chapter  XII
11 Pages

THE FRIARS

Religious enthusiasm in the twelfth century had produced a monastic renaissance: in the thirteenth century it led to the work of the friars (fratres or brothers). They exercised an immense influence on popular religion, social conditions, and finally; the universities and learning. The reasons for their appearance and success at this stage of Christian history are of interest. Religious enthusiasm and the character of S.Francis, whom the middle ages considered the most perfect Christian since Christ, do not fully account for it, although they gave the movement its peculiar grace and character. Four other circumstances determined their success. First, the friars’ movement was democratic compared to the monastic. The monks’ life about 1200 was held to be the most perfect life, yet a certain contrast was perceptible between the lives of the monks and those of the early Christians: not the contrast that a modern mind would find first, between an enclosed life, and one lived in the world, but that between the socially great and the humble. The monks belonged to the upper classes and had upper class sympathies. Even the Cistercians were thriving agricultural communities. Yet the apostles and first Christians had been fishermen and peasants. The personnel of the friars was relatively democratic: their leaders might be of the merchant class, or even noble, but the rank and file were men of no patrimony. Secondly, the parochial system (see p. 198) at the time

failed to reach the poor of the towns; it had been designed for the country and left largely untouched the slums that clustered outside the walls of a medieval century town. Moreover, many of the country clergy were drawn from the peasant class, and had little learning or specific training. Thirdly, the remedy of lay preaching and lay missions was always distrusted in the middle ages, because the mass of the people could not read or write, and illiterate lay preachers tended to produce erratic heresy. For this reason, canon law forbade laymen to preach, or teach the faith. Fourthly the friars owed the papal approval of their rules to the statesmanship of Innocent III, although they were in these early days mainly laymen, not clerks, and nevertheless preached. He dealt skilfully with them, because he had just failed to deal skilfully enough with the Waldensians, who from being a sort of devout gild of lay people within the church, had developed into proscribed heretics (see p. 220). His experience with the Waldensians lent him patience and imagination in dealing with the early friars: and possibly lent them also to S.Francis in his dealings with the hierarchy.