The coming of the Friars

As Western Europe passed on into the thirteenth century, new forms of monasti-cism emerged. Many of the old ones continued. The Benedictine rule was still standard. However, the impulse which produced monasticism gave evidence of its amazing creativity in bringing into being a new type of movement which, while clearly in the monastic stream and deeply indebted to the past, had in it much that was novel. This displayed itself in what are called the friars or the mendicant orders. They are usually thought of as four in number, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, and the Augustinians. These were known respectively as the Brothers Minor or Grey Friars, the Preachers or Black Friars, the White Friars, and the Austin Friars. To these four were added a few similar but much smaller bodies. They all combined the monastic life and its ideals of poverty, chastity, obedience, and community living with preaching to those outside their fellowship. They were missionaries both to the nominal Christians of Western Europe and to non-Christians in various parts of the globe. This was especially true of the two largest, the Franciscans and Dominicans. To this day these two orders have had a leading part in the world-wide extension of the Roman Catholic form of the faith. The Franciscans have vied with a much younger order, the Society of Jesus, in providing the Roman Catholic Church with a larger number of missionaries than has any other of the orders and societies.

The emergence of the mendicant orders was associated with the growth of cities in Western Europe. By the thirteenth century that part of the world was beginning to move out of the almost exclusively agricultural economy which had followed the decline of the Roman Empire and the disappearance of the urban civilization which had characterized that realm. Cities were once more appearing. It was to deepening the religious life of the populace of the cities and towns that the friars devoted much of their energy. Most of the earlier monasteries had chosen solitude and centres remote from the contaminating influences of the world. In contrast, the mendicant orders sought the places where men congregated and endeavoured to bring the Gospel to them there. The older monasteries were associated with a prevailing rural and feudal milieu. The mendicant orders flourished in the rapidly growing urban populations.

Here was a striking enlargement of the monastic movement. It had been foreshadowed by the participation of outstanding monks, among them Lanfranc, Anselm, and Bernard of Clairvaux, in the affairs of the Church and of the secular world. Some Benedictine monasteries had conducted schools for youths who did not take their vows and through their guest rooms had given hospitality to many from the world. The Templars and Hospitallers were examples of orders which did not remain within their cloisters but instead gave themselves to the physical care of others. Bernard of Menthon had inaugurated a community which served travellers across the Alpine pass which bears his name. The Trinitarians were ransoming captives. The Augustinian Canons and especially the Premonstratensians had been moving in the direction of service to the world outside monastic walls. The friars were a further and substantial stage. The trend was to be continued. In subsequent centuries, as we are to see, monastic orders and congregations arose, either of men or of women, who gave themselves primarily to teaching and nursing. Yet several orders whose houses cut themselves off from the world persisted and from time to time new ones like them came into being. Much more than in the Eastern Churches, in the West monasticism developed many and varied forms. Here was evidence of the amazing vitality and of the ability of Christianity to adapt itself to fresh environments.

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