Read CHAPTER V - THE MENDICANT FRIARS of A Short History of Monks and Monasteries, free online book, by Alfred Wesley Wishart, on

Abraham Lincoln only applied a general principle to a specific case when he said, “This nation cannot long endure half slave and half free.” Glaring inconsistencies between faith and practice will eventually destroy any institution, however lofty its ideal or noble its foundation. God suffers long and is kind, but His forbearance is not limitless. Monasticism, as has been shown, was never free from serious inconsistency, from moral dualism. But the power of reform prolonged its existence. It was constantly producing fresh models of its ancient ideals. It had a hidden reserve-force from which it supplied shining examples of a living faith and a self-denying love, just at the time when it seemed as if the system was about to perish forever. When these fresh exhibitions of monastic fidelity likewise became tarnished, when men had tired of them and predicted the speedy collapse of the institution, forth from the cloister came another body of monkish recruits, to convince the world that monasticism was not dead; that it did not intend to die; that it was mightier than all its enemies. The day came, however, when the world lost its confidence in an institution which required such constant reforming to keep it pure, which demanded so much cleansing to keep it clean. Ideals that could so quickly lose their influence for good came to be looked upon with suspicion.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century we are confronted by the anomaly of a church grossly corrupt but widely obeyed. She is nearing the pinnacle of her power and the zenith of her glory, although the parochial clergy have sunk into vice and incapacity, and the monks, as a class, are lazy, ignorant and notoriously corrupt. Two things, especially, command the attention, first, the immorality and laxity of the monks; and second, the growth of heresies and the tendency toward open schism. The necessity of reform was clearly apprehended by the church as well as by the heretical parties, but, since the church had such a hold upon society, those who sought to reform the monasteries by returning to old beliefs and ancient customs were much more in favor than those who left the church and opposed her from the outside. The impossibility of substantial, internal reform had not yet come to be generally recognized. As time passed the conviction that it was of no use to attempt reforms from the inside gained ground; then the separatists multiplied, and the shedding of blood commenced. The world had to learn anew that it was futile to put new wine into old bottles or to patch new cloth on an old garment.

“It is the privilege of genius,” says Trench, “to evoke a new creation, where to common eyes all appears barren and worn out.” Francis and Dominic evoked this new creation; but although the monk now will appear in a new garb, he will prove himself to be about the same old character whom the world has known a great many years; when this discovery is made monasticism is doomed. Perplexed Europe will anxiously seek some means of destruction, but God will have Luther ready to aid in the solution of the problem.

Francis Bernardone, 1182-1226 A.D..

Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order, was born at Assisi, a walled town of Umbria, in Italy. His father, Peter Bernardone, or Bernardo, was in France on business when his son was born and named. On his return, or, as some say, at a later time, he changed his son’s name from John to Francis. His wealth enabled him to supply Francis with the funds necessary to maintain his leadership among gay companions. Catholic writers are fond of describing the early years of their saints as marked by vice in order to portray them as miracles of grace. It is therefore uncertain whether Francis was anything worse than a happy, joyous lad, who loved fine clothes, midnight songs and parties of pleasure. He was certainly a very popular and courteous lad, very much in love with the world. During a short service in the army he was taken prisoner. After his release he fell sick, and experienced a temporary disgust with his past life. With his renewed health his love of festivities and dress returned.

Walking out one day, dressed in a handsome new suit, he met a poor and ill-clad soldier; moved to pity, he exchanged his fine clothes for the rags of the stranger. That night Francis dreamed of a splendid castle, with gorgeous banners flying from its ramparts, and suits of armor adorned with the cross. “These,” said a voice, “are for you and for your soldiers.” We are told that this was intended to be taken spiritually and was prophetic of the Begging Friars, but Francis misunderstood the dream, taking it as a token of military achievements. The next day he set off mounted on a fine horse, saying as he left, “I shall be a great prince.” But his weak frame could not endure such rough usage and he was taken sick at Spoleto. Again he dreamed. This time the vision revealed his misinterpretation of the former message, and so, on his recovery, he returned somewhat crestfallen to Assisi, where he gave his friends a farewell feast. Thus at the threshold of his career we note two important facts, disease and dreams. All through his life he had these fits of sickness, attended by dreams; and throughout his life he was guided by these visions. Neander remarks: “It would be a matter of some importance if we could be more exactly informed with regard to the nature of his disease and the way in which it affected his physical and mental constitution. Perhaps it might assist us to a more satisfactory explanation of the eccentric vein in his life, that singular mixture of religious enthusiasm bordering insanity; but we are left wholly in the dark.”

Francis now devoted himself to his father’s business, but dreams and visions continued to distress him. His spiritual fervor increased daily. He grieved for the poor and gave himself to the care of the sick, especially the lepers. During a visit to Rome he became so sad at the sight of desperate poverty that he impetuously flung his bag of gold upon the altar with such force as to startle the worshipers. He went out from the church, exchanged his clothes for a beggar’s rags, and stood for hours asking alms among a crowd of filthy beggars.

But though Francis longed to associate himself in some way with the lowest classes, he could obtain no certain light upon his duty. While prostrated before the crucifix, in the dilapidated church of St. Damian, in Assisi, he heard a voice saying, “Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me.” Again it is said that this pointed to his great life-work of restoring spiritual power to the church, but he again accepted the message in a literal sense. Delighted to receive a command so specific, the kneeling Francis fervently responded, “With good will, Lord,” and gladly entered upon the task of repairing the church of St. Damian. “Having fortified himself by the sign of the cross,” he took a horse and a valuable bundle of goods belonging to his father and sold both at Falingo. Instead of turning the proceeds over to his father, Francis offered them to the priest of St. Damian, who, fearing the father’s displeasure, refused to accept the stolen funds. The young zealot, “who had utter contempt for money,” threw the gold on one of the windows of the church. Such is the story as gleaned from Catholic sources. The heretics, who have criticised Francis for this conduct, are answered by the following ingenious but dangerous sophistry: “It is certainly quite contrary to the ordinary law of justice for one man to take for himself the property of another; but if Almighty God, to whom all things belong, and for whom we are only stewards, is pleased to dispense with this His own law in a particular case, and to bestow what He has hitherto given to one upon another, He confers at the same time a valid title to the gift, and it is no robbery in him who has received it to act upon that title.”

Fearing his father’s wrath, Francis hid himself in the priest’s room, and contemporary authors assure us that when the irate parent entered, Francis was miraculously let into the wall. Wading (1731 A.D.) says the hollow place may still be seen in the wall.

After a month, the young hero, confident of his courage to face his father, came forth pale and weak, only to be stoned as a madman by the people. His father locked him up in the house, but the tenderer compassion of his mother released him from his bonds, and he found refuge with the priest. When his father demanded his return, Francis tore off his clothes and, as he flung the last rag at the feet of his astounded parent, he exclaimed: “Peter Bernardone was my father; I have but one father, He that is in Heaven.” The crowd was deeply moved, especially when they saw before them the hair shirt which Francis had secretly worn under his garments. Gathering up all that was left to him of his son, the father sadly departed, leaving the young enthusiast to fight his own way through the world. Many times after that, the parents, who tenderly watched over the lad in sickness and prayed for his recovery, saw their beloved son leading his barefooted beggars through the streets of his native town. But he will never more sing his gay songs underneath their roof or sally forth with his merry companions in search of pleasure. Francis was given a laborer’s cloak, upon which he made the sign of a cross with some mortar, “thus manifesting what he wished to be, a half-naked poor one, and a crucified man.” Such was the saint, in 1206, in his twenty-fifth year.

Francis now went forth, singing sacred songs, begging his food, and helping the sick and the poor. He was employed “in the vilest affairs of the scullery” in a neighboring monastery. At this time he clothed himself in the monk’s dress, a short tunic, a leathern girdle, shoes and a staff. He waited upon lepers and kissed their disgusting ulcers. Yet more, he instantly cured a dreadfully cancerous face by kissing it. He ate the most revolting messes, reproaching himself for recoiling in nausea. Thus the pauper of Jesus Christ conquered his pride and luxurious tastes.

Francis finally returned to repair the church of St. Damian. The people derided, even stoned him, but he had learned to rejoice in abuse. They did not know of what stern stuff their fellow-townsman was made. He bore all their insults meekly, and persevered in his work, carrying stones with his own hands and promising the blessing of God on all who helped him in his joyful task. His kindness and smiles melted hatred; derision turned to admiration. “Many were moved to tears,” says his biographers, “while Francis worked on with cheerful simplicity, begging his materials, stone by stone, and singing psalms about the streets.”

Two years after his conversion, or in 1208, while kneeling in the church of Sta. Maria dei Angeli, he heard the words of Christ: “Provide neither gold nor silver nor brass in your purses, neither two coats nor shoes nor staff, but go and preach.” Afterwards, when the meaning of these words was explained to him, he exclaimed: “This is what I seek for!” He threw away his wallet, took off his shoes, and replaced his leather girdle by a cord. His hermit’s tunic appearing too delicate, he put on a coarse, gray robe, reaching to his feet, with sleeves that came down over his fingers; to this he added a hood, covering his head and face. Clothing of this character he wore to the end of his life. This was in 1208, which is regarded as the first year of the Order of St. Francis. The next year Francis gave this habit to those who had joined him.

So the first and chief of Franciscan friars, unattended by mortal companions, went humbly forth to proclaim the grandeur and goodness of a God, who, according to monastic teaching, demands penance and poverty of his creatures as the price of his highest favor and richest blessings. Nearly seven hundred long years have passed since that eventful day, but the begging Brothers of Francis still traverse those Italian highways over which the saint now journeyed with meek and joyous spirit.

“He was not yet far distant from his rising
Before he had begun to make the earth
Some comfort from his mighty virtue feel.
For he in youth his father’s wrath incurred
For certain Dame, to whom, as unto death,
The gate of pleasure no one doth unlock;
And was before his spiritual court
Et coram pâtre unto her united;
Then day by day more fervently he loved her.

But that too darkly I may not proceed,
Francis and Poverty for these two lovers
Take thou henceforward in my speech diffuse.”


In 1210, with eleven companions, his entire band, Francis went to Rome to secure papal sanction. Pope Innocent III. was walking in a garden of the Lateran Palace when a beggar, dusty and pale, confronted him. Provoked at being disturbed in his thoughts, he drove him away. That night it was the pope’s turn to dream. He saw a falling church supported by a poor and miserable man. Of course, that man was Francis. Four or five years later the pope will dream the same thing again. Then the poor man will be Dominic. In the morning he sent for the monk whom he had driven from him as a madman the day before. Standing before his holiness and the college of cardinals, Francis pleaded his cause in a touching and eloquent parable. His quiet, earnest manner and clear blue eyes impressed every one. The pope did not give him formal sanction however this was left for Honorius III., November 29, 1223 but he verbally permitted him to establish his order and to continue his preaching.

Several times Francis set out to preach to the Mohammedans, but failed to reach his destination. He finally visited Egypt during the siege of Damietta, and at the risk of his life he went forth to preach to the sultan encamped on the Nile. He is described by an eye-witness “as an ignorant and simple man, beloved of God and men.” His courage and personal magnetism won the Mohammedan’s sympathy but not his soul. Although Francis courted martyrdom, and offered to walk through fire to prove the truth of his message, the Oriental took it all too good-naturedly to put him to the test, and dismissed him with kindness.

Francis was a great lover of birds. The swallows he called his sisters. A bird in the cage excited his deepest sympathy. It is said he sometimes preached to the feathered songsters. Longfellow has cast one of these homilies into poetic form:

“O brother birds, St. Francis said,
Ye come to me and ask for bread,
But not with bread alone to-day
Shall ye be fed and sent away.

Oh, doubly are ye bound to praise
The great Creator in your lays;
He giveth you your plumes of down,
Your crimson hoods, your cloaks of brown.

He giveth you your wings to fly
And breathe a purer air on high,
And careth for you everywhere,
Who for yourselves so little care.”

Like all ascetics, Francis was tempted in visions. One cold night he fancied he was in a home of his own, with his wife and children around him. Rushing out of his cell he heaped up seven hills of snow to represent a wife, four sons and daughters, and two servants. “Make haste,” he cried, “provide clothing for them lest they perish with the cold,” and falling upon the imaginary group, he dispelled the vision of domestic bliss in the cold embrace of the winter’s snow. Mrs. Oliphant points out the fact that, unlike most of the hermits and monks, Francis dreams not of dancing girls, but of the pure love of a wife and the modest joys of a home and children. She beautifully says: “Had he, for one sweet, miserable moment, gone back to some old imagination and seen the unborn faces shine beside the never-lighted fire? But Francis does not say a word of any such trial going on in his heart. He dissipates the dream by the chill touch of the snow, by still nature hushing the fiery thoughts, by sudden action, so violent as to stir the blood in his veins; and then the curtain of prayer and silence falls over him, and the convent walls close black around.”

The experience of the saint on Mount Alverno deserves special consideration, not merely on account of its singularity, but also because it affords a striking illustration of the difficulties one encounters in trying to get at the truth in monastic narratives. Francis had retired to Mount Alverno, a wild and rugged solitude, to meditate upon the Lord’s passion. For days he had been almost distracted with grief and holy sympathy. Suddenly a seraph with six wings stood before him. When the heavenly being departed, the marks of the Crucified One appeared upon the saint’s body. St. Bonaventure says: “His feet and hands were seen to be perforated by nails in their middle; the heads of the nails, round and black, were on the inside of the hands, and on the upper parts of the feet; the points, which were rather long, and which came out on the opposite sides, were turned and raised above the flesh, from which they came out.” There also appeared on his right side a red wound, which often oozed a sacred blood that stained his tunic.

This remarkable story has provoked considerable discussion. One’s conclusions respecting its credibility will quite likely be determined by his general view of numerous similar narratives, and by the degree of his confidence in the value of human testimony touching such matters. The incongruities and palpable impostures that seriously impair the general reliability of monkish historians render it difficult to distinguish between the truths and errors in their writings.

Some authorities hold that the marks did not appear on St. Francis, and that the story is without foundation. But Roman writers bring forward the three early biographers of Francis who claim that the marks did appear. Pope Alexander IV. publicly averred that he saw the wounds, and pronounced it heresy to doubt the report. Popes Benedict XI., Sixtus IV., and Sixtus V. consecrated and canonized the impressions by instituting a particular festival in their honor. Numerous persons are said to have seen the marks and to have kissed the nails, after the death of the saint. Singularly enough, the Dominicans were inclined to regard the story as a piece of imposture designed to exalt Francis above Dominic.

But, if it be admitted that the marks did appear, as it is not improbable, how shall the phenomenon be explained? At least four theories are held: 1. Fraud; 2. The irresponsible self-infliction of the wounds; 3. Physical effects due to mental suggestion or some other psychic cause; 4. Miracle.

1. The temptation is strong to claim a fraud, especially because the same witnesses who testify to the truth of the tale, also relate such monstrous, incredible stories, that one is almost forced to doubt either their integrity or their sanity. But there is no evidence in support of so serious an indictment. After showing that signs and portents attend every crisis in history, Mrs. Oliphant says: “Every great spiritual awakening has been accompanied by phenomena quite incomprehensible, which none but the vulgar mind can attribute to trickery and imposture;” but still she herself remains in doubt about the whole story.

2. Although Mosheim uses the term “fraud,” it would seem that he means rather the irresponsible self-infliction of the wounds. He says: “As he [Francis] was a most superstitious and fanatical mortal, it is undoubtedly evident that he imprinted on himself the holy wounds. Paul’s words, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus,’ may have suggested the idea of the fraud.” The notion certainly prevailed that Francis was a sort of second Christ, and a book was circulated showing how he might be compared to Christ in forty particulars. There are many things in his biography which, if true, indicate that Francis yearned to imitate literally the experiences of his Lord.

3. Numerous experiments, conducted by scientific men, have established the fact that red marks, swellings, blisters, bleeding and wounds have been produced by mental suggestion. Bjoernstrom, in his work on “Hypnotism,” after recounting various experiments showing the effect of the imagination on the body, says, respecting the stigmata of the Middle Ages: “Such marks can be produced by hypnotism without deceit and without the miracles of the higher powers.” Prof. Fisher declares: “There is no room for the suspicion of deceit. The idea of a strange physical effect of an abnormal state is more plausible.” Trench thinks this is a reasonable view in the case of a man like Francis, “with a temperament so irrepressible, of an organization so delicate, permeated through and through with the anguish of the Lord’s sufferings, passionately and continually dwelling on the one circumstance of his crucifixion.” But others, despairing of any rational solution, cut the Gordian knot and declare that “the kindest thing to think about Francis is that he was crazy.”

4. Roman Catholics naturally reject all explanations that exclude the supernatural, for, as Father Candide Chalippe affirms: “Catholics ought to be cautious in adopting anything coming from heretics; their opinions are almost always contagious.” He therefore holds fast to the miracles in the lives of the saints, not only because he accepts the evidence, but because he believes these wonderful stories “add great resplendency to the merits of the saints, and, consequently, give great weight to the example they afford us.”

It is altogether probable that each one will continue to view the whole affair as his predispositions and religious convictions direct; some unconvinced by traditionary evidence and undismayed by charges of heresy; others devoutly accepting every monkish miracle and marveling at the obstinacy of unbelief.

Two years after the event just described Francis was carried on a cot outside the walls of Assisi, where, lifting his hands he blessed his native city. Some few days later, on October 4, 1226, he passed away, exclaiming, “Welcome, Sister Death!”

Whatever we may think of the legends that cluster about his life, Francis himself must not be held responsible for all that has been written about him. He himself was no phantom or mythical being, but a real, earnest man who, according to his light, tried to serve his generation. As he himself said: “A man is just so much and no more as he is in the sight of God.” “Francis appears to me,” says Forsyth, “a genuine, original hero, independent, magnanimous, incorruptible. His powers seemed designed to regenerate society; but taking a wrong direction, they sank men into beggars.” Through the mist of tradition the holy beggar and saintly hero shines forth as a loving, gentle soul, unkind to none but himself. However his biography may be regarded, his life illustrates the beauty and power of voluntary renunciation, the fountain not only of religion but of all true nobility of character. He may have been ignorant, perhaps grossly so, as Mosheim thinks, but nevertheless he merits our highest praise for striving honestly to keep his vow of poverty in the days when worldly monks disgraced their sacred profession by greed, ambition, and lustful indulgence.

The Franciscan Orders

The orders which Francis founded were of three classes:

1. Franciscan Friars or Order of Friars Minor, called also Gray or Begging Friars. The year in which Francis took the habit, 1208, is reckoned the first year of the order, but the Rule was not given until 1210.

This Rule, which has not been preserved, was very simple, and doubtless consisted of a group of gospel passages, bearing on the vow of poverty, together with a few precepts about the occupations of the brethren. The pope was not asked to sanction the Rule but only to give his approbation to the missions of the little band. Some of the cardinals expressed their doubts about the mode of life provided for in the rules. “But,” replied Giovanni di San Paolo, “if we hold that to observe gospel perfection and make profession of it is an irrational and impossible innovation, are we not convicted of blasphemy against Christ, the Author of the Gospel?”

There was also the Rule of 1221, which makes an intermediate stage between the first Rule and that which was approved by the pope November 29, 1223. The Rule of 1210 was thoroughly Franciscan. It was the expression of the passionate, fervent soul of Francis. It was the cry of the human heart for God and purity. The Rule of 1223 shows that the church had begun to direct the movement. Sabatier says of these two rules: “At the bottom of it all is the antinome of law and love. Under the reign of law we are the mercenaries of God, bound down to an irksome task, but paid a hundred-fold, and with an indisputable right to our wages.” Such was the conception underlying the Rule of 1223. That of 1210 is thus described: “Under the rule of love we are the sons of God, and co-workers with Him; we give ourselves to Him without bargaining and without expectation; we follow Jesus, not because this is well, but because we cannot do otherwise, because we feel that He has loved us and we love Him in our turn.”

Francis would not allow his monks to be called Friars; he preferred Friars Minor or Little Brothers as a more humble designation.

Ten years after the founding of the order, it is claimed, over five thousand friars assembled in Rome for the general chapter. The monks lodged in huts made of matting and hence this convention has been called the “Chapter of Mats.” The order was strongest numerically about fifty years after the death of Francis, when it numbered eight thousand convents and two hundred thousand monks. Many of its members were highly distinguished, such as St. Bonaventura, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon and Cardinal Ximenes.

2. Nuns of St. Clara or Poor Claras, dates from 1212, but it did not receive its rule from Francis until 1224. The order was founded in the following manner: Clara, a daughter of a noble family, was distinguished for her beauty and by her love for the poor. Francis often met her, and, in the language of his biographer, “exhorted her to a contempt of the world and poured into her ears the sweetness of Christ.” Guided, no doubt, by his counsel, she stole one night from her home to a neighboring church where Francis and his beggars were assembled. Her long and beautiful hair was cut off, while a coarse woolen gown was substituted for her own rich garments. Standing in the midst of the ragged monks, she renounced the dregs of Babylon and a wicked world, pledging her future to the monastic institution. Out from this little church into the darkness of the night, Francis led this beautiful girl of seventeen years and committed her to a Benedictine nunnery. Later on Clara became the abbess of a Franciscan convent at St. Damian, and the Sisterhood of St. Clara was established. It was an order of sadness and penitential tears. It is said that Clara never but once (when she received the blessing of the pope) lifted her eyelids so that the color of her eyes might be discerned.

3. The Third Order, called also “Brotherhood of Penitence,” was composed of lay men and women. So many husbands and wives were desirous of leaving their homes in order to enter the monastic state, that Francis, not wishing to break up happy marriages, so it is said, was compelled to give these enthusiasts some sort of a rule by which they might compromise between their established life and the monastic career. This state of things led to the formation, in 1221, of the Third Order of St. Francis, or the Order of Tertiaries, in relation to the Friars Minor and the Poor Claras. Sabatier says this generally-accepted date is wrong; that it is impossible to fix any date, for that which came to be known as the Third Order was born of the enthusiasm excited by the preaching of Francis soon after his return from Rome in 1210. Candidates for admission into this order were required to make profession of all the orthodox truths, special care being employed to guard against the intrusion of heretics. Days of fasting and abstinence were enjoined, and members were urged to avoid profanity, the theater, dancing and law-suits. The order met with astonishing success, cardinals, bishops, emperors, empresses, kings and queens, gladly enrolling themselves among the followers of St. Francis.

Dominic de Guzman, 1170-1221 A.D.

Half-way between Osma and Aranda in Old Castile, Spain, is a little village known as “the fortunate Calahorra.” Here was the castle of the Guzmáns, where Dominic was born. His family was of high rank and character, a noble house of warriors, statesmen and saints. If we accept the legends, his greatness was foreshadowed. Before his birth, his mother dreamed she saw her son under the figure of a black-and-white dog, with a torch in his mouth. “A true dream,” says Milman, “for he will scent out heresy and apply the torch to the faggots;” but, as will be seen later, this observation does not rest on undisputed evidence.

In the year 1191, when Spain was desolated by a terrible famine, Dominic was just finishing his theological studies. He gave away his money and sold his clothes, his furniture and even his precious manuscripts, that he might relieve distress. When his companions expressed astonishment that he should sell his books, Dominic replied: “Would you have me study off these dead skins, when men are dying of hunger?” This noble utterance is cherished by his admirers as the first saying from his lips that has passed to posterity.

Dominic was educated in the schools of Palencia, afterwards a university, where he devoted six years to the arts and four to theology. In 1194, when twenty-five years of age, Dominic became a canon regular, at Osma, under the rule of St. Augustine. Nine years after he accompanied his bishop, Don Diego, on an embassy for the king of Castile. When they crossed the Pyrenees they found themselves in an atmosphere of heresy. The country was filled with preachers of strange doctrines, who had little respect for Dominic, his bishop, or their Roman pontiff. The experiences of this journey inspired in Dominic a desire to aid in the extermination of heresy. He was also deeply impressed by an important and significant observation. Many of these heretical preachers were not ignorant fanatics, but well-trained and cultured men. Entire communities seemed to be possessed by a desire for knowledge and for righteousness. Dominic clearly perceived that only preachers of a high order, capable of advancing reasonable argument, could overthrow the Albigensian heresy.

It would be impossible, in a few words, to tell the whole story of this Albigensian movement. Undoubtedly the term stood for a variety of theological opinions, all of which were in opposition to the teachings of Rome. “From the very invectives of their enemies,” says Hallam, “and the acts of the Inquisition, it is manifest that almost every shade of heterodoxy was found among these dissidents, till it vanished in a simple protestation against the wealth and tyranny of the clergy.” Many of the tenets of these enthusiasts were undoubtedly borrowed from the ancient Manicheism, and would be pronounced heretical by every modern evangelical denomination. But associated with those holding such doctrines were numerous reformers, whose chief offense consisted in their incipient Protestantism. However heretical any of these sects may have been, it is impossible to make them out enemies to the social order, except as all opponents of established religious traditions create disturbance. “What these bodies held in common,” says Hardwick, “and what made them equally the prey of the inquisitor, was their unwavering belief in the corruption of the medieval church, especially as governed by the Roman pontiffs.”

In 1208 Dominic visited Languedoc a second time, and on his way he encountered the papal legates returning in pomp to Rome, foiled in their attempt to crush this growing schism. To them he administered his famous rebuke: “It is not the display of power and pomp, cavalcades of retainers, and richly-houseled palfreys, or by gorgeous apparel, that the heretics win proselytes; it is by zealous preaching, by apostolic humility, by austerity, by seeming, it is true, but by seeming holiness. Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth.” It is extremely unfortunate for the reputation of Dominic that he ever departed from the spirit of these noble words, which so clearly state the conditions of true religious progress.

Dominic now gathered about him a few men of like spirit and began his task of preaching down heresy. But “the enticing words of man’s wisdom” failed to win the Albigensians from what they believed to be the words of God. So, unmindful of his admonition to the papal legates, Dominic obtained permission of Innocent III. to hold courts, before which he might summon all persons suspected of heresy. When eloquence and courts failed, the pope let loose the “dogs of war.” Then followed twenty years of frightful carnage, during which hundreds of thousands of heretics were slain, and many cities were laid waste by fire and sword. “This was to punish a fanaticism,” says Hallam, “ten thousand times more innocent than their own, and errors which, according to the worst imputations, left the laws of humanity and the peace of social life unimpaired.” Peace was concluded in 1229, but the persecution of heretics went on.

What part Dominic personally had in these bloody proceedings is litigated history. His admirers strive to rescue his memory from the charge that he was “a cruel and bloody man.” It is argued that while the pope and temporal princes carried on the sanguinary war against the heretics, Dominic confined himself to pleading with them in a spirit of true Christian love. He was a minister of mercy, not an avenging angel, sword in hand. It has to be conceded that the constant tradition of the Dominican order that Dominic was the first Inquisitor, whether he bore the title or not, rests upon good authority. But what was the nature of the office as held by the saint? As far as Dominic was concerned, it is argued by his friends that the office “was limited to the reconciliation of heretics and had nothing to do with their punishment.” It is also claimed that while Dominic did impose penances, in some cases public flagellation, no evidence can be produced showing that he ever delivered one heretic to the flames. Those who were burned were condemned by secular courts, and on the ground that they were not only heretics but enemies of the public peace and perpetrators of enormous crimes.

But while it may not be proved that Dominic himself passed the sentence of death or applied the torch to the faggots with his own hand, he is by no means absolved from all complicity in those frightful slaughters, or from all responsibility for the subsequent establishment of the Holy Inquisition. The principles governing the Inquisition were practically those upon which Dominic proceeded; the germs of the later atrocities are to be found in his aims and methods. By what a narrow margin does Dominic escape the charge of cruelty when it is boasted “that he resolutely insisted on no sentence being carried out until all means had been tried by which the conversion of a prisoner could be effected.” Another statement also contains an inkling of a significant fact, namely, that secular judges and princes were constantly under the influence of the monks and other ecclesiastical persons, who incited them to wage war, and to massacre, in the Albigensian war as in other crusades against heresy. No word from Dominic can be produced indicating that he remonstrated with the pope, or that he tried to stop the crusade. In a few instances he seems to have interceded with the crazed soldiery for the lives of women and children. But he did not oppose the bloody crusade itself. He was constantly either with the army or following in its wake. He often sat on the bench at the trial of dissenters. He remained the life-long friend of Simon de Montfort, the cruel agent of the papacy, and he blessed the marriage of his sons and baptized his daughter. Special courts for trying heretics were established, previous to the more complete organization of the Inquisition, and in these he held a commission.

The Holy Office of the Inquisition was made a permanent tribunal by Gregory IX., in 1233, twelve years after the death of Dominic, and curiously enough, in the same year in which he was canonized. The Catholic Bollandists claim that although the title of Inquisitor was of later date than Dominic, yet the office was in existence, and that the splendor of the Holy Inquisition owes its beginning to that saint. Certain it is that the administration of the Inquisition was mainly in the hands of Dominican monks.

In view of all these facts, Professor Allen is justified in his conclusions respecting Dominic and his share in the persecution of heretics: “Whatever his own sweet and heavenly spirit according to Catholic eulogists, his name is a synonym of bleak and intolerant fanaticism. It is fatally associated with the blackest horrors of the crusade against the Albigenses, as well as with the infernal skill and deadly machinery of the Inquisition.”

In 1214, Dominic established himself, with six followers, in the house of Peter Cellani, a rich resident of Toulouse. Eleven years of active and public life had passed since the Subprior of Osma had forsaken the quietude of the monastery. He now resumed his life of retirement and subjected himself and his companions to the monastic rules of prayer and penance. But the restless spirit of the man could not long remain content with the seclusion and inactivity of a monk’s life. The scheme of establishing an order of Preaching Friars began to assume definite shape in his mind. He dreamed of seven stars enlightening the world, which represented himself and his six friends. The final result of his deliberations was the organization of his order, and the appearance of Dominic in the city of Rome, in 1215, to secure the approval of the pope, Innocent III. Although some describe his reception as “most cordial and flattering,” yet it required supernatural interference to induce the pope to grant even his approval of the new order. It was not formally confirmed until 1216 by Honorius III.

Dominic now made his headquarters at Rome, although he traveled extensively in the interests of his growing brotherhood of monks. He was made Master of the Sacred Palace, an important official post, including among its functions the censorship of the press. It has ever since been occupied by members of the Dominican order.

Throughout his life Dominic is said to have zealously practiced rigorous self-denial. He wore a hair shirt, and an iron chain around his loins, which he never laid aside, even in sleep. He abstained from meat and observed stated fasts and periods of silence. He selected the worst accommodations and the meanest clothes, and never allowed himself the luxury of a bed. When traveling, he beguiled the journey with spiritual instruction and prayers. As soon as he passed the limits of towns and villages, he took off his shoes, and, however sharp the stones or thorns, he trudged on his way barefooted. Rain and other discomforts elicited from his lips nothing but praises to God.

Death came at the age of fifty-one and found him exhausted with the austerities and labors of his eventful career. He had reached the convent of St. Nicholas, at Bologna, weary and sick with a fever. He refused the repose of a bed and bade the monks lay him on some sacking stretched upon the ground. The brief time that remained to him was spent in exhorting his followers to have charity, to guard their humility, and to make their treasure out of poverty. Lying in ashes upon the floor he passed away at noon, on the sixth of August, 1221. He was canonized by Gregory IX., in 1234.

The Dominican Orders

The origin of the Order of the Preaching Friars has already been described. It is not necessary to dwell upon the constitution of this order, because in all essential respects it was like that of the Franciscans. The order is ruled by a general and is divided into provinces, governed by provincials. The head of each house is called a prior. Dominic adopted the rules laid down by St. Augustine, because the pope ordered him to follow some one of the older monastic codes, but he also added regulations of his own.

Soon after the founding of the order, bands of monks were sent out to Paris, to Rome, to Spain and to England, for the purpose of planting colonies in the chief seats of learning. The order produced many eminent scholars, some of whom were Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Echard, Tauler and Savonarola.

As among the Franciscans, there was also an Order of Nuns, founded in 1206, and a Third Order, called the Militia of Jesus Christ, which was organized in 1218.

The Success of the Mendicant Orders

In 1215, Innocent III. being pope, the Lateran council passed the following law: “Whereas the excessive diversity of these [monastic] institutions begets confusion, no new foundations of this sort must be formed for the future; but whoever wishes to become a monk must attach himself to some of the already existing rules.” This same pope approved the two Mendicant orders, urging them, it is true, to unite themselves to one of the older orders; but, nevertheless, they became distinct organizations, eclipsing all previous societies in their achievements. The reason for this disregard of the Lateran decree is doubtless to be found in the alarming condition of religious affairs at that time, and in the hope held out to Rome by the Mendicants, of reforming the monasteries and crushing the heretics.

The failure of the numerous and varied efforts to reform the monastic institution and the danger to the church arising from the unwonted stress laid upon poverty by different schismatic religious societies, necessitated the adoption of radical measures by the church to preserve its influence. At this juncture the Mendicant friars appeared. The conditions demanded a modification of the monastic principle which had hitherto exalted a life of retirement. Seclusion in the cloister was no longer possible in the view of the remarkable changes in religious thought and practice.

Innocent III. was wise enough to perceive the immediate utility of the new societies based upon claims to extraordinary humility and poverty. The Mendicant orders were, in themselves, not only a rebuke to the luxurious indolence and shameful laxity of the older orders, but when sanctioned by the church, the existence of the new societies attested Rome’s desire to maintain the highest and the purest standards of monastic life. Hence, the Preaching Friars were permitted to reproach the clergy and the monks for their vices and corruptions.

“The effect of such a band of missionaries,” says John Stuart Mill, “must have been great in rousing and feeding dormant devotional feelings. They were not less influential in regulating those feelings, and turning into the established Catholic channels those vagaries of private enthusiasm which might well endanger the church, since they already threatened society itself.”

Two novel monastic features, therefore, now appear for the first time: 1. The substitution of itineracy for the seclusion of the cloister; and 2. The abolition of endowments.

1. The older orders had their traveling missionaries, but the general practice was to remain shut up within the monastic walls. The Mendicants at the start had no particular abiding place, but were bound to travel everywhere, preaching and teaching. It was distinctly the mission of these monks to visit the camps, the towns, cities and villages, the market places, the universities, the homes and the churches, to preach and to minister to the sick and the poor. They neither loved the seclusion of the cell nor sought it. Theirs to tramp the dusty roads, with their capacious bags, begging and teaching. Only by this itinerant method could the people be reached and the preachers of heresy be encountered.

2. One of the chief sources of strength in the heretical sects was the justness of their attack upon the Catholic monastic orders, whose immense riches belied their vows of poverty. The heretics practiced austerities and adopted a simplicity of life that won the hearts of the people, by reason of its contrast to the loose habits of the monks and clergy. Since it was impossible to reform the older orders, it became absolutely essential to the success of the Mendicants that they should rigorously respect the neglected discipline. As the abuse of the vow of poverty was particularly common, the Mendicants naturally emphasized this vow.

While it is true that a begging monk was by no means unknown, yet now, for the first time, was the practice of mendicity formally adopted by entire orders. Owing to the excessive multiplication of mendicant societies, Pope Gregory X., at a general council held at Lyons in 1272, attempted to check the growing evil. The number of Mendicant orders was confined to four, viz., the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Augustinians or Hermits of Augustine. The Council of Trent confined mendicity to the Observantines and Capuchins, since the other societies had practically abandoned their original interpretation of their vow of poverty and had acquired permanent property.

When Francis tried to enforce the rule of poverty, his rigor gave rise to most serious dissensions, which began in his own lifetime and ended after his death in open schism. Some of his followers were not pleased with his views on that subject. They resisted his extreme strictness, and after his death they continued to advocate the holding of property. The popes tried to settle the quarrel, but ever and anon it broke out afresh with volcanic fierceness. They finally interpreted the rule of poverty to mean that the friars could not hold property in their own names, but they might enjoy its use. Under this interpretation of the rule, the beggars soon became very rich. Matthew of Paris said: “The friars who have been founded hardly forty years have built even in the present day in England residences as lofty as the palaces of our kings.” But the better element among the Franciscans refused to consent to such a palpable evasion of the rule. A portion of this class separated themselves from the Franciscans, rejected their authority, and formed a new sect called the Fratricelli, or Little Brothers. It is very important to keep the history of this name clearly in mind, for it frequently appears in the Reformation period and has been the cause of much misunderstanding. The word “Fratricelli” came to be a term of derision applied to any one affecting the dress or the habits of the monks. When heretical sects arose, it was applied to them as a stigma, but it was used first by a sect of rigid Franciscans who deserted their order, adopted this name as their own, and exulted in its use. The quarrel among the monks led to a variety of complications and is intricately interwoven with the political and religious history of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. “These rebellious Franciscans,” says Mosheim, “though fanatical and superstitious in some respects, deserve an eminent rank among those who prepared the way for the Reformation in Europe, and who excited in the minds of the people a just aversion to Rome.”

The Mendicants were especially active in educational work. This is to be attributed to several causes. Unquestionably the general and increasing interest in theological doctrines and the craving for knowledge affected the monastic orders. Europe was just arousing from her medieval slumbers. The faint rays of the Reformation dawn were streaking the horizon. The intellect as well as the conscience was touched by the Spirit of God. The revolt against moral iniquity was often accompanied by skepticism concerning the authority and dogmas of the church. Questions were being asked that ignorant monks could not answer. Too long had the church ignored these symptoms of the approach of a new order of things. The church was forced to meet the heretics on their own ground, to offset the example of their simplicity and purity of life by exalting the neglected standards of self-denial, and to silence them, if possible, by exposing their errors. Then came the Franciscans, with their austere simplicity and their insistence upon poverty. Then also appeared the Dominicans, or as they were called, “The Watch-dogs of the Church,” who not only barked the church awake, but tried to devour the heretics.

Francis halted for some time before giving encouragement to educational enterprises. A life of devotion and prayer attracted him, because, as he said, “Prayer purifies the affections, strengthens us in virtue, and unites us to the sovereign good.” But, he went on, “Preaching renders the feet of the spiritual man dusty; it is an employment which dissipates and distracts, and which causes regular discipline to be relaxed.” After consulting Brother Sylvester and Sister Clara, he decided to adopt their counsel and entered upon a ministry of preaching. The example and success of the Dominicans probably inspired the Franciscans to give themselves more and more to intellectual work.

Both orders received appointments in all the leading universities, but they did not gain this ascendency without a severe conflict. The regular professors and the clergy were jealous of them for various causes, and resisted them at every point. The quarrel between the Dominicans and the University of Paris is the most famous of these struggles. It began in 1228 and did not end until 1259. The Dominicans claimed the right to two theological professorships. One had been taken from them, and a law was passed that no religious order should have what these friars demanded. The Dominicans rebelled and the University passed sentences of expulsion. Innocent IV., wishing to become master of Italy, sided with the University, but the next month he was dead, in answer to their prayers, said the Dominicans, but rumor hinted an even blacker cause. The thirty-one years of the struggle dragged wearily on, disturbed by papal bulls, appeals, pamphlets and university slogans. At last Alexander IV., in 1255, decided that the Dominicans might have the second professorship and also any other they thought proper. The noise of conflict now grew louder and boded ill for the peace of the church. The pulpits flashed forth fiery utterances. The monks were assailed in every quarter. William of Amour published his essay on “The Perils of the Last Times,” in which he claimed that the perilous times predicted by the Apostle Paul were now fulfilled by these begging friars. He exposed their iniquities and bitterly complained of their arrogance and vice. His book was burned and its author banished. Although meaning to be a friend of Rome, he unconsciously contributed his share to the coming reform. In 1259, Rome thundered so loud that all Europe was terrified and the University was awed into submission.

Another interesting feature in the history of their educational enterprises is the entrance of the Mendicants into England, where they acted a leading part in the educational and political history of the country. The Dominicans settled first at Oxford, in 1221. The Franciscans, after a short stay at Canterbury, went to Oxford in 1224. The story of how the two Gray friars journeyed from Canterbury to Oxford runs as follows: “These two forerunners of a famous brotherhood, being not far from Oxford, lost their way and came to a farmhouse of the Benedictines. It was nearly night and raining. They gently knocked, and asked admittance for God’s sake. The porter gazed on their patched robes and beggarly aspect and supposed them to be mimics or despised persons. The prior, pleased with the tidings, invited them in. But instead of sportively performing, these two friars insisted, with sedate countenances, that they were men of God. Whereat the Benedictines in jealousy, and displeased to be cheated out of their expected fun, kicked and buffeted the two poor monks and turned them out of doors. One young monk pitied them and smuggled them into a hay-loft where we trust they slept soundly and safe from the cold and rain.” The two friars finally reached Oxford and were well received by their Dominican brothers. Such was the simple beginning of a brilliant career that was profoundly to affect the course of English history. Both at Cambridge and Oxford the monastic orders exercised a remarkable influence. Traces of their labors and power may still be seen in the names of the colleges, and in the religious portions of the university discipline. They built fine edifices and manned their schools with the best teachers, so that they became great rivals of the regular colleges which did not have the funds necessary to compete with these wealthy beggars. Another cause of their rapid progress was the exodus of students from Paris to England. During the quarrel at Paris, Henry III. of England offered many inducements to the students, who left for England in large numbers. Many of them were prejudiced in favor of the friars, and they naturally drifted to the monastic college. The secular clergy charged the friars with inducing the college students to enter the monasteries or to turn begging monks. The pope, the king, and the parliament became involved in the struggle, which grew more bitter as the years passed. After a while Wyclif appeared, and when he began his mighty attack upon the friars the joy with which the professors viewed the struggle can be appreciated.

The Decline of the Mendicants

The Mendicant friars won their fame by faithful and earnest labors. Men admired them because they identified themselves with the lowest of mankind and heroically devoted themselves to the poor and sick. These “sturdy beggars,” as Francis called his companions, were contrasted with the lazy, rich, and, too often, licentious monks of the other orders. Everywhere the friars were received with veneration and joy. The people sought burial in their rags, believing that, clothed in the garments of these holy beggars, they would enter paradise more speedily.

Instead of seeking the seclusion of the convent to save his own soul, the friar displayed remarkable zeal trying to save mankind. He became the arbiter in the quarrels of princes, the prime mover in treaties between nations, and the indispensable counselor in political complications. The pope employed him as his authorized agent in the most difficult matters touching the welfare of the church. His influence upon the common people is thus described by the historian Green: “The theory of government wrought out in the cell and lecture-room was carried over the length and breadth of the land by the Mendicant brother begging his way from town to town, chatting with the farmer or housewife at the cottage door and setting up his portable pulpit in village green or market-place. The rudest countryman learned the tale of a king’s oppression or a patriot’s hope as he listened to the rambling, passionate, humorous discourse of the beggar friar.”

By these methods the Mendicants were enabled to render most efficient service to their patrons at Rome in their efforts to establish their temporal power. They were, in fact, before the Reformation, just what the Jesuits afterwards became, “the very soul of the hierarchy.” Yes, they were immensely, prodigiously successful. The popes hastened to do them honor. Because the friars were such enthusiastic supporters of the church, the popes poured gold and privileges into their capacious coffers. Thankful peasants threw in their mites and the admiring noble bestowed his estates.

The secular clergy, with envy and chagrin, awoke to the alarming fact that the beggars had won the hearts of the people; their hatred was increased by the fact that when the Roman pontiffs enriched these indefatigable toilers and valiant foes of heresy, they did so at the expense of the bishops and clergy, which, perhaps, was robbing Paul to pay Peter.

Baluzii says: “No religious order had the distribution of so many and such ample indulgences as the Franciscans. In place of fixed revenues, lucrative indulgences were placed in their hands.” So ill-judged was the distribution of these favors that discipline was overturned. Many churchmen, feeling that their rights were being encroached upon, complained bitterly, and resolved on retaliation. It is just here that a potent cause of the Mendicant’s fall is to be found. He helped to dig his own grave.

Having elevated monasticism to the zenith of its power, the Mendicant orders, like all the other monastic brotherhoods, entered upon their shameful decline. The unexampled prosperity, so inconsistent with the original intentions of the founders of the orders, was attended by corruptions and excesses. The decrees of councils, the denunciations of popes and high ecclesiastical dignitaries, the satires of literature, the testimony of chroniclers and the formation of reformatory orders, constitute a body of irrefragable evidence proving that the lowest level of sensuality, superstition and ignorance had been reached. The monks and friars lost whatever vigor and piety they ever possessed.

It is again evident that a monk cannot serve God and mammon. Success ruins him. Wealth and popular favor change his character. The people slowly realize the fact that the fat and lazy medieval monk is not dead, after all, but has simply changed his name to that of Begging Friar. As Allen neatly observes: “Their gray gown and knotted cord wrapped a spiritual pride and capacity of bigotry, fully equal to the rest.”

Here, then, are the “sturdy beggars” of Francis, dwelling in palatial convents, arrogant and proud, trampling their ideal into the dust. Thus it came to pass in accordance with the principle stated at the beginning of this chapter, that when the ideal became a cloak to cover up sham, decay had set in, and ruin, even though delayed for years, was sure to come. The poor, sad-faced, honest, faithful friar everybody praised, loved and reverenced. The insolent, contemptuous, rich monk all men loathed. So a change of character in the friar transformed the songs of praise into shouts of condemnation. Those golden rays from the morning sun of the Reformation are ascending toward the highest heaven, and daybreak is near.