuncula, at which 8,000 brethren were present, dwelling in huts made of branches of trees. It was a marvellous scene, calculated to impress the mind of Europe which saw this great multitude of brethren all gathered together in one little place, whilst the neighbouring cities vied with one another in sending them supplies of food. Francis was already ill, and Brother Elias spoke for him. It is pathetic to picture Francis sitting at the feet of Elias, who first stooped down to learn the saint's wishes, and then spoke to the multitude. Speaking in Francis' name, Brother Elias said: "Since those who have been sent to Germany have been ill-used, I will not order any more to go, but will any one volunteer? "Thereupon ninety arose and offered themselves for what was regarded as certain death. This time they were not martyrs, and they succeeded in their mission. But they had their difficulties. They had increased their stock of German by this time, but whenever they asked for alms they were always refused, with the words, "God provide for you," a courteous and pious way of saying "No". For some time they received this answer regularly, until at last one of them said, "This will altogether undo us". He went to the next house, and when they said, "God provide for you," he simply smiled in their faces as if he did not understand their language, and when the door was shut in his face, he sat down on the doorstep and waited, until at last the peasants, seeing that he could not be got rid of, gave him some bread, and so the friars learnt how to get over the first refusal.

They had somewhat easier experiences on first coming to England, but there the way had been a little prepared for them by the Dominicans. A small party of Franciscans arrived in September, 1224, and went first to Canterbury, then to Oxford, and then settled in London, and afterwards at Northampton, Cambridge and Lincoln. In all cases their history was pretty much the same. At Oxford, they first went to the Dominican House, and they were at once welcomed and helped. At Canterbury, the Master of the Hospital gave them a site, and the citizens built them a little house. It is noticeable that in England they retained their simplicity for the longest time. But the characteristic which most helped them, and which was to a great extent new, and gave a new force to their teaching, was their exceeding cheerfulness. Nowhere was that characteristic more conspicuous than in England. At Oxford, the brothers had to be prevented by a solemn ordinance from laughing so much at their prayers. As they knelt, their sense of humour would overcome them, and they would roll upon the floor in uncontrollable paroxysms of laughter. The stories told about them show their exceeding lightheartedness under circumstances of great privation. It is related that some Dominicans, while on a journey, had to take shelter with the Franciscans. There was so little in the house, that one of the Franciscans ran out to beg food for the guests, and returned with a jug of beer. They sat down to the table and tried their best to behave as if it was tolerably well furnished, until at last the humour of the situation struck them so forcibly that they all burst into shouts of laughter, to the great astonishment of their Dominican guests. More characteristic still is a beautiful epilogue by an English friar who, when ill, saw his guardian angel enter the room and seat himself by his bedside. After him came two devils, who accused the friar of all the things that he had done amiss in his life. At last one of the devils said to the other: "Besides he is so frivolous; he laughs and makes jokes and cuts all manner of capers". Then the guardian angel rose up and said to the devils: "Begone, so far you have spoken the truth, but now you find fault with his cheerfulness, and if you make out religion to be a sad and gloomy thing, you will drive his soul into the recklessness of despair and strangle his spiritual life". And so saying the guardian angel drove the fiends forth.

The tone of these anecdotes shows what was the mode of the friars' preaching. Their familiar style was unlike anything that had been heard before. They preached in the vulgar tongue, and it is doubtful whether this was not a new thing. Their preaching was at first of a very crude description—of the same kind as goes on at a Methodist revival in an English village—strong denunciation of sin, mixed with stories that the people could understand. It was this revival of preaching which enabled the friars to carry their message home to the hearts of all. Further, they had the habit of teaching not only by their stories but also by their mode of life, by humorous acts which carried home their meaning to everybody's mind. There were few more famous friars than Brother Juniper, who was noted for his simple mind. One story related of him calls attention to another point which helped to give the Franciscans their importance, their absolute unconventionality and entire disregard of all ecclesiastical propriety.

The brother was one day praying alone in church when a poor woman entered and begged of him. The good brother had nothing of his own to give her, but looking round him he saw that the high altar was vested in its finest altar-cloth, and that the frontal was adorned with little silver bells. So he went up to the altar, tore off the bells and gave them to the woman. The sacristan happening to return soon afterwards was aghast at the sacrilege that had been committed, and he went and denounced the poor brother to the Superior. The Superior was exceedingly indignant and he sent for Brother Juniper and harangued him for so long that he became quite hoarse. Brother Juniper, who was not conscious of having done anything wrong, was greatly concerned that he should be the unwilling cause of his Superior's hoarseness. Accordingly he went into the city and ordered a sort of gruel of flour and butter to be made. He returned with his gruel when it was already night, and finding that the Superior had gone to bed, Brother Juniper knocked at the door of his cell, and said, "My father, to-day when thou didst reprove me for my faults, I saw that thy voice grew hoarse, wherefore I bethought me of a remedy, and let make this mess of flour for thee; therefore I pray thee eat it, for I do assure thee it will ease thy chest and throat". The Superior, not unnaturally, was extremely indignant at being awakened from his sleep for such a cause, and refused the gruel. Brother Juniper, seeing that neither prayers nor coaxings would avail, said, "My father, if thou wilt not do this, at least hold the candle for me and I will eat it". The Superior, seeing that Brother Juniper was incorrigible, then said, "Come now, since thou wilt have it so, let us eat it, you and I together"; and so they made their peace with one another, and, in the dead of the night, finished the gruel between them. This is a quaint illustration of the simple spirit, the absolute unconventionality, which characterised the Franciscans.

The Franciscans were not only the first popular preachers, they were also the first to embody a practical philanthropy. Their social work amongst the poor was something quite unknown before. They managed to get sites given them for their buildings close to, or just outside, the city walls. The city wall was a great barrier in olden days. Inside the city there might perhaps be a certain amount of order and cleanliness, but outside the walls came the ditch and often a pestilential marsh, on which refugees from the country pitched their huts. These people were, of course, outside the care of the civic government and of the parish priests, and it was among them that the friars mostly settled and worked. To help these poor creatures, they became physicians and nurses as well as preachers. They lived amongst the people, shared their lives, and did their utmost to alleviate their sorrows.

But the friars gave an impulse not only to philanthropy but also to learning. Their work as preachers naturally led them to the universities to study. The stimulus which they gave stirred up almost all the chief universities of Europe. At first they had their own schools privileged by the Pope. In Oxford, for instance, they erected their own buildings and engaged their own lecturers. Their first lecturer was Robert Grosseteste, afterwards the famous Bishop of Lincoln. After him came Adam Marsh, an eminent English theologian. These schools, set on foot by the Franciscans, produced a great effect upon the rest of the university system, an effect not entirely for good. There grew up a sort of rivalry between them and the university, and at Paris this rivalry led to very serious quarrels. In England also there were many struggles, because the friars, owning no authority but that of the Pope, claimed to settle their own course of education, and to have the university degrees given to them on their own terms. They claimed the Divinity degree without being obliged to go first through the Arts course, and in the long run to a great extent they had their own way. Their desires were of course contrary to our notion of the advisability of a broad preliminary training, before any special science is made the sole object of pursuit. But still, at the universities the friars produced the great intellectual leaders of the century. Thomas Hales, a Franciscan friar, was the teacher of Bonaventura and of Duns Scotus. Of the great schoolmen whom the two orders of friars produced, the chief among the Dominicans was Thomas Aquinas, and the chief among the Franciscans was Bonaventura. These two men, being contemporaries, naturally raised the repute of the friars to such a height, that it was impossible for the universities to make head against them. But it was noticeable that from the very beginning there were two great tendencies in the Franciscan Order, one being represented by Bonaventura, who was a Platonist and a mystic, and the other by Duns Scotus and Occam, who were strongly rationalistic and sceptical in tendency. Strange as it may seem, both these tendencies had their root in Francis himself. He was a mystic in sentiment, but always exceedingly critical of the ecclesiastical system, and in favour of individual liberty in thought and life. He may be said to have been at once a mystic and a freethinker, and, unconsciously to himself, to have made a compromise between the two. The Franciscan Order, all through its history in mediæval times, bore traces of these two sides of its founder's character.

It was through Thomas Aquinas that the Dominicans chiefly influenced thought and learning, and his influence was enormous. He may be said to have been the great organiser of the theology of the mediæval Church. He carried the spirit of Dominic into the region of theological speculation. He was the organiser and arranger of all that had been thought about theology before his time, and he formed a massive structure which it was exceedingly difficult to attack.

But not only did the friars influence learning, they also, and especially the Franciscans, largely influenced politics. The conception of individual freedom upon which the life of St Francis was built went far to instil the idea of civic freedom into men's minds. This influence is most clear in England, where Grosseteste and Adam Marsh were the friends and teachers of Earl Simon de Montfort, and it is not too much to say, that it was their influence which converted Simon from a wild and reckless adventurer into an English patriot. It was the ideas of the friars that found expression in the Barons' War. Anybody who wishes to go further into this subject will find these ideas expressed in the interesting "Song of the Battle of Lewes," a political poem composed at the height of Simon's power. We read it with wonder, because the political conceptions and ideas which it expresses seem to apply rather to the revolution of 1688 than to these early days. The song set forth unmistakably the conception of the official position of the King, and affirmed the right of his subjects to remove evil counsellors from his neighbourhood, and to remind him of his duty—ideas due to the political influence of the Franciscans.

But if there was a good side to the political influence of the friars, we must not forget that there was also a bad side. The Papacy laid hold of the new Orders for its own interests. Besides being mission preachers, philanthropists, men of learning, the great teachers of the people, the friars were also used as the flying squadron of the Papacy. Never were allies more useful. They had for the area of their influence the whole of Europe. Never before had the means of communicating ideas been so easy as they became in the days of the wandering friars. As he went from place to place, the friar would sit at the door of the ale-house in the little village, gossiping and retailing his news to the villagers. He was, in fact, the newspaper as well as the preacher of those whom he visited. In all ways the power of these Orders was enormous, and there can be no doubt that it was largely owing to their influence that the Papacy won in the long struggle with the Hohenstaufen; for they enabled the Popes to break down the existing ecclesiastical system of Europe. Before their rise, the papal interference with the powers of the bishops had been bad enough, but after the coming of the friars, there was papal interference with the old organisation of the Church on every side. The Orders of the Friars, and consequently all the individual members of those Orders, were very soon exempted from episcopal control by papal bulls. They were at liberty to go wherever they liked, carrying with them portable altars for their celebrations of Holy Communion, preaching and hearing confessions, whether the parish priests liked it or not. As a matter of fact, the parishioners preferred making their confessions to a wandering friar who knew nothing of their lives, to going to their parish priest who knew everything; it was easier to obtain absolution. The result was the entire destruction of the mechanism of the discipline of the Church. By means of the friars, the Popes entirely upset the control of the bishops, and in consequence the bishops tended to become more and more merely secular personages, so entirely were they robbed of any ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The organisation of the parish fell in pieces, because it was cut through and through by these prowling friars. Sometimes the clergy of the Church of England are tempted to think that if they could be as the parish priests were before the Reformation, and were free of the presence of the dissenting minister, they would get on very well. Never was there a greater delusion; for the friars were far more destructive to ecclesiastical jurisdiction than any Nonconformist body could be at the present day, to the influence of any sensible clergyman.

Another point to be considered is the influence of the friars upon literature. They may be said to have initiated an entirely new departure in Italian literature, and therefore in the literature of Europe. Before their time, the poetry of the troubadours had developed into the philosophic treatment of ideal love which Dante has immortalised in his Vita Nuova. But that motive was in time entirely worked out, and the new motive of the popular poetry came from the Franciscans. It is to be traced in many directions, but especially in hymns. That great hymn, the "Dies Iræ," was the work of a Franciscan, Thomas of Celano. Jacopone da Todi, the greatest of the Franciscan poets, poured forth his verses in a way which stirred the minds of all who heard him; no one could have been more simple, and his poetry was the very expression of emotional religion. Once he was seen weeping, and on being asked why he wept, he answered: "I weep because Love is not loved". These words express the meaning of the whole of Jacopone's life and poetry, the most intense, personal, passionate love towards his Master. It was this emotional poetry which struck an entirely new note in Italian and, consequently, European literature.

In art, the influence of the friars was even more felt. First, in architecture they modified, or even entirely changed the conception of a church, which, in their opinion, was meant to be not a place for pageantry on special occasions, but mainly a preaching house. The original form of the friars' church was a building without aisles, with a long nave, short transepts and a very shallow choir; the side altars were placed in the transepts, so that the whole body of the church was available for preaching. It was covered with a flat roof, which was supposed to be good for sound, and only the chancel had a vaulted roof. In painting also, with the Franciscan movement came an enormous development of the power of articulate expression. Those who would understand the art of Italy, and its motive in painting the different scenes chosen from the life of our Lord, must read the Meditation of Bonaventura on the Life of Christ. The whole school of Siena simply carried out the human and intimate motive which Francis had introduced into his teaching; the painters were the exhibitors and setters forth of the Franciscan method.

Thus through Francis there came a great popular reform. That reform consisted first in popular preaching, and that brought about a plain intelligible Christianity. Further it wrought exactly the political work which the times required. The problem of the time was what to do with the middle classes. Francis gave the answer. The middle classes had seemed to be growing up without Christianity, but the friars carried it directly home to them again. The burgher class was recognised by Church and State alike, for Francis influenced the State through the Church, and brought much greater harmony between them than had seemed possible. His ideal was an ideal of peace and morality. In nature Francis saw God, and he taught men also to see God in nature, and therefore he gave a new impulse to his time. The leading characteristic of the best minds before Francis was contemplation; after Francis, it would be true to say that creation took the place of contemplation. The importance of this change was great. The Renaissance, which we are accustomed to speak of as marking a new epoch, was not a primary movement. Francis contributed much to it. He gave the Gospel and nature. Humanism added the study of antiquity. The contents and character of the movement came from Francis, the Humanists added its form. The revived art was Christian, and remained Christian so long as the influence of the Franciscans lasted. But, as time went on, the reformation brought about by the influence of the friars was swallowed up and lost, so true is it that the vivifying influence of the individual loses its force when diffused among the mass of the community. When the impulse given by Francis was centralised, and subjected to the Papacy, it produced a rigid theology and those very men who had been the friends of the people came to be regarded as their greatest oppressors. Nothing could be in greater contrast than the joy with which we read the people of England welcomed the first friars, and the language with which Chaucer speaks of the wandering friar who was the pest of the neighbourhood. So it is with all the best efforts of men. There comes a time, when any particular mode of speaking the truth loses its force, and becomes a habit instead of being a spirit, and then it decays. No tongue spoke to Europe between the time of Francis and Luther, and the fate of these two men, between whom an instructive comparison might be drawn, marks the change that came over Europe in the interval. Francis gave an impulse which could be welcomed, for the Church was still a living body and could listen to a new voice. But Luther arose to speak to a Church which could find no place for him; and therefore his message to the world was not spoken with the gravity and dignity of peace and quietness, but had to be disfigured by the harsh blast of controversy, and tarnished by the tumult of the fray.