1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mendicant Movement and Orders

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MENDICANT MOVEMENT AND ORDERS. The facts concerning the rise of the Orders of Mendicant Friars are related in the articles on the several orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinian Hermits), and in that on Monasticism (§ 11), where the difference between friars and monks is explained. The purpose of this article is to characterize the movement as a whole, and to indicate the circumstances that produced it. The most striking phenomenon in connexion with the beginnings of the mendicant orders is the rapidity with which the movement spread. Within a generation of the death of the two great founders, Dominic (1221) and Francis (1226), their institutes had spread all over Europe and into Asia, and their friars could be numbered by tens of thousands. In all the great cities of Western Europe friaries were established, and in the universities theological chairs were held by Dominicans and Franciscans. And when at the middle of the century the other great mendicant orders of Carmelites and Austin Friars, and also Servites (q.v.) arose their propagation showed that the possibilities of the mendicant movement had not been exhausted by the Dominicans and Franciscans. Lesser mendicant orders sprang up in all directions—Gasquet mentions half a dozen such that found their way into England (English Monastic Life, p. 241)—in such numbers that the Council of Lyons in 1274 found it necessary to suppress all except the orders already named. Moreover, besides the various orders of friars, there were the lay Tertiaries that arose and spread far and wide in connexion with the Franciscans and other mendicants, and the similar institute of the Humiliati (see Tertiaries). These facts clearly show that the Mendicant Movement responded to widely spread and deeply felt needs of the time. These needs found expression not only in the Mendicant orders within the Church, but also in a number of more or less heretical and revolutionary religious sects. There was this in common among the Cathari, Waldenses, Albigenses and other heretical bodies that overran so many parts of Western Europe in the second half of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th, that they all inveighed against the wealth of the clergy, and preached the practice of austere poverty and a return to the simple life of Christ and the Apostles. Thus the sectaries no less than the Mendicant orders bear witness to the existence of spiritual needs in Western Christendom, which the Mendicant orders went a long way towards satisfying. Probably the most crying need was that of priests to minister to the great city populations, at that time growing up with such rapidity, especially in Italy. During the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries the Church had been organized on the lines of the prevailing feudal system—the bishops and abbots were feudal barons, and the effects of the system were felt throughout the ranks of the lower clergy. The social fabric was built up not on the towns, but on the great landlords; and when the centre of gravity began to move, first of all in Italy, to the towns, and crowded populations began to be massed together in them, the parochial systems broke down under the weight of the new conditions, and the people were in a state of spiritual and moral no less than physical destitution. So, when the friars came and established themselves in the poorest localities of the towns, and brought religion to the destitute and the outcasts of society, assimilating themselves to the conditions of life of those among whom they worked, they supplied a need with which the parochial clergy were unable to cope.

The friars responded not only to the new needs of the age, but to its new ideas—religious, intellectual, social, artistic. It was a period of religious revival, and of reaction against abuses that followed in the wake of the feudal system; and this religious movement was informed by a new mysticism—a mysticism that fixed its attention mainly on the humanity of Christ and found its practical expression in the imitation of His life. A new intellectual wave was breaking over Western Europe, symbolized by the university and the scholastic movements; and a new spirit of democratic freedom was making itself felt in the growing commercial towns of Italy and Germany. There is no need to labour the point that the Mendicants responded to all these needs and interpreted them within the pale of Catholic Christianity, for the fact lies upon the surface of history. But a few words are necessary on the central idea from which the Mendicants received their name—the idea of poverty. This was, St Francis's root idea, and there is no doubt—though it has been disputed—that it was borrowed from him by St Dominic and the other Mendicant founders. St Francis did not intend that begging and alms should be the normal means of sustenance for his friars; on the contrary, he intended them to live by the work of their hands, and only to have recourse to begging when they could not earn their livelihood by work. But as the friars soon came nearly all to be priests devoted to spiritual ministrations, and the communities grew larger, it became increasingly difficult for them to support themselves by personal work; and so the begging came to play a greater role than had been contemplated by St Francis. But his idea certainly was that his friars should not only practise the utmost personal poverty and simplicity in their life, but that they should have the minimum of possessions—no lands, no funded property, no fixed sources of income. The maintaining of this ideal has proved unworkable in practice. In the Dominican Order and the others that started as mendicant it has been mitigated or even abrogated. Among the Franciscans themselves it has been the occasion of endless strife, and has been kept alive only by dint of successive reforms and fresh starts, each successful for a time, but doomed always, sooner or later, to yield to the inexorable logic of facts. The Capuchins (q.v.) have made the most permanently successful effort to maintain St Francis's ideal; but even among them mitigations have had to be admitted. In spite, however, of all mitigations the Franciscans have nearly always presented to the world an object lesson in evangelical poverty by the poorness and simplicity of their lives and surroundings.

On the subject-matter of this article the best thing in English is the Introductory Essay by the Capuchin Fr. Cuthbert on “The Spirit and Genius of the Franciscan Friars,” in The Friars and how they came to England (1903); See also the earlier chapters of Emil Gebhard's Italie mystique (1899).

(E. C. B.)