What is called the mendicant movement in Church history began in Western Europe during the thirteenth century. It was a spiritual movement that generated the Religious Orders that came to be known as the Augustinians, Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, Sack Friars and many more. It was a socio-political 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 - including 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 Franciscans). As far as the Augustinian tradition was concerned, there were Christian hermits, especially in northern Italy. These were the Gianboniti, the Hermits of Brettino, and the Tuscan hermits; they were devout laymen. 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; they could be sent directly into the developing commercial centres to minister to the growing numbers of educated laity (i.e., those able to read) and to bring the spiritual traditions of the Gospel to the people.
The Church could benefit by a new style of ministers who could attune themselves to the changing society. No longer was control of civil society totally hereditary, via ruling families. The wealth of new urban merchants demonstrated that anybody with skill and drive could now become a person of substance, and hence of influence. A bourgeoisie was emerging that was not necessarily complacent about the wealth and control exercised by the local bishop. As well, education began not to be an almost exclusive domain of the clergy. Educated laity were demanding priests of greater sophistication than was possessed by the lower clergy belonging to the bishop, who often were barely educated.
The friars emerged to fulfil a need that was begging (no pun intended!) to be filled. "Mendicant" simply means, "open handed," and refers primarily to the new religious communities raised up by the Spirit who "begged" in the name of the Lord. They begged with open hands. They approached God, and the entire world, as beggars, with open hearts, and open hands. Up until that time the monks of Europe worked at their trade in their monastery. While renouncing personal property, they owned all things in common as a community after the example of chapters 2 and 4 of the Acts of the Apostles.
Some influential lay persons in different parts of Europe at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century reproached the ministers of the church for their love of riches and the bad example given in their wealthy way of living. In contrast, Saint Dominic de Guzman and Saint Francis of Assisi offered the example of simple and holy lives. They forbade their followers the possession of wealth or revenue, even in common. The mendicant orders are marked by two characteristics: poverty, practised in common; and a way of life that combined praying together in community with the work of the public ministry of the Church.
Moreover, the mendicant orders presented the appearance of a religious army, the soldiers of which could be moved about as needs changed. Unlike the Benedictine monks, the mendicants were not permanently attached to any one particular convent and to its abbot. The mendicant order, or at least one of its the provinces, took the place of the monastery as an effective geographic seat of religious governance. As a whole, the mendicant order had three levels of governance: an international superior, a provincial superior, and a local superior; unlike a bishop or a Benedictine abbot, all of these mendicant officials were elected for a brief fixed term of office.
These mendicants were usually called "friars," or "brothers." "Friar" may have derived from the Old French word, "frere", and/or from older "fredre", and from Latin word for brother, i.e. "frāter," The friars attempted to follow the literal example of Jesus Christ, who owned nothing, and lived off of the good will of the faithful during his ministry. This, however, did not envision a community of idle persons. The friars were to work at their trade, or to minister through the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the corporeal works of mercy to the poor. In exchange for their labour they could receive food and clothing for one day and night, but they could not accept money.
Official church reaction to the flexibility of the mendicant friars included an effort to curb at least their excesses. The "wandering friars" were a new phenomenon, prompted both by changing population patterns and the need for church reform. With the rapid emergence of towns and cities, the older Benedictine model of the monastery out in the countryside being the centre of evangelisation and worship became less relevant to an increasing number of town and city dwellers. Only when there was no work to be found could the mendicants turn strictly to the "table of the Lord" as beggars.
The notion of begging also had special significance in the social and economic climate of Europe in the thirteenth century. Europe was just discovering the exclusive use of money as a means of exchange. Up until then most of the world used the barter system, with the use of money as only a secondary option. Italy in the thirteenth century had become fascinated by the use of money. Francis of Assisi showed that the brothers could have peace and happiness even without it. Francis denounced the use of money, and made "holy poverty" a special keynote among his followers. Much of the historical material above is drawn from John Michael Talbot, a highly-regarded musician and Catholic layman in the Franciscan tradition.
The Mendicant Orders
The mendicant orders are marked by two characteristics: poverty, or ownership practised in common; and the "combined life", i.e., the combination of prayer in community and the work of spiritual ministry (preaching, giving the Sacraments, and attending to sick and poor people). Moreover, the mendicant orders were a "flying squad", an army of religious soldiers who - unlike the Benedictines - could be moved about by their leaders because they were not permanently attached to any one particular place. The mendicant order, or at least each particular province within it, took the place that the monastery afforded to the Benedictine monk.
Through the limits finally imposed by the Vatican, any mendicant order had to receive the approval of the Pope, who did this by imposing the requirement of papal approval of their Rule or Constitutions. Most of the popes did more than place legislation around the early mendicant orders, and had the wisdom and innovative spirit to realise the potential and willingness of the mendicants to assist in the reform of the Church.
For example, a man like Cardinal Richard Annibaldi, the Cardinal Protector of the Augustinian Order for the decades between 1256 and his death in 1276 throughout the terms of office of the first five Augustinian Priors General, was a powerful and effective force for the continuation and expansion of the new Order.(Continued on the next page.)