What we call the mendicant movement in Church history took place primarily in the 13th century in Western Europe.
This spiritual movement generated the religious orders that came to be known as the Augustinians, Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, Sack Friars and many more.
It was a sociopolitical force of incalculable importance, orienting or influencing the energies of Europe at many levels, from the intellectual and artistic to the economic and institutional.
The mendicant movement of the thirteenth century was a revolutionary response to a revolutionary situation.
The unity of the Church was being threatened once again by a serious difference in doctrine. As well, fresh challenges were evolving out of economic and intellectual changes in society.
The prelude to the mendicant movement actually happened in the second half of the twelfth century, propelled among other factors by a religious revival after the horrors and inhumanity witnessed and retold in relation to the Crusades. Women and men - inclusding former Crusaders - sought to step back somewhat from "the world," and there arose numerous eremitical ("hermit') and penitential lay movements.
Early in the thirteenth century, one development for the coalescing of two sizeable religious orders founded by St Dominic (the Dominicans) and St Francis of Assisi (the Franmciscans).
By themselves they developed more or less completely their life of prayer and poverty.
This was outside the walls of any monastery (in contrast, for example, to a Benedictine monastery), and outside of any then-established religious community of common life (such as, for example, the Augustinian Canons).
But their desire for solitary prayer was also accompanied by an inclination to various evangelical labours, such as the care of lepers, and the exercise of ministry such as religious instruction in a simple and spontaneous way.
Among the religious unrest of the people in that century, there was no spiritual person who did not attract others, and no ascetic who did not feel himself an apostle.
The thirteenth century saw the development of the aspirations of the twelfth century toward the apostolic life, the life of the primitive Church.
Hence the isolated hermits gravitated (with forceful stimulus from the Pope, when necessary) towards becoming members of stable mendicant orders.
In these evolving desires, the Franciscan movement summarized and surpassed all the others. This was not only in the obvious holiness of Francis of Assisi, but also in the personality of the followers whom Francis attracted.
Rather than laymen, many of them were priests (or persons willing to become priests) and men of learning whose contribution was notable in the rapid evolution and contemporary relevance of the movement.
With such a background, these members of mendicant groups were of obvious use to the ministry of the Church.