Mendicant orders are, primarily, certain Christian religious orders that have adopted a lifestyle of poverty, traveling, and living in urban areas for purposes of preaching, evangelism, and ministry, especially to the poor. At their foundation these orders rejected the previously established monastic model. This foresaw living in one stable, isolated community where members worked at a trade and owned property in common, including land, buildings and other wealth. By contrast, the mendicants avoided owning property, did not work at a trade, and embraced a poor, often itinerant lifestyle. They depended for their survival on the goodwill of the people to whom they preached.
The term „mendicant” is also used with reference to some non-Christian religions to denote holy persons committed to an ascetic lifestyle, which may include members of religious orders and individual holy persons.
Origins of the friars
What is called the mendicant movement in Church history arose primarily in the 13th century in Western Europe. Until that time the monks of Europe worked at their trade in their monastery. 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.
With the rise of Western monasticism, monasteries attracted not only individuals aspiring to become monks and nuns, but also property, buildings and hence riches. In the view of some, the idea that Christ came down to earth poor and that the true Church must be the church of the poor clashed with this phenomenon. The desire for true Christian authenticity was thus seen by some to contrast to the empirical reality of the Church.
The twelfth century saw great changes in western Europe. As commerce revived, urban centers arose and with them an urban middle class. New directions in spirituality were called for. Church reform became a major theme of the cultural revival of this era. In response to this, there emerged the new mendicant orders founded by Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) and Dominic Guzman (c.1170–1221).
The mendicant friars were bound by a vow of poverty and dedicated to an ascetic way of life, renouncing property and travelling the world to preach. Their survival was dependent upon the good will and material support of their listeners. It was this way of life that gave them their name, „mendicant”, derived from the Latin mendicare, meaning „to beg”.
The mendicant movement had started in France and Italy and became popular in the poorer towns and cities of Europe at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The refusal of the mendicants to own property and therefore to pay taxes was seen as threatening the stability of the established Church which was then planning a crusade, to be financed by tithes. For this and other reasons some mendicant orders were officially suppressed by Pope Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 and others were reformed, so as to be capable of contributing funds or men to support the war effort.
While on a visit to southern France, Saint Dominic met the Albigensians, a religious sect which had a great popularity partly because of the economic situation of the times. Dominic, who had begun as a secular canon, responded to a desperate need for informed preaching by founding the Order of Preachers and thus embarking on a new form of religious life, the life of the friar. Before this time, religious life had been monastic, but with Dominic the secluded monastery gave way to priories in the cities. By the time of his death in 1221, the Order had spread through Western Europe, hundreds of young men had joined, and the presence of the Order of Preachers was felt at the major universities of the time.
Francis came to this manner of life through a period of personal conversion. The Franciscans spread far and wide the devotion to the humanity of Christ, with the commitment to imitate the Lord. Many of them were priests and men of learning whose contributions were notable in the rapid evolution and contemporary relevance of the movement. Notable Franciscans include Anthony of Padua, who were inspirations to the formation of Christian mendicant traditions.
With deep insight the Franciscans and Dominicans put into practice a pastoral strategy suited to the social changes. The emergence of urban centers meant concentrated numbers of the homeless and the sick. This created problems for the parish churches who found themselves unable to address these issues. Since many people were moving from the countryside to the cities, they no longer built their convents in rural districts but rather in urban zones.
In another innovation, the mendicant orders relinquished their principle of stability, a classical principle of ancient monasticism, opting for a different approach. Unlike the Benedictine monks, the mendicants were not permanently attached to any one particular convent and to its abbot. Because the orders’ primary aim was the evangelization of the masses, the church granted them freedom from the jurisdiction of the bishops and they travelled about to convert or reinforce faith. The freedom of mendicancy allowed Franciscans and Dominicans mobility. Since they were not tied to monasteries or territorial parishes, they were free to take the gospel into the streets, to preach, hear confessions and minister to people wherever they were. Friars Minor and Preachers travelled with missionary zeal from one place to another.
Consequently, they organized themselves differently in comparison with the majority of monastic orders. Instead of the traditional autonomy that every monastery enjoyed, they gave greater importance to the order as such and to the Superior General, as well as to the structure of the order Provinces. Their flexibility enabled them to send out the most suitable friars on specific missions, and the mendicant orders reached North Africa, the Middle East and Northern Europe.
As students and professors, Friars Minor and Friars Preacher, Franciscans and Dominicans, entered the leading universities of the time, set up study centres, produced texts of great value and were protagonists of scholastic theology in its best period and had an important effect on the development of thought. The great thinkers, St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, were mendicants.
In all the great cities of western Europe, friaries were established, and in the universities theological chairs were held by Dominicans and Franciscans. Later in the 13th century they were joined by the mendicant orders of Carmelites, Augustinian Hermits, and Servites.
They attracted a significant level of patronage, as much from townsfolk as aristocrats. Their focus of operation rapidly centered on towns where population growth historically outstripped the provision of rural parishes. Most medieval towns in Western Europe of any size came to possess houses of one or more of the major orders of friars. Some of their churches came to be built on grand scale with large spaces devoted to preaching, something of a specialty among the mendicant orders.
Early mendicant orders
Despite conforming to a recognizable model, the mendicant orders of friars had origins that were generally very different. The original mendicant orders of friars in the Church in the Middle Ages were the
- Dominicans – Order of Preachers, commonly called the Black Friars, founded 1215.
- Franciscans – who in modern times include the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M.); the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (O.F.M. Conv.), who are commonly known as the Grey Friars; the Capuchins (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin) (O.F.M. Cap.), founded 1209; and the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, whose origins lie in the 15th century.
- Augustinians – Hermits of St. Augustine, commonly called the Austin Friars, various loosely organized groups of hermits who accepted the Augustinian rule 1244–1256, in order to fall under the provisions of the decree „Ne nimium” of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. In modern times two reform groups, the Augustinian Recollects and the Discalced Augustinians, exist as separate orders.
- Carmelites – Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Carmel, commonly known as the White Friars, a groups of hermits on Mount Carmel in the Crusader states, who adopted a rule sometime between 1206 and 1214, before they began migrating to Western Europe around 1238 In modern times a reform group, the Discalced Carmelites, founded 1593, exists as a separate order.
The Second Council of Lyons (1274) recognized these as the four „major” mendicant orders, and suppressed certain others. The Council of Trent loosened the restrictions on their owning property. Afterwards, except for the Franciscans and their offshoot the Capuchins, members of the orders were permitted to own property collectively as do monks.
Other mendicant orders
The other mendicant orders recognized by the Holy See today are the
- Trinitarians – Order of the Most Blessed Trinity, sometimes called the Red Friars, founded 1193.
- Mercedarians – Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, founded 1218; and after a reform Discalced Mercedarians.
- Servites – Order of Servants of Mary, founded 1233 by the Seven Holy Men of Florence, Italy. The order was suppressed by the Second Council of Lyon in 1272, on the basis of the restrictions in the decree „Ne nimium” of 1215; the suppression was not fully enforced and was subsequently overturned by Pope Benedict XI in his Bull, „Dum levamus”, of 11 February 1304.
- Minims – Hermits of St. Francis of Paola, founded 1436.
- Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of Saint John of God – founded in 1572 by Saint John of God for the care of the sick.
- Order of Bethlehemite Brothers, founded in Guatemala in 1653 and refounded in 1984.
Like the monastic orders, many of the mendicant orders, especially the larger ones, underwent splits and reform efforts, forming offshoots, permanent or otherwise, some of which are mentioned in the lists given above.
Former mendicant orders
Mendicant orders that formerly existed but are now extinct, and orders which for a time were classed as mendicant orders but now no longer are.
Extinct mendicant orders
- Ambrosians or Fratres sancti Ambrosii ad Nemus, existed before 1378, suppressed by Pope Innocent X in 1650.
- Fraticelli of Monte Malbe, founded at Monte Malbe near Perugia in Italy in the 14th century, by the end of the century they had dispersed.
- Hospitallers of San Hipólito (Saint Hippolytus) or Brothers of Charity of de San Hipólito were founded in Mexico and approved by Rome as a mendicant order in 1700. In the 18th century they were absorbed by the Brothers Hospitaller of Saint John of God.
- Jesuati, or Clerici apostolici Sancti Hieronymim, Apostolic Clerics of Saint Jerome, founded in 1360, suppressed by Pope Clement IXin 1668.
- Saccati or Friars of the Sack (Fratres Saccati), known also variously as Brothers of Penitence and perhaps identical with the Boni Homines, Bonshommes or Bones-homes, whose history is obscure.
- Crutched Friars or Fratres Cruciferi (cross-bearing friars) or Crossed Friars, Crouched Friars or Croziers, named after the staff they carried which was surmounted by a crucifix, existed by 1100, suppressed by Pope Alexander VII in 1656.
- Scalzetti, founded in the 18th century, suppressed by Pope Pius XI in 1935.
Orders no longer mendicant
- Jesuits or Society of Jesus, founded in 1540, and for a time considered a mendicant order, before being classed instead as an Order of Clerks Regular.
Non-Christian mendicant orders
The term „mendicant” may also be used to refer to other non-Catholic and non-Christian ascetics, such as Buddhist monks and Hindusannyasis. The Pali scriptures of Theravada Buddhism use the term bhikkhu for mendicant, and in Mahayana scriptures, the equivalent Sanskrit term bhikṣu is used. Mendicant traditions in Islam are found in Sufism and Dervishes.