Mendicant Friars are members of those religious orders which, originally, by vow of poverty renounced all proprietorship not only individually but also (and in this differing from the monks) in common, relying for support on their own work and on the charity of the faithful. Hence the name of begging friars. There remain from the Middle Ages four great mendicant orders, recognized as such by the Second Council of Lyons, 1274, Sess. 23 (Mansi, XXIV, 96), the Order of Preachers, the Friars Minor, the Carmelites, and the Hermits of St. Augustine. Successively other congregations obtained the privilege of the mendicants. The Council of Trent (Sess. XXV, cap. iii) granted to all the mendicant orders, except the Friars Minor and the Capuchins, the liberty of corporate possession (see Friar). The object of the present article is to outline I, the origin and characteristics of the mendicants; II, the opposition which they encountered.
I. Historical reasons for the origin of the mendicants are obvious. Since the struggle regarding investitures a certain animosity against church property hadremained. Arnold of Brescia (q.v.) preached that monks and clerics who possessed property could not be saved. A little later John Valdes founded the “Poor Men of Lyons”, soon followed by similar sects. The movement thus started in France and Italy had spread among the poorer classes at the beginning of the thirteenth century and threatened to become dangerous to the Church. By uniting utter poverty to entire subjection towards the Church, St. Francis became with St. Dominic the bulwark of orthodoxy against the new heretics, and the two orders of Friars Minor and Preachers proved themselves a great help both to the inner and to the external life of the Church. Nor was absolute poverty the only characteristic of the new orders. They did not confine themselves to the sanctification of their own members; their maxim was non sibi soli vivere sed et aliis proficere (not to live for themselves only, but to serve others). At once contemplative and active, to the complete renunciation of all things they joined the exercise of the apostolic ministry, devoting themselves to the evangelization of the masses, and thus introducing another element into monastic life. A necessary consequence of their close contact with the people, the convents of the mendicants, unlike those of the Benedictines, Cistercians and of the monks generally, were situated in the towns, in which, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, communal life was rapidly developing. Now as Brewer (Monumenta Franciscana I, p. xvii) observes, and his words may be applied to all the mendicants, “it was to this class of the population, in the first instance, that the attention of the Franciscan was directed; in these wretched localities (suburbs of the towns) his convent and order were seated. A glance at the more important will show the general correctness of this statement. In London, York, Warwick, Oxford, Bristol, Lynn and elsewhere, their convents stood in suburbs and abutted on the city walls”. The work of the mendicants in the pulpit, in the confessional, in the service of the sick and the socially weak, in the foreign missions, had no parallel in the Middle Ages.
This same apostolical activity had two consequences, which form further characteristics of the mendicant friars, a new organization of claustral life and the adoption of a special means of providing subsistence. The mendicants, unlike the monks, were not bound by a votum stabilitatis (vow of permanency) to one convent but enjoyed considerable liberty. Not only might they be called upon to exercise their ministry within the limits of a province, but, with permission of the general, they could be sent all over the world. The form of government itself was rather democratic, as for the most part the superiors were not elected for life and were subject to the General Chapter. From their apostolical ministry the mendicants derived the right of support from all Christian people: dignus est operarius mercede sua. (The laborer is worthy of his hire.) It was only just that having left everything in the world in obedience to Christ’s counsel (Matt., xix, 21; xvi, 24; Luke, ix, 1-6) in order to devote themselves to the wellbeing of the people, they should look to the people for their support. And in fact those alms were regarded as the due of their apostolic work. When later the Apostolici (q.v.) tried to live in the same way as the mendicants without doing their work, Salimbene rebuked them indignantly: “They wish to live”, he writes, “on the charity of the Christian people, although they do nothing for it, they hear no confessions, they do not preach, nor do they give edification, as do the Friars Minor and the Preachers” (Mon. Ger. Hist. Script. XXXII, 255-57, 259, 264).
But provision for the necessities of life was not left to chance. Each convent had its limit or district (limes, terminus), in which brothers, generally two and two, made regular visits to solicit alms. This institution still exists in Catholic countries, as in Italy, Spain and some parts of Germany and in the Tyrol, while in others, even Catholic countries, it is forbidden by law, as in some parts of Austria-Hungary.
II. This new form of conventual life was not introduced without strong opposition. With what feelings the older orders occasionally regarded the rapid spread of the mendicants may be gathered from the bitter words of Matthew of Paris, “Chronica majora, ad an. 1243”, ed. Luard, IV, London, 1877, 279, 80; “ad. an. 1246”, ibid., 511-17. Still it is well known that St. Francis was indebted to the Benedictines for the “Portiuncula“, the first church of his order. The chief opposition came from elsewhere; from the universities and from the bishops and secular clergy. The mendicants did not confine themselves to the sacred ministry, but had almost from the beginning learned members who claimed equality with other doctors at the universities. The Dominicans were the first religious order to introduce the higher studies as a special point in their statutes and if they probably owe their mendicancy to the influence of St. Francis over St. Dominic, the Friars Minor are probably indebted for their higher studies to the influence or at least to the example of the Preachers. On the other hand the Church appreciated the work of the new orders and exempted them from the jurisdiction of the bishops, granting them extensive faculties for preaching and hearing confessions, together with the right of burial in their own churches, rights reserved hitherto to the secular clergy. It should be stated here that this opposition was not inspired merely by envy or other mean motives, but rather from economical reasons. For the parish priests depended in great part for their income on the offerings of the faithful, which threatened to diminish through the great popularity enjoyed by the mendicants. On the whole it might be said that the Church protected the regulars against unjust attacks, while on the other hand she found means to redress abuses, tending to endanger the legitimate interests of the secular clergy. The opposition to the mendicants was particularly strong at the University of Paris, and in France generally, less violent at the University of Oxford and in England. Isolated cases are to be found also in other countries. As early as 1231-32 Gregory IX had to protect the mendicants against the pretensions of some prelates, who wanted the friars to be subject to their jurisdiction like the ordinary faithful. See different forms of the Bull “Nimis iniqua” (Bull. Franc. I, 74-77), repeated by Innocent IV, 1245 (op. cit., 368). Although this Bull speaks in a general way and is addressed to different countries, the abuses enumerated by it were probably of local character.
The first great storm broke out at Paris, where the Dominicans had opened their schools (1229-30) and erected two chairs of theology; the Friars Minor followed them (1231). At first (1252) the opposition was directed against the Dominicans, the university wishing to grant them only one professorship [Denifle, “Chartularium” (see below) I, 226]. The university sought allies and so drew the bishops and the secular clergy into the struggle (Chartularium I, 252), with the result that Innocent IV, at first favorable to the mendicants (Chartularium I, 247), took away their privileges with regard to preaching, confession, and burial rights in the Bull “Etsi animorum”, November 21, 1254 (Chartularium I, 1267). This sudden change of attitude towards the mendicants in Innocent IV has not yet been sufficiently explained. The first step of Alexander IV was to suspend the dispositions of his predecessor, Bull “Nec insolitum”, December 22, 1254 (Chartularium I, 1276), in which he promised new dispositions and forbade meanwhile to act against the mendicants. In these critical circumstances it was doubly unfortunate that Gerard di Borgo S. Donnino should publish his book “Introductorius in Evangelium aeternum” (1254), which, besides many other Joachimite errors, attributed to the mendicants a special vocation, to take the place of the secular clergy in the near future (1260). The answer was not long delayed. William of St. Amour, the leader of the opposition against the mendicants, publicly attacked the treatise in his sermon “Qui amat” (ed. Brown, “Fasciculus rerum expetendarum”… London, 1690, II, 51; Guil. a S. Amore, “Opera omnia,” Constance, 1632, 491). It has been made evident of late that the professors extracted from Gerard’s treatise and from Joachim‘s “Concordia” the thirty-one propositions, partly falsifying them (Matt. Parisiensis, first ed., VI, London, 1882, 335-39; “Chartularium” I, 272), and denouncing them with the book to Innocent IV. William went farther and wrote his famous treatise against the mendicants, “De periculis novissimorum temporum” (“Opera om.”, op. cit., 17-72; Brown, op. cit., II, 18-41, here under a false title). The author starts from II Tim., iii sqq., and sees the fulfillment of those words in the rise of the mendicant friars, who however are not specified, though everybody knew the significance. The whole list of vices enumerated by the apostle is applied to the mendicants, whom William blames on all the points which formed their characteristic note. The danger, he goes on, is at our doors, and it is the duty of the bishops to avert it. In order that those impostors and pseudo-preachers may be the more easily detected, William draws up forty-one signs, by which they are to be recognized. This treatise made an enormous impression.
Alexander IV, however, in the Bull “Quasi lignum vitae”, April 14, 1255 (“Bull. Franc.” II; “Bull. Tried.” I, 276; “Chartularium” I, 279), settled the questions at issue between the university and the mendicants, independently of the case of Gerard di Borgo S. Donnino. The pope annulled the statutes of the university against the mendicants, who were authorized to continue their public schools, even with the two chairs of the Dominicans, as a part of the university. On the other hand, the Master General of the Dominicans wrote from Milan, May, 1255, to his brethren to be careful and not to provoke the secular clergy against the order (“Chartularium “I, 289; Reichert, “Monumenta Ord. Frat. Praedicatorum”, V, Rome, 1900, 21). At the same time the common interests of the Preachers and Friars Minor inspired the beautiful letter of John of Parma (q.v.) and Humbert of Romans, Milan, May, 1255 (Reichert, op. cit., V, 25; Wadding, “Annals Ord. Min.”, III, 380). The professors and students of Paris nevertheless did not accept the Bull “Quasi lignum vitae”: they wrote October 2, 1255, a sharp protest against it (Chartularium I, 292). Alexander IV, October 23, 1255, condemned the “Introductorius in Evangelium aeternum” (Denifle, “Archiv. f. Litt. u Kirchengesch.”, I, 87 sqq.). Moreover October 5, 1256, he condemned the treatise “De Periculis novissimorum temporum” in the Bull “Romanus Pontifex” (Chartularium I, 531). Reluctantly the university submitted to the orders of the pope. William alone resisted and having been banished from Paris and France, he wrote another attack against mendicants, “Liber de antichristo et eiusdem ministris” (ed. under a false name by Martene-Durand, “Vet. Scriptor. amplissima collectio”, IX, Paris, 1733, 1271). This redoubtable attack against the mendicants, conducted by the most famous university, was met by the ablest writers from among the friars. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote “Contra impugnantes Dei cultum”; St. Bonaventure, “Quaestio disputata de paupertate” (Opera omnia, ed. Quaracchi, V, 125), “Apologia pauperum” (VIII, 233), “De tribus quaestionibus” (VIII, 331). Directly against William’s “De periculis” another Franciscan, Bertrand of Bayonne, or perhaps Thomas of York, wrote the treatise, “Manus quae contra omnipotentem” (Chartularium I, 415). John of Peckham, later Archbishop of Canterbury, took part in the controversy with his “De perfectione evangelica”, partly ed. by Little in “Fratris Johannis Pecham. tractatus tres de paupertate” (British Society of Franciscan Studies, II, Aberdeen, 1910). The seculars continued the fight, even with popular compositions, of which the best known is the “Roman de la Rose”. At the second Council of Lyons new attempts were made against the mendicants, partly because of the rise of other mendicant bodies, some of which were of objectionable form, as the “Apostolici” and the “Friars of the Sack” (Saccati) (see Salimbene, “Mon. Germ. Hist. Script.”, XXXII, 245 sqq) All mendicants were abolished, but the four great orders were excepted on account of the manifest good they wrought. Martin IV, “Ad fructus uberes”, December 13, 1281, and January 10, 1282 (Bull. Franc., III, 480) extended the privileges of the mendicants with regard to preaching and hearing confessions, a measure which caused much opposition among the bishops and clergy, especially in France. Only in late years have we come to know of the existence of a great transaction on this subject, at Paris, 1290, where Cardinal Gaetano, later on Boniface VIII, skillfully defended the regulars (see bibliography). Boniface VIII revised the legislation regarding the privileges of the mendicants in favor of the clergy. His Bull “Super Cathedram”, February 18, 1300 (c. 2 in “Clem.”, III, 7; “Extravag. corn.”, cap. 2, III, 6; “Bull Franc.”, IV, 498) is in substance even now in force.
The controversies between the mendicants and the secular priests in England and Ireland took an acrimonious form in the fourteenth century. We have a peculiarly interesting instance of this in the case of Richard Fitzralph, Archbishop of Armagh (q.v.), who preached seven or eight times in London against the mendicants and in nine propositions attacked their poverty and their privileges interfering with parochial rights. Denounced at the papal court of Avignon, he was cited by Innocent VI and defended himself in a treatise, which he read in a public consistory, November 8, 1357, printed under the title “Defensorium Curatorum” in Goldast, “Monarchia S. Romani Imperii.”, II, Frankfort, 1614, 1391-1410, and in Brown, “Fasciculus rerum”, II, 466-487. There is a compendium of the nine propositions in Old English in Howlett, “Monumenta Franciscana”, II, 276-77. This curious document might be called a negative exposition of the rule of the Friars Minor. An English Franciscan, Richard Conway, defended the friars against Fitzralph; his treatise is edited by Goldast, op. cit., II, 1410-44. Innocent VI gave a Bull, October 1, 1358, in which he stated that a commission had been named to examine the differences between the Archbishop of Armagh and the mendicants and forbade meanwhile the prelates of England to hinder the four mendicant orders from exercising their rights (Bull. Franc., VI, 316). In the following year a Bull prescribing the observance of the Decretal “Super Cathedram” of Boniface VIII was directed to different bishops of the continent and to the Archbishop of York, November 26, 1359 (Bull. Franc., VI, 322). Towards the end of the fourteenth century the mendicants in England were attacked more fiercely and on a broader scale by the Wicliffites. Wiclif himself, at first, was not on bad terms with the friars; his enmity was confined to the last few years of his life. While Wiclif had only repeated the worn-out arguments against the mendicants, his disciples went much farther and accused them of the lowest vices. Nor did they confine their calumnies to learned treatises, but embodied them in popular poems and songs, mostly English, of which we have many examples in the two volumes published by Wright (see bibliography). The chief place of controversy was Oxford, where the friars were accused even of sedition. On February 18, 1382, the heads of the four mendicant orders wrote a joint letter to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, protesting against the calumnies of the Wicliffites and stating that their chief enemy was Nicholas Hereford, Professor of Holy Scripture, who in a sermon announced that no religious should be admitted to any degree at Oxford. This letter is inserted in Thomas Netter‘s “Fasciculi Zizaniorum magistri Joh. Wyclif” (ed. Waddington, Rer. Brit. Script., London, 1858, 292-95). There are in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many other instances of hostility with which the friars, especially the Minorites, were regarded by the University of Oxford. Though the Black Death and the Great Schism had evil effects on their general discipline, the mendicants, thanks to the rise of numerous branches of stricter observance, on the whole flourished until the Reformation. Notwithstanding the heavy losses sustained during that period, the mendicants have nevertheless continued to take their part, and that a considerable one, in the life of the Church down to the present day.