The Sack Friars (or Friars of the Sack, or Sackcloth Brothers) are included in this Augnet web site not because they had any official connection with the Order of Saint Augustine, but because the Order benefited from their dissolution by receiving some of their former religious houses. The Sack Friars (officially the Order of the Penitence of Jesus Christ, and popularly called Saccati in Italian) were part of the thirteenth-century mendicant movement. Their beginning is traced back to two lay penitents in Provence, France in the period of 1245-1248, i.e., almost half a century after the formation of the Franciscans and Dominicans, and months after the Little Union of the various hermit-originating communities of Tuscany.
Like Francis of Assisi, these two men were penitents, and, as in the Augustinian tradition, they began in isolated areas but soon moved to ministry in the growing towns. One of their founders, Raymond Athanulfi or Athenoux, saw to it that they adopted the Rule of Augustine and obtained approval from the Holy See, as indicated hereunder. They followed the mendicant practice by begging for their sustenance when this was financially necessary, and in their humble desire for poverty wore robes made of an inexpensive fabric that was similar to sack cloth, hence their popular name of the Sack Friars (popularly in Latin, Fratres de Sacco).
They had their feet bare and wore wooden sandals. Their mode of life was very austere, and they never ate meat and drank only water. In 1251 they numbered thirteen communities in Provence. In that year (i.e., eight years after the Tuscan hermits had done so for the Little Union of 1244), they petitioned Pope Innocent IV - pope from 1243 to 1254 - and asked for a degree of papal recognition and officially to be assigned a rule of community living. As Innocent IV had done with the Tuscan hermits aggregated by the Little Union in 1244, he approved their use of the Rule of Augustine that a diocesan bishop in France had already assigned to them, judging it the rule most suited to their active life on behalf of the church in the growing towns and cities of Europe. In 1255 Pope Alexander IV recognised them as a mendicant order (just a year before he convoked the Grand Union of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine). He granted to the Sack Friars permission to preach publicly, as long as the bishop of the locality approved.
By 1258 they had four provinces, centred on Provence, the rest of France, Spain and England. A General Chapter took place in Paris in 1258. By 1270 they had the patronage of royalty, clergy, and wealthy laity. For example, King Louis IX of France greatly admired their adherence to penitence, and supported a number of their individual houses. By 1270, the Friars of the Sack had in twenty-five years spread from Scotland to Palestine and Majorca, formed into seven administrative provinces, and opened 111 houses.
In his last will and testament signed in 1270, this king left 400 livres apiece to the Franciscans and Dominicans, 60 livres to the Sack Friars, and 20 livres to the Carmelites and 15 livres to the Augustinians. In April 1272 they acquired the protection of the British Crown, which further spurred their expansion in England. They had settled in London in 1257, where King Henry III donated 100 Marks Sterling to them for the purchase of property. Although the exact date of arrival of the Augustinians in London is unsure, it is quite possible that the Sack Friars reached there before them.
Not only was their expansion at least as rapid as that of the Order of Saint Augustine, but also by the time of the Second Council of Lyons in 1275 the Sack Friars had over 122 houses throughout Europe, and possibly equalled the Order of Saint Augustine numerically. There is divided opinion as to whether at that time it was the Augustinians or the Sack Friars who were the third-largest mendicant order, i.e., after the Dominicans and Franciscans. By 1275 the geographical spread of the Sack Friars was extensive. In numerous cases, they had settled in towns before the Augustinians had arrived there. Instances of this include Oxford in 1260 (seven years before the Augustinians), Cambridge in 1275 (fourteen years before the Augustinians), and Dublin. In London, however, the Order of St Augustine preceded the Sack Friars. Whereas the Order of St Augustine opened a convento in London in 1252-1253, the Friars of the Sack first appeared there in 1257. They settled at a site outside of Aldersgate, but afterwards moved to Coleman Street, evidently close to a synagogue, for in 1271–72 they were said to be disturbed at their devotions by the singing of the Jews therein.
As a remedy King Henry III gave the friars the synagogue so as to increase the size of their house. He directed the evicted Jews to build another synagogue, and to be less distracting to the friars. In spite of the suppression of the Sack Friars as a result of the Council of Lyons in 1274, the little community in London managed to maintain itself until their lack of numbers forced their departure in March 1305. Unlike the Augustinians, however, the Friars of the Sack did not extend into eastern Europe, but some time before 1274 they managed to reach Acre, the fortified city of the Crusaders in the Holy Land. Their convento at Acre was later obtained by the Order of Saint Augustine. When only three Sack Friars remained there in 1290, the house was assigned to the Augustinians. But Acre was lost to the Muslims in 1291 before Augustinians could be sent there. Among their many houses were those as far afield at Paris, Amiens, Angers, Bayeux, Bourges, Chalons-sur-Marne, Lamballe, Orleans, Verdun, Rouen, Rheims, Marsailles, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Liege, Utrecht, Brussels, Basel, Augsburg, Erfurt, Cologne, Strasbourg, Ferrara, Asti, Milan, Viterbo, Mallorca, Valencia, Barcelona, Berwick (Scotland), Dublin, London, Bristol, Norwich, Lincoln, Rye, Newcastle and Lynn.
The Dominicans and the Augustinians were the chief beneficiaries of these houses of the Sack Friars. Between 1290 and 1317 the Augustinians received the houses of the Sack Friars in Angers, Bayeux, Bourges, Chalons-sur-Marne, Lamballe, Orleans, Paris, Rheims, Rouen, Verdun, and probably also Amiens, Barjols Brignoles and Figeac, and some historians also added Frejus, La Rochelle and Touyrnai, plus outside of France the houses at Barcelona in 1295, and Esslingen in 1325. The Sack Friars never founded an Italian house (convento) as far south as Rome. Not to have been an active and visible presence in the papal city may have been a political weakness for them at the deliberations of the Second Council of Lyons in 1275. And yet the Second Council of Lyons in 1275 that was a threat successfully overcome by the Augustinians was the piece of legislation that saw the Sack Friars disbanded. Their dissolution was no reflection on the reputation of the Order or the behaviour of its members; it was an administrative decision in relation to the assertion of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 that there was too great a number and proliferation of begging (i.e., mendicant) religious orders.
The Sack Friars happened to be by far the largest and most widespread of the mendicant orders dissolved as a result. There has been a hypotheses proposed, however, that the Sack Friars were less intimately entwined in the ecclesiastical establishment because, in relation to other mendicant orders, they had succeeded in remaining more overtly evangelical. Were they too pious, humble and other-worldly in ethos to fight against a decree of the Church that ordered their dissolution? Certainly, the subsequent circular letter from their Prior General to his communities was of the mood that "Rome had spoken" and, even if with heavy hearts, Rome had to be obeyed. The call was issued for obedience, and not protest.
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