Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Coming of the Friars

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The Coming of the Friars  (1892) 
by Mandell Creighton
from Historical Lectures and Addresses. The first of a course of lectures given in St. Paul's Cathedral in November, 1892, and here printed from the reporter's notes.

The history of the Christian Church may be described as a history of continual reformations. We are tempted sometimes to speak of one Reformation as though it were the chief or the most notable one; but there are many reformations in the history of the Church which in their importance can at least come into comparison with that one which we are accustomed to call "The Reformation". It is the object of these lectures to consider one of these reformations, which was fraught with very important results, not only to the Church, but to civilisation in general—the reformation, we will call it, of the thirteenth century.

If we are to understand its importance and its significance, it will be well to consider first what we might expect in the nature of things that the history of the Church would be. It is perfectly true that the Church as a society and as an institution is not of this world; but it is equally true that the work of the Church has to be done in the world. It is true that it is constantly the object of the Church to influence the world; but it is equally true that so soon as the Church has succeeded in influencing the world, it is the turn of the world to influence the Church. It is not too much to say that the history of the Church is alternately the history of the Church affecting the world and of the Church being affected by the world. The spirit of Christianity was to transform the world. In early times it aimed at doing so from within, but when it became the recognised religion of the Roman Empire, it had to undertake the organisation of the Church and the world. Then as soon as the Church as an organised institution had affected the masses of men, it in its turn was affected by them. An institution may itself remain the same, but the spirit which inspires it tends undoubtedly to fall to the level of the mass whom it has succeeded in including within its system. So we are not surprised to find that the great epoch of the Church's history during which it succeeded in converting the barbarians was followed by a time when the institutions, the customs, the very modes of thought of those rude peoples in their turn affected the Church. The development of the Church followed the lines of the general development of civilisation, and with the feudal system there grew up a feudalised Church, modified no doubt by the idea of imperialism and by the teutonic spirit of independence. But the Church as it became feudalised lost its own proper nature and spirit. It tended to become merely a part of the State, an instrument in the hands of the great lords, to lose its spirituality.

In face of this danger came the reformation of the eleventh century, which centred round Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII. He strove to free the Church from the State, to centre it in the Papacy, to make it one organised body throughout Europe, with one definite head who should be powerful enough and remote enough to save the National Churches and protect them against the too great power of the political institutions with which they were connected. That attempt was to a certain extent successful. Simony was to a large extent abolished, clerical celibacy became the rule, the Church was separated from the trammels of the State, and its right of self-government was recognised. But with these reforms came one great disadvantage, the growth of papal supremacy; a supremacy which rested on the idea that its power came from God to be exercised for the good of the people, and that the Papacy was responsible for this exercise.

This led to a period of conflict between Church and State in which the Church fought for preeminence, clothed itself in grandeur, sought for wealth and recognition. The cry for reform was put into the second place, and the cry for the supremacy of the Church over the State became the first and immediate object.

Once more the Church lost its spiritual hold upon the minds of the people, and then came the reformation of the twelfth century following close upon the reformation of the eleventh century. It went back to the old lines of primitive times and was monastic in its nature. Many new Orders arose. The Cluniacs, the Cistercians, the Augustinian canons, like the waves in an advancing tide, each in their turn succeeded in making some little progress before they were swept back into the abyss. For each of these new Orders was able to do something while its inspiration was fresh, but as each gained wealth and power it fell back into the general condition of the monastic Orders, it lost its vigour and power, it became secularised and of the world, worldly. The result was that the beginning of the thirteenth century saw that the beneficent power of the monastic system was at an end, and this feeling was expressed by a decree of the Lateran Council of 1214 which forbade the foundation of any new religious Orders on the ground of the confusion already caused by their multiplicity.

Things were now at a standstill, and rarely had they been worse. Every organisation had been tried that seemed likely to do good, and yet the net result of all the various efforts was that on every side failure stared thinking men in the face. That failure arose from the decline of the ecclesiastical organisation, or rather from its perversion. Instead of considering the needs of the human soul, it was absorbed in the maintenance of an external system. The Church was overgrown; it was too wealthy; it had too many lands and possessions; there were far too many monasteries. In fact the moment had come when reforming organisations had followed one another with such rapidity, that they had become abuses in their turn. It is reforming organisations which have lost their meaning that become the chief abuses in the world's history. The Church, too, was not only overgrown, but it was avowedly secular. The bishops were important men in the State, and they were so immersed in secular business that they paid little heed to the maintenance of discipline. The monasteries, bishoprics, chapters, all were landowners, and all constantly at law with the neighbouring towns and landlords. In the eyes of Europe at that time, monastic bodies and bishops were little else but large landowners, and were treated as such. When it was proposed to make a certain pious abbot of Cluny a bishop, he fell on the ground exclaiming, "You may turn me out of my monastery and make me a disgraced monk, but make me a bishop, never, never!"

The secularisation of the ecclesiastical organisation, moreover, had led to the degeneration of religion into superstition. The multiplication of saints and relics, indulgences and mechanical confessions had turned religion into an external thing. Perhaps we do not realise how the multiplication of saints and relics and holy places affected the minds of thinking men with something akin to terror. A certain abbot died in the odour of sanctity, and after his death miracles began to be wrought at his tomb, whereupon his successor in the office came with all the monks of the monastery and adjured the dead saint to leave off working miracles. "If thou workest miracles," he said, "thou wilt draw multitudes of people to visit this quiet spot, who will bring the world with them and turn it into a fair. We know what manner of life thou didst live here, and do not require these miracles; do leave off working them. If thou dost not abstain, I declare to thee that I will have thy bones dug out of thy grave and cast into the river lest they bring disaster on this place." Such was the feeling of pious men about the growth of external mechanical religion and superstitious observances.

Moreover, the Church had become too clerical. There were far too many priests, all with their immunities, cut off from the general life, and by no means in all cases setting good examples.

Again, the Church was regarded as a means of extortion. The ecclesiastical courts, with their numerous officials prowling and spying about the country, were so great a nuisance that it was a problem often discussed in the Middle Ages whether it was by any means possible for an archdeacon to be saved. Besides the local courts, there were papal collectors going about gathering money for the Crusades and other purposes, and extending on all sides the papal jurisdiction. The natural result followed that the Church grew unspiritual, because it was an organisation not concerned primarily with the spiritual life of man, but covered the whole life of society, took it all under its survey, had something to say about everything that was done by the State, and left no portion of man's life, however small and simple, untouched by its claim to jurisdiction. There was little preaching in those days; religion was external and mechanical. If men would only go to church, attend the ceremonies, make their confessions, say their prescribed prayers, that was all that was necessary.

Such was the state of things in the Church. But the twelfth century had produced a number of tendencies which had tended to arouse a sense of dissatisfaction in men's minds. The Crusades had introduced men to a world which they had never known before. They opened up new lines of commerce; they instilled into men's minds a greater care for material well-being; and they created, through intercourse with the Saracens, a new idea of tolerance which displayed itself, not in recognising what is good in others, but in relaxing the bonds of belief. Nor were there only wanderings abroad, there were also wanderings at home. The troubadours roamed from place to place, carrying ideas which told of pleasure and delight, turning men's minds away from any conception of duty. And what the troubadours did for the upper classes in disintegrating their old beliefs was done for the lower classes by a strange body of men, vagabond priests and monks and students from the universities. They sang their songs in the peasant's home, as the troubadour sang his in the castle hall, they lodged where they could, and brought with them Epicurean notions of life. They parodied all the services of the Church; they mocked at religion; they were centres of unbelief and looseners of all bonds wherever they penetrated.

Side by side with these tendencies there went amongst the educated a growing criticism of saints and their miracles; and many were the gibes and mocks that were made. The more learned priests, who saw no way of stopping the growing mischief, contented themselves with indulging in mildly cynical remarks. Philosophy, too, had advanced, and the spirit of inquiry and rationalism had received a great impulse from the teaching of Abelard. All this was seen and deplored by St. Bernard; but all he could do was to point out the abuses of his time and implore men to remove them. He could only direct attention to the evil; he could bring no new spirit, no new organisation which might tend to check it.

So there grew up a distinct feeling of opposition to the Church, an opposition which found expression through a body of heretics difficult at the present day to understand—heretics who bear divers names and whom it is hard to bring under any common term, but who may all be said to have been revivers of the old Manichean system, and to have believed in two opposed principles at work in the world. Having destroyed the fundamental belief in the unity of God, they naturally passed on to divide the world into two parts, to draw an entire opposition between matter and spirit, to regard the human body and all that was concerned with it as being inherently evil, and consequently to set up a strange asceticism which threatened the foundations of religion and society alike. This body of heretics was divided into two strongly marked classes; the Cathari professing beliefs which they kept secret, and which were really destructive of the unity of God, and led to asceticism through their affirmation of the inherent evil of matter; and the Waldenses, poor men who protested against prevalent evils, and set forth the necessity of going behind authority in search of greater purity of belief. These heretics became almost entire masters of what was then the chief and most progressive population of Europe—the commercial towns that were springing up in Northern Italy and in the south of France. To a statesman taking a survey of the conditions of those times, it would seem most probable that the new life of the middle classes, of the burghers who were rising to importance in these rapidly developing towns, would be in entire opposition to the existing order both in politics and religion, and would bring about a premature humanitarian revolution. As far as we can see, this is what must have resulted had it not been for the reformation which was expressed in the growth of the two Orders of friars. These two Orders, which came almost simultaneously into existence in different parts of Europe, did nothing less than roll back the whole tendency of things social and religious at the time. It was the work of the friars—work which they nobly achieved—first of all to reinvigorate religion within the forms of the existing Church; secondly, in politics, to make a bridge between the new spirit of democracy and the old spirit of autocracy; and, thirdly, it was their privilege to bring into orderly being the rising civic communities. They reinvigorated the old institutions and gave them a new meaning; they spanned the chasm between the new aspirations and the old social order; they showed that it was possible to pour new wine into the old bottles, and that the old bottles were after all strong enough to contain it.

Domingo de Guzman, the founder of one of these great Orders, was born at Calaruega, in Spain, in 1170. He studied at the University of Palencia, and became in 1199 Canon of Osma, in Castile. When Diego de Azevedo became Bishop of Osma, Domingo, or Dominic, was chosen to accompany him on an embassy to Denmark. On their journey through Europe, and especially through the south of France, both were struck with horror when they found how few of the people whom they came across professed any belief in the Christian religion at all, and that those who did were almost all heretics of some kind or another.

The embassy to Denmark ended, Diego with Dominic hastened to Rome and laid before the Pope the state of things they had discovered, and expressed their wish to combat heresy in Languedoc. The Pope, Innocent III., while strongly approving the enterprise, would not sanction Diego's absence from his diocese for more than two years. On leaving Rome, Diego and Dominic went first to the great abbey of Citeaux. At Montpellier they met the legates who had been sent by the Pope to urge upon the nobles of Languedoc to take some steps to cope with the growth of heresy. They gave to Diego and Dominic the result of their experience, by which they were profoundly discouraged, for neither the nobles nor the Church had supported their efforts. Deep gloom settled upon the company. They sat in silence, not knowing what to do, till at last there occurred to the mind of Diego the text, "By their fruits ye shall know them"; and, glancing at the papal legates, he saw the pomp and magnificence with which they travelled. He contrasted this with the stern simplicity of the heretical teachers, who wandered about from city to city with only their staff in their hand, and who were capable of great sacrifices for the purpose of making converts. He said, "If we are to succeed we must borrow their methods. Let us set against pretended sanctity the beauty of true religion." The legates all agreed to act accordingly. They laid aside their pomp, and, taking only their staff in hand, they wandered with Diego and Dominic through Languedoc, preaching in all the churches as often as they could and holding disputations with the heretical teachers. They tried their best, but they were obliged to confess that they were not very successful. They were only a handful, the rulers took little interest in what they were doing, the bishops regarded the matter as hopeless, and the ordinary clergy were useless. What was to be done? Diego saw that it was necessary to found a new Order of men specially trained for the purpose of preaching. With this end he first established a little college. He went to the monastery of Citeaux and took away from there thirty Cistercian monks for his college.

But there was a want of unity about their endeavours which compelled Diego and Dominic to see that if they were to succeed, it would only be by founding a new Order. Diego accordingly returned to Osma to free himself for this new work by resigning his bishopric, but he died shortly after his return. Hitherto he had been the leading spirit, his death broke up such organisation as there was, and Dominic was left absolutely alone. That was in 1207. The following year saw the whole of Languedoc plunged into a disastrous war. Of this it will suffice to say that the heresy in the south of France was stamped out by the sword, called in partly by religious enthusiasm, partly by the desire for adventure, and partly by the King of France through a general desire for plunder and conquest. From 1208 to 1215 a war went on against the rebels and heretics of Toulouse in which Simon de Montfort was the leader. But in 1215, Toulouse was given over to Simon who ruled it as its count and proceeded to suppress heresy by vigorous measures. At the outbreak of this war, Dominic preferred to stay in Toulouse, but though he was on the side of the sword, he did not himself mix in the war. His prayer was: "Lord, send forth Thine arm and afflict them, that this affliction may give them understanding". In this attitude he watched the war, not hounding on the persecutors but occupying a neutral position. Once he was asked by a heretic, "Suppose we win in this battle and you are taken prisoner, what fate do you expect?" Dominic replied, "I expect to be put to death; and my prayer to you is not to put me to death at once, but to cut me in pieces, that so I may merit a greater crown of martyrdom"—a reply which showed the spirit of the man.

When the war was over, Dominic was able to found the Order which he had so long had in his mind. He was given a little house by the Bishop of Toulouse with a church annexed to it, and this he made his headquarters. But he had to go to Rome for the confirmation of his Order, and there he met with considerable difficulties. Pope Innocent III. at first refused to recognise the Order, on the ground that preaching was entirely in the hands of the bishops, and that the Pope must maintain the existing order of things; and, secondly, that the Lateran Council had forbidden the creation of new religious bodies. But, it is said, in the night the Pope had a vision of a poor man supporting the Lateran basilica, which he took to mean that he was not to refuse assistance for the Papacy from any quarter. He accordingly ordered Dominic to do the best he could without forming a new Order, and to take any existing Rule and adapt it to his purpose. Dominic chose the Rule of St Augustin as being the oldest known to the Church, and which being merely disciplinary could readily be adapted to his purpose. He replaced the obligation of manual labour for the obligation of study and preaching, so that the Order might be a body of men whose duty it was to study and preach. For that purpose the hours of prayer and the obligations of fasting were modified, and copious dispensations could be given by the prior to any brethren who were engaged in teaching and preaching. The object of the Order was to preach and to save souls.

When everything had been settled and the first monastery built at Toulouse, Dominic went again to Rome and obtained from the new Pope, Honorius III., a bull giving the Order the sanction of the Church under the title of the "Preaching Brothers". We cannot but notice the caution and respect for established regulations with which the Pope acted when he managed to create a new Order without seeming to do so. In this way the Order of the Dominican friars came into being. When Dominic returned from Rome in 1217, he found sixteen brethren, eight Frenchmen, seven Spaniards and one Englishman, Brother Lawrence. Having got these sixteen brethren, he determined to send them out into all parts to preach. He had three places chiefly in view which he wished to influence—Rome, Paris and Bologna, the three great centres of university life. The growth of the Order when once it was started was remarkable. In Paris it found its abode in the Hospital of St. James, lately founded by a priest for the accommodation of strangers. This continued to be the central home of the Order in France up to the time of the Revolution, when it was taken possession of by a political club which took from the place its name of Jacobin.

In 1220, on Whitsunday, the first general chapter of the Order was held at Bologna, and then it was that Dominic proposed that they should follow the example of the Franciscans and give up all their possessions. This was agreed to, and it was made part of their rule that henceforth they should have nothing which they could call their own. At a second general chapter, it was reported that the Order consisted of sixty convents in seven different provinces or countries, and then taking a survey of the world, Dominic determined to complete the organisation by sending missions to Hungary and England. In 1221, the first Dominicans arrived at Canterbury, and were welcomed by the Archbishop who sent them to Oxford. There they took up their abode first in the parish of St. Edward amongst the Jews, until the King gave them a place of their own outside the walls, amongst the lowest of the people. In this way the Order took possession of Europe, and, just as their organisation was complete, Dominic died on 6th August, 1221.

The character of Dominic is hard to fix. There are few stories about him which throw light upon it; we cannot gather much about his personal qualities. Kindly and genial, simple and sympathetic, emotional in a high degree, he seems to have shown a singular mixture of the active and contemplative qualities. St. Francis was a poet, St. Dominic was a statesman, a statesman of a high order, but he did not rise higher than a statesman, and, had his Order not been supported by the corresponding Order of the Franciscans, it would not have flourished as it did. But he was a prince among organisers, and one of the most statesmanlike of the men who have ever faced the problems of their own time and striven to find a remedy for them.