Of Friars

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the June 1982, A.S. XVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The one thing that delineates the Middle Ages from any other period of time is the dominance of the Christian Church in Europe. The Church had a hand in every aspect of life. As a result, the clergy formed a major class within the population; a class rivaling the aristocrats in number and power. This series will explore this class.

This body of clergy could be broken into three broad groups. The first were the secular clergy. These were the men who manned the parish churches out in the rural areas and the cathedrals in the cities. The higher church hierarchy was also a part of the secular clergy. It was through the secular clergy that Everyman would deal with the Church.

The second broad class was that of the religious clergy. These were the men and women who dedicated themselves totally to God. For the first part of the period, these were mostly monks, nuns and hermits. In the thirteenth century, there arose another group known as the friars.

The third division was an amorphous group known as clerks. Thorough the agency of the monks, it was the Church that preserved knowledge in Europe. After 1100, as the bureaucracy of the various national governments began to grow, there was a demand for literate men to fill the positions. As the Church was the only source of the needed training, a large flux of men entered with an eye for those positions. Thus, these men played no real part within the Church itself, and will be ignored in these essays.

I shall start with the friars, if for no other reason than most people end with them. There were four major orders of friars. The first two, and the most important, were the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The other two orders were the Carmelites and the Augustinian Friars. There were various other orders and sub-orders, the best known, perhaps was the Poor Clares, the women’s branch of the Franciscans.

The Franciscans were founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1210. St. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, and was something of a wastrel in his youth. In 1204, while a volunteer in the army of Pope Innocent III, he caught a fever, and in its throes saw a vision. Soon after his recovery, he began acts for charity and repaired the local churches around his home. His father then disowned him and he turned to a life of begging. In 1209, he began preaching and soon gathered a small band of followers. The following year he asked Innocent III to approve his rule, giving his group official sanction. With some hesitation, the Pope did so. Until the end of the century, their growth was explosive.

Officially, the Franciscans were know as “Friars Minor,” or “Littler Brothers”, “friar,” being the Latin word for brother. Their habits, or clothes, were originally gray colored; thus they became known as the “Gray Friar.” Though they later changed to the color brown, the name stuck.

The emphasis of the Franciscan order was the apostolic tradition of poverty, of giving up all material goods. The order was to own only as much property as necessary for their work. Naturally, where to draw the line became a source of great controversy. So during the last half of the thirteenth century, the order was plagued by a schism between the Conventuals, who were inclined to take a more lenient view of the rule, and the Spirituals, who remained faithful to St. Francis’ earlier ideals. The Spirituals lost and were declared heretics in 1322.

The origin of the Dominicans was completely different. Founded by St. Dominic in 1216, they were dedicated to the conversion of heretics. St. Dominic was a canon in a cathedral in Spain when he accompanied his bishop to Rome. On their way back in 1206, in Toulouse, they met a Cistercian mission working against the Albigensian heresy, then at its height. Since they were making no progress, St. Dominic decided it was due to the pomp in which they traveled. Convinced the well reasoned preaching, coupled with simple poverty, was the solution, St. Dominic stayed behind in southern France to begin his mission. For ten years he worked, gathering a small group, and in 1216 asked and received sanction from Pope Honorious III. While not as explosively as the Franciscans, the Dominicans grew rapidly over the course of the century.

Officially known as the “Order of the Preachers,” their black habits earned them the name of the “Black Friars.” Dedicated to the pursuit of heretics, its was the Dominicans who manned the Inquisition. The excesses of the Inquisition were due more to the result of over-zealousness than intentional cruelty, or greed. However, both these elements did enter later as the Inquisition came under the control of local authorities.

Balancing the Dominican involvement in the Inquisition was their involvement in the universities. As St. Dominic emphasized disciplined reasoning behind their preaching, their entrance into the universities was early and organized. While theology was their main interest, they touched upon all aspects of learning. So, it is not surprising that two of the greatest medieval scholars, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, were Dominicans.

Following behind the Dominicans into the universities, in a less organized fashion, were the Franciscans. While the originating impulses behind the two organizations were highly dissimilar, the two, nevertheless, became great rivals and paradoxically, continuously borrowed ideas from each other. As a result, the two orders tended to be quite alike in organization and activity. It has been speculated that this rivalry was what allowed the two to grow and survive while many other similar groups died out.

Theoretically, the friars had no fixed place of residence and therefore would wander among the population. This distinguished them from the monks who were cloistered, or secluded, in their monasteries and, in general, would have had little contact with the general population. The friars were to subsist solely on the proceeds of their begging. Hence the collective name of mendicant orders, “mendicant” being the Latin word for “to beg.”

As a result from the need to beg, the friars concentrated in the towns. Door-to-door begging ceased and the average contribution to the friars was small. This was because they were tapping a non-traditional source of income for the Church, the emerging merchant middle class. This was a prominent contrast between the monks and friars. With the monks, the order was a rural organization, requiring large tracts of land to support it. As a consequence, the usual benefactor of a monastery was an aristocrat; naturally, the monk’s view reflected that.

Women who entered the friars formed a secondary order. St. Dominic opposed the entry of women, and thus there was no formal organization for women in the Dominican Order. Nevertheless, especially in Germany, there grew a number of women’s groups affiliated with the Dominicans. St. Francis founded the women’s order within the Franciscan Order when he received St. Clara of Assisi in 1212. The order was known as the Poor Clares, after her.

While not as important as the Franciscans o the Dominicans, two other orders of friars grew to some importance. The Carmelites, also known as the “White Friars,” were originally founded in 1155 as an order of hermits on Mount Carmel in Palestine. Around 1238, because of the deteriorating conditions in the Crusading States, they moved first to Cyprus and then to southern France. In 1247, with the aid of a pair of Dominicans, they revised their rule and became mendicant. Later that year, the order was recognized by the Council of Lyon.

That same year, the Council also recognized the Augustin or Augustine Friars. This order was formed by Pope Innocent IV as a unification of various groups of Italian hermits. Their name came from the Rule they followed, a loose interpretation of various letters of St. Augustine of Hippo. The Rule was first developed by the Augustine Canons around the middle of the eleventh century. The Dominican Rule was also an offshoot of the Rule.

While it might seem that the friars were the product of the ideas and inspiration of two men, they were basically the product of their times. St. Francis and St. Dominic were simply the right men at the right time, both doing the right thing. The shade of difference between success and failure can be seen by noting that St. Francis had been anticipated by Peter Waldo in 1173, but instead of being elevated to a saint, Peter Waldo was branded a heretic.

The appearance of the friars was another sign of the fundamental change that Europe was undergoing. Their predecessor, the monks, needed large tracts of land to support them and were supported by the aristocracy that was rich in land. By the thirteenth century, land was running out. The center of activity was moving to the cities, centering on the merchant sector. The friars were an urban order; their houses were always near the center of a city. They catered to the emerging middle class, providing the services the monks were giving to the landed aristocracy. They were at the forefront of change, dominating it. From the intellectual activity at the universities to the outburst of popular religious piety, they were the Church’s response to these new conditions. When the energy of the friars was exhausted and the forces of change again built up, the stage was set for the Protestant Reformation.



Coulton, G.G. Medieval Panorama. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1938.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

LaMonte, John L. The World of the Middle Ages. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc., 1949.

Sidney Painter. A History of the Middle Ages, 284-1500. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.

Southern, R.W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1970


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