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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XIII THE MENDICANT ORDERS

The Church And The Empire by D. J. Medley

CHAPTER XIII THE MENDICANT ORDERS

[Sidenote: Need for new kinds of Orders.]

At the Lateran Council in 1215 Innocent III issued a decree which practically forbade the foundation of new monastic Orders. The increase of such Orders in the name of religious reform had not always tended to the promotion of orthodoxy. Moreover, the monastic ideal was the spiritual perfection of the individual, to be gained by separation from the world; but the growth of large urban populations with the accompanying disease and misery called for a new kind of dedication to religion. There was strength in membership of an Order, and during the twelfth century there were founded alongside of the newer monastic Orders organisations devoted to social work of various kinds. Such was the origin of the Hospitallers and perhaps of the Templars also, and of a number of small Orders, most of them merely local in their work and following, which were founded all over Western Europe for care of the sick and pilgrims and for other charitable work.

A point that demanded even more immediate attention was the almost total neglect of preaching by the parochial clergy and the consequent success of the Waldensian and other heretical preachers. There were isolated examples of missionary devotion among the clergy. Fulk of Neuilly, a priest, obtained a licence from Innocent III to preach, and met with marvellous success among the Cathari until he was turned aside by Innocent's exhortation to preach a new crusade. But he died before it set out (1202). Duran de Huesca, a Catalan, conceived the idea of fighting the heretics with their own weapons, and founded the Pauperes Catholici as an Order professing poverty and engaged in missionary work. But the outbreak of the Albigensian War superseded the work of the Order by more summary methods of dealing with heretics.

[Sidenote: Dominicans.]

But these Poor Catholics were the precursors, if not the actual model of the Preaching Friars of St. Dominic. The founder was a Spaniard, who had studied long in the University of Palencia, and had become sub-prior of the cathedral of Osma. He accompanied his bishop to Rome, and thence on a mission among the Albigenses. He wandered as a mendicant through the most heretical districts of Languedoc for three years (1205-8) before the outbreak of war, holding religious discussions with leading heretics. But amid the clash of arms his activity took a different shape. Communities had been founded among the Albigenses for the reception of the daughters of dead or ruined nobles. For the protection of such and of any others of the gentle sex who returned to Catholicism, Dominic founded the monastery of Prouille (1206). This was established on the lines of houses in other Orders; and although he led a life of extreme asceticism, he did not at first contemplate imposing a rule of collective poverty upon his Order. Indeed, he received for the use of Prouille gifts of all kinds in land and movables, and even increased the possessions by purchase. Towards the end of the war Dominic established a brotherhood which should devote itself to preaching with a view to refuting heretics. In 1215 he appeared at the Lateran Council, in order to obtain the papal approbation of this new Order. Innocent III, while taking under his protection the monastery of Prouille, desired Dominic to choose an already existing rule for his new community. The Dominican legend depicts Innocent as converted to the recognition of the Order by a dream, in which he saw the Lateran Church tottering and upheld by the support of the Spanish saint. But Innocent died before Dominic had decided with his followers that they would place themselves under the rule of the Augustinian Canons; and it was from Honorius III that the Friars Preachers obtained the confirmation of their Order. A parallel story is told of the papal approval of the Franciscans; but there is no proof that St. Francis was present at the Council, nor is it likely that in the face of the decree against the foundation of new Orders the sanction of the Pope should have been given to his rule. But the meeting of the two great founders at Rome in 1216 is an historical event of great importance; for the example of the Franciscans caused the adoption of the life of poverty by the Dominicans also.

[Sidenote: Their spread.]

Immediately after the papal confirmation the Order began its work. The first followers of Dominic included natives of Spain, England, Normandy, and Lorraine, and the Friars Preachers are soon found in every country of Western and Central Europe. The nature of the work to which they set themselves made them from the beginning a congregation of intellectual men. Honorius III conferred on Dominic himself the Mastership of the Sacred Palace, which gave to him, and even more to those who succeeded him in the headship of the Order, not merely the religious instruction of the households of popes and cardinals, but also the censorship of books. Paris, the headquarters of the scholastic theology, and Bologna, the great law school of the Middle Ages, became at once the chief seats of training. The Dominicans spread so rapidly that at the death of their founder in 1221 they possessed sixty houses, which had just been divided into eight provinces. To these four were subsequently added. The death of Dominic, like his life, has been almost overwhelmed in the miraculous; but for whatever reason, it was not until thirteen years after his death that he was enrolled among the recognised saints of the Church, although the honour of canonisation had been paid to St. Francis eight years earlier and within two years of his death.

[Sidenote: Popularity of the friars.]

Jealousy between the conventual and the parochial clergy had been of long standing: it had been based upon the exemption of monks from the jurisdiction of the local Church. The monks had, however, been definitely warned off themselves taking part in parochial work. But the friars began with a missionary purpose; and in 1227 Gregory IX, who as Cardinal Ugolino had been Protector of the Franciscans, conferred on both Orders the right not only of preaching, but also of hearing confessions and granting absolution everywhere. The rules of the Orders forbade them to preach in a church without the leave of the parish priest; but they ignored this prohibition, set up their own altars, at which a papal privilege allowed them to celebrate Mass, and not only superseded the lazy secular clergy in all the work of the cure of souls, but deprived them of the fees which were a chief source of their income. The secular clergy bitterly resented the presence of the intruders; but the Pope favoured the friars and heaped privileges upon them, since they formed an international body easy to mobilise for use against the hierarchy, and able to be used for transmitting and executing papal orders. The people also welcomed them, because, at first at any rate, they worked for their daily bread, and were prevented by their vow of poverty from seeking endowments: while the peripatetic character of his life made the friar popular as a confessor who could know nothing about his penitents.

[Sidenote: Dominicans and University of Paris.]

The characteristic work of the Dominicans as preachers and teachers rather determined the particular form which the struggle should assume between them and the seculars. The University of Paris welcomed the Dominicans on their first arrival; the new-comers soon fixed themselves in the Hospital of St. Jacques (the site of the Jacobin Club of 1789), on University ground, and many members of the University became affiliated to their Order. In 1229 the privileges of the University were violated by the municipality, and, since the Crown would give no redress, the whole body of masters and students dispersed themselves among different provincial towns. In 1231 a bull of Gregory IX confirmed their privileges and brought them back to Paris. But during their absence the Dominicans, with the approval of the Bishop, admitted scholars to their house of St. Jacques and appointed their own teachers; while several of the most famous secular teachers took the Dominican habit. Thus after 1231 there were in the University several theological chairs occupied by Mendicants. The prosperity and aggressiveness of the friars, and political and doctrinal differences between them and the seculars, caused great tension. Not without reason the seculars complained that they were likely to be deprived of all the theological teaching. Matters came to an issue in 1253, when, on the murder of a scholar by the municipal officers, the University in accordance with its privileges proclaimed a cessation or suspension of the classes. In this act the Mendicants refused to join without the papal sanction. The University attempted to expel them from the teaching body, and under the leadership of William of St. Amour it so far prevailed at Rome that Innocent IV, for whatever reason, issued the |terrible| bull Etsi Animarum, by which the Mendicants were deprived at one blow of all the privileges which had given them the power of interfering in parochial life. But in the legend of the Order Innocent was prayed to death by the revengeful friars. Anyhow, his death (1254) saved the situation, since his successor, Alexander IV, declared unreservedly for them. The University was forced to receive them, and to acknowledge their rights of preaching and hearing confessions. On the other hand, it was arranged under Urban IV that the number of theological chairs to be held by Mendicant teachers, whose representatives at the moment were Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura, should be limited to three. But the war against the Mendicants continued, and the bullying to which the University was subjected, especially by Benedict Gaetani, the papal legate, in 1290, accounts perhaps for the support given by the University to Philip IV in his quarrel with Boniface VIII, and for the political action of the University at a later date.

[Sidenote: Friars and Inquisition.]

The spread of heresy and the feeble attempts of the bishops to use the machinery at their disposal for dealing with it, caused the gradual growth of the system known as the Papal Inquisition. This was feasible, partly because the civil government, led by Frederick II, were enacting severe laws against heresy, but chiefly because in the new Mendicant Orders there were now to be found men of sufficient knowledge and training to cope with the difficulty of unmasking heresy. But it is a mistake to suppose that the inquisitorial work was a perquisite of the Dominicans. Both Orders alike were employed by the Papacy in the unsavoury duty, although ultimately the Dominicans took the larger share. For the service of the wretched, to which the Franciscans primarily devoted themselves, soon necessitated a study of medicine in order to cope with disease and a study of theology in order to deal with heresy. If as a body they never came to represent learning like the Dominicans, the names of Bonaventura, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus sufficiently prove that there was no necessary antagonism between learning and the Franciscan ideal.

[Sidenote: St. Francis.]

The modern and the Protestant world apparently finds the life of St. Francis as interesting and wonderful as his contemporaries found it. It seems no exaggeration to say that |no human creature since Christ has more fully incarnated the ideal of Christianity| than he. Even the extravagances of himself and some of his followers, scarcely exaggerated by the mass of legends which has grown up around him and the Order, cannot conceal the real beauty of his life; while they bear eloquent witness not only to the impression which he made on his own and succeeding generations, but also to the fact of his attempt to realise the standard set up by Christ for human imitation. His devotion to the wretched and the outcast, especially the lepers; his deep humility; his childlike faith and absolute obedience, were the outcome of a desire to attain to the simplicity of Christ and the Apostles. But the essence of his system lay in the idealisation of poverty as good in itself and the best of all good things. Poverty was, indeed, the |corner-stone on which he founded the Order.| But this did not imply sadness, which St. Francis considered one of the most potent weapons of the devil. Sociability, cheerfulness, hopefulness were characteristics of himself and of the Order in its early days. Here it is impossible to tell the fascinating story of his own life, to describe his own graphic preaching, or to illustrate his instinctive sympathy with animal life. But it must be noted that his passionate love for Christ the Sufferer caused him to desire to reproduce in detail the last hours of the Saviour's life on earth, until the ecstasies may have ended in producing those physical marks of the crucifixion upon the body known as the Stigmata. The evidence is conflicting and not above suspicion, and the Dominicans always treated the claim with ridicule. Certainly the Franciscan Order exalted their founder with an extravagance which ultimately (1385) ended in the production of a Book of Conformities, some forty in number, in which, by implication, the simple friar becomes a second if not a rival Christ.

It was in 1210 that Francis and the Brotherhood of Penitents which he had founded at Assisi appeared in Rome, and obtained from Innocent III a verbal confirmation of their rule and authority to preach. This rule seems to have comprised nothing more than certain passages of Scripture enjoining a life of poverty. The first disciples of Francis were drawn from a variety of social classes, and a revelation from God is said to have decided him and his little company to abandon their first notion of a contemplative life in favour of one of active service along evangelical lines. The missionary work began at once, and they wandered in couples through Italy, finding their way quickly into France, England, Germany, and all other European lands.

[Sidenote: Franciscan Rule.]

The future organisation of the Order was determined by a definitive Rule sanctioned by Honorius III in 1223. Francis refused to alter any of the clauses at the Pope's request, asserting that the Rule was not his, but Christ's; whence it became a tradition of the Order that the Rule had been divinely inspired. It was strictly enjoined that the brethren should possess no property, should receive no money even through a third person, and that all who were able to labour should do so in return not for money, but for necessaries for themselves and their brethren. And as if these plain directions were not enough, St. Francis in his will enjoins that the words of the Rule are to be understood |simply and absolutely, without gloss,| and to be observed to the end.

[Sidenote: Organization]

The organisation aimed at being non-monastic; the houses, which should be mere headquarters of the simplest kind, were placed under guardians who had neither the title nor the powers of the monastic abbot, and were grouped into provinces; while the provincial ministers were responsible to the General Minister stationed at Assisi, who was himself chosen by the General Chapter of the provincials and guardians called every three years, and could also be deposed by them. A Cardinal watched the interests of the Order at Rome. The rapid spread of the Franciscans is shown from the fact that the first General Chapter in 1221 is said to have been attended by several thousand members, while in 1260, when Bonaventura as General reorganised the arrangements, a division was made into 33 provinces and 3 vicariates which included in all 182 guardianships. England, for example, comprised 7 guardianships with 49 houses and 1242 friars.

The Order included other branches than the fully professed friars. Some time before 1216 a sisterhood was added in the Order of St. Claire under a noble maiden of Assisi, who put herself under the guidance of Francis and received from Pope Innocent for herself and her sisters the |privilege of poverty.| They observed the Franciscan Rule in all its strictness, and their founder was canonised in 1255, two years after her death.

[Sidenote: Tertiaries.]

A very distinctive feature of the Franciscans is the organisation officially known as the Brothers and Sisters of Penitence, but more popularly described as the Tertiaries of the Order. The affiliation of laymen and women to religious Orders was no new thing. But the laity of both sexes who attached themselves by bonds of brotherhood and in associations for prayer to the great monasteries were mostly well-born and wealthy, prospective if not actual patrons. The Franciscan Tertiaries were as democratic as the Order itself. The papal sanction was given in 1221. The members were required to live the ordinary daily life in the world under certain restrictions. In addition to the obligations of religion and morality, they were required to dress simply and to avoid certain ways of amusement, while they were forbidden to carry weapons except for the defence of their Church and their land. The Dominicans possessed a similar organisation under the name of Militia Jesu Christi, the Soldiery of Christ. In the case of both Orders this close contact with the laity irrespective of class was a source of great strength and influence. Many, from royal personages downwards, enrolled themselves among the Tertiaries or hoped to assure an entrance to heaven by assuming the garb of a friar upon the death-bed.

[Sidenote: Friars as missionaries to the heathen.]

Since both Orders were founded with a missionary purpose, it is not surprising to find that at a very early date they extended their efforts beyond Europe. No real distinction of sphere can be profitably made; but perhaps the Dominican work lay chiefly among heretics, while the Franciscans devoted the greater attention to the heathen. Certainly St. Francis himself did not deal with heretics as such. He did, however, try to convert the Mohammedans and became for a while a prisoner in the hands of the Sultan of Egypt. Both Orders established houses in Palestine and both Orders were employed in embassies to the Mongols. The Dominicans brought back the Jacobite Church of the East into communion with Rome, while the Franciscans won King Haiton of Armenia, who entered their Order. Stories of martyrdom were frequent. At any rate, the friars were among the most enterprising of mediaeval travellers, and were the first to bring large portions of the Eastern world into contact with the West.

[Sidenote: Change from original principle.]

The story of the Dominican Order in the thirteenth century is one of continual progress. It was devoted to poverty no less than its companion Order. But circumstances soon showed that this was a principle which in its strictness made too great a demand upon human nature. Relaxation of the Rules was obtained from more than one pope; the popularity of the Orders brought them great wealth, and land and other property was held by municipalities and other third parties for the use of the friars. Their houses and their churches became as magnificent as those of the monks. But while this grave departure from the original ideal gave rise to no qualms among the more worldly and accommodating Dominicans, it rent asunder the whole Franciscan Order in a quarrel which forms perhaps the most interesting and important episode in the religious history of the Middle Ages.

[Sidenote: Development of extreme views among Franciscans.]

The conflict began at once after St. Francis' death. His successor as General of the Order, Elias of Cortona, desired to supersede the democratic constitution of the Order in favour of a despotic rule, and obtained from Gregory IX a relaxation of the strict rule of poverty: while he raised over the remains of the founder at Assisi a magnificent church which the saint would have repudiated. The bitter complaints of the Franciscans who wished to observe the Rule in the spirit of their founder obliged the Pope to depose Elias, who took refuge at the Court of Frederick II. But the tendency towards relaxation continued and was favoured by the Papacy. For the Spirituals -- those who clung to the strict Rule and regarded it as a direct revelation to St. Francis -- by the severity of their practices tended to isolate themselves from the life around them and so to escape the discipline of the Church. In addition to this they became involved in heresy by identifying themselves with the prophecies attached to the name of Joachim de Flore. He was the Abbot of a Calabrian monastery, who founded an Order at the end of the twelfth century. He depicted the history of mankind as composed of three periods -- the first under the dispensation of the Father ending at the birth of Christ; the second under the Son, which by various calculations he determined would end in 1260; and the third ruled by the Holy Ghost, in which the Eucharist, which had itself superseded the paschal lamb, should give way to some new means of grace. Joachim also foretold the rise of a new monastic order which should convert the world, and this the Franciscans concluded to mean themselves. Curiously enough, the Church did not condemn Joachim for his prophecies: popes even encouraged him to write. In 1254 there appeared in Paris a book entitled the Introduction to the Everlasting Gospel, a name taken from a passage of the Revelation (xiv.6). We know it only from the denunciations of its enemies; but it was apparently intended to consist of three undoubted works of Joachim with explanatory glosses and an introduction. These were the work of Friar Gerard of Borgo-san-Donnino, who is represented as having gone beyond the views of the Calabrian prophet. He asserted that about the year 1200 the spirit of life had left the Old and New Testaments in order to pass into the Everlasting Gospel, and that this new scripture, of which the text was composed of Joachim's three books, was a new revelation which did not, as Joachim held, contain the mystical interpretation of the Bible, but actually replaced and effaced the Law of Christ as that had effaced the Law of Moses. It is impossible to tell how far the author represented the views of all the Spirituals. A share in the composition was ascribed to the Franciscan General John of Parma (1248-57), who represented the purest Franciscan tradition, and was chiefly responsible for the more extravagant forms of the Franciscan legend. He was a gentle mystic, and his belief in the prophetical utterances of the age probably did not go beyond the actual works of Joachim. But his sympathy encouraged the extreme Joachites, who manufactured and passed from hand to hand a large number of spurious prophetical writings which were attributed to Joachim.

[Sidenote: Popular manifestations.]

Moreover, the extravagances of the Spirituals were no isolated outburst of religious liberty. In 1251 there appeared in France an elderly preacher, known as the Hungarian, who, professing a revelation from the Virgin Mary and preaching a social revolution, led a band of peasants and rioters through country, until the leader was killed in a scuffle and his followers were dispersed. In 1260 Italy was startled by processions of persons of all classes and ages, stripped to the waist, who flogged themselves at intervals in penance for their sins. These movements of the Pasteauroux and the Flagellants were merely the best known among many which bore witness to the restlessness and yearning of the age.

[Sidenote: Papal action and its effect.]

But despite the manifest danger of these movements the Papacy acted with great caution. In 1255 a tribunal of three Cardinals at Anagni investigated the charges against Gerard's book. Joachim's orthodoxy remained unquestioned the Everlasting Gospel was condemned, but the Bishop of Paris was told not to annoy the Franciscans. The most important result was that John of Parma was deposed by the General Chapter acting under the influence of the Conventual Franciscans, who welcomed the relaxations of the severe Rule. For their new head was Bonaventura, himself a mystic; but the fact that he had taken the place of their beau ideal, that he distrusted the rule of absolute poverty as tending to weaken the social worth of the Franciscan body, and that he was a recognised leader in the Church -- all increased the alienation of the Spirituals from the Church and suggested to their minds the idea of schism.

[Sidenote: Chances of separation.]

On the other hand, the Conventuals met the austere intolerance of the extreme party by persecution. The most interesting victim of this religious rancour was Peter John, the son of Olive, a French friar, whose works were condemned more than once, although he died quietly in 1298. He allowed to the Franciscans only the sustenance necessary for daily life and the furniture for the celebration of divine service. In his view the Roman Church was Babylon, and the Rule of St. Francis was the law of the Gospel. For those who held such views there was no place in the Roman Church. The Spirituals began to seek relief in a return to the eremitic life. But the sudden elevation of a hermit of South Italy to the Papacy in the person of Celestine V seemed to present to these dreamers the chance of the accomplishment of the new Gospel. His hopeless failure and abdication turned their thoughts more than ever to separation from the Church. Celestine, who had gathered some of the extreme Franciscans into a community of his own, is said to have released them from obedience to the Franciscan Order. In any case, Boniface VIII not only secured the ex-Pope, but also attempted to exterminate his followers. So far the question at issue had been a disciplinary question which concerned the Franciscan Order -- whether for the Order absolute poverty was of the essence of the Rule. The time was at hand when the question would assume a doctrinal form, and the Church at large would be called upon to decide whether absolute poverty was an article of the Christian faith.

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