The Friars: Were They a Response to the Distinctive Religious Needs of Urban Society?

DURING the course of this article on the friars, I will be examining the two main branches of this distinctive ecclesiastical category – the Franciscans and the Dominicans – and looking at what really distinguished them from their monastic contemporaries. Secondly, I will attempt to pinpoint the general attitude towards religion in thirteenth-century English society and try to determine precisely how the friars tried to satisfy the most prominent religious needs of those whom they had undertaken to serve. Finally, I will conclude by deciding whether the friars themselves can be regarded as having represented an adequate response to such needs.

Between 1220 and 1223, St. Francis – the great spiritual mentor of the Franciscan Order – designed a new monastic Rule which was based heavily upon poverty and expressed within three specific vows. The emerging Franciscans were radically different to their contemporaries and those who sought to aspire to the Rule of St. Francis had to relinquish all personal possessions. On the other hand, the Franciscan brothers were allowed to reside in some form of accommodation, although food and other means of basic sustenance were kept to an absolute minimum in terms of both quantity and quality. According to the Rule itself, the friars were to

“appropriate nothing to themselves, neither house, nor place, nor anything. And, as pilgrims and strangers in this world (…) let them go confidently in quest of alms.” [1]

Consequently, all friars were forced to depend upon the charitable – albeit often unpredictable – nature of the Christian faithful. On September 10th, 1224, a group of nine friars (three of them Italian) arrived barefoot and penniless in England, establishing their first settlement at Canterbury in a house borrowed from the town corporation before turning their attention to the intellectual centres of both London and Oxford.

Whilst by 1226 there were no more than five Franciscan houses in England, during the next few years the Order spread rapidly with new houses appearing in urban centres like Hereford (1228), Bristol, Gloucester, Leicester, Nottingham, Salisbury And Stamford (each prior to 1230), Lincoln and King’s Lynn (1230), Chichester (1232), Carlisle and Reading (1233), Coventry (1234), Southampton (before 1235), Ipswich (before 1236), Colchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne (before 1237), and Lichfield (1237).

Initially, however, the Franciscans found themselves restricted by an unfortunate paradox. According to C. H. Lawrence, attempts

“to reconcile the practical needs of a pastoral ministry involved heroic gymnastics of conscience. How could the friars preach and administer the sacraments if they possessed no churches? How could preachers and friars be educated for their task if they had no books and no rooms in which to study? And how could any of these essentials be acquired without funds?” [2]

Herein lay the very crux of the Franciscan dilemma, for in 1223 Pope Honorius III had sanctioned the Regula Bullata in which he permitted individuals to follow the strict ascetic code which had been drawn up by St. Francis himself. Finally, however, in 1230 the paradox was resolved when Pope Gregory IX attached his own interpretation to the Rule and allowed the Franciscans to appoint a special trustee (nuntius) to receive and control money and property on their behalf. This privilege was known as the Quo Elongati and “represents the inevitable retreat from St. Francis’s uncompromising ideal of absolute poverty.”[3] Indeed, whilst I will examine both the Dominicans and the more practical aspects of the Franciscan Order in due course, it is worth noting that further deviation from the Rule of St. Francis occurred as the two orders became embroiled in a competition for souls. In London and Oxford, for example, the Franciscans found themselves competing with their brotherly contemporaries due to the fact that “they came up against an order that, like them, was dedicated to poverty and preaching, but which was entirely clerical and had a clearly defined missionary purpose and a fully articulated representative constitution [see below] of a kind that St. Francis had never envisaged.”[4] This state of affairs inevitably led to much criticism of the Franciscans, not least because Brother Elias – the very man whom St. Francis had appointed to safeguard the development of the Franciscan Order itself – was attacked for leading a lifestyle which was far from conducive with the aims and objectives of his patriarch. Indeed, whilst one must come to terms with the ecclesiastical rivalries of the day, it would be foolish to completely overlook the accusations relating to “his plump palfreys, his retinue of page-boys, and the private cook who accompanied him on his travels.”[5]

Despite its apparent similarities, the Dominican Order had not set out to imitate the Franciscans and had developed independently. It has also been noted that whilst SS. Francis and Dominic certainly admired one another and may even have met in Rome,

“the mendicant idea was adopted by Dominic and Diego independently at a time when they could scarcely have heard of Francis. To them it was simply the practical application of the twelfth-century notion of the vita apostolica, which meant a life dedicated to voluntary poverty and evangelism.” [6]

In this sense, at least, the emergence of the Dominicans can be regarded as a natural development which had evolved simultaneously with the gradual urbanisation of Europe. On the other hand, perhaps this is an over-simplification which ignores the “carefully thought-out”[7] complexities of the Dominican Constitutions, a set of religious principles which had been cleverly designed to suit the needs of the age and which can hardly be dismissed as some form of spontaneous reaction. The Constitutions tell us a great deal and, whilst The First Distinction is designed to regulate the personal lives of the preachers themselves and is based upon the authority of the Church, The Second Distinction relates to the organisational and educational tenets of Dominican life in general and orders its adherents to shun all manual labour and concentrate their efforts upon a series of more intellectually stimulating pursuits. In 1221, Gilbert de Fresney led a mission of thirteen preachers to England and was met by the Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches. Consequently, Archbishop Langton asked the missionaries to reside at Canterbury although Gilbert was eager to press on firstly to London and then to Oxford. It became patently obvious that the Dominican Order was keen to ingratiate itself with the English intelligentsia, and “[i]t was among the masters and students of the newly fledged European universities that the Preachers found their most outstanding recruits.”[8] Laurence Goulder believes that “Dominicans or the order of Preachers – to give these friars their official title – were brought into being to meet an emergency.”[9] Indeed, there is no reason to doubt that the Order (whose adherents were to become known as the Black Friars) was imported into England for this very purpose. But what was the distinctive role of the friars themselves? Friars differed from monks in that the latter were attached to a specific community in which they led very cloistered lives, having no direct contact with the secular world. The friar, on the other hand, belonged to no particular monastic house but to a general order, and worked as an individual in the secular world. In short, as far as the friar is concerned

“the exercise of the ministry is an important part of his vocation, and the life of the cloister with its round of liturgical worship is never an end in itself, but a preparation for this ministry. A friar joins an order, not a monastery, and can be sent wherever his superior judges fitting.” [10]

Indeed, it was the great mobility of the friars which eventually led to their ultimate success. An achievement, of course, which had been prophetically revealed in the symbolic dream which had directly inspired Pope Innocent III’s original endorsement of the humble friar. But what did the friars themselves consider to be the distinct religious needs of urban society? Firstly, there is little doubt that the friars were called upon to help diminish the growing atmosphere of scepticism in England towards religious values. The fact that the Church had significantly matured throughout the rest of the European Continent meant that complacency was now beginning to have an increasingly detrimental effect on the laity, and a thick fog of heretical disobedience was now undermining the religious tenets of piety and fidelity. Perhaps Laurence Goulder can provide us with the most fitting account of this process of religious decline: “Amongst the more intelligent, there was much speculation and an earnest desire to be sure of the facts upon which Christianity was founded. The vast expansion of trade had brought merchants into contact with other philosophies and other religions. New ideas began to penetrate into the Catholic world.”[11]

More importantly, however, “city populations provided the most fertile seed-bed for religious dissent and anti-clericalism.”[12] The friars were able to counteract this process by embarking upon a vigorous campaign of practical activism. This activity was preaching, and the way in which it was propagated in the streets and lecture halls of England would be enough to rival any modern-day evangelical movement. Indeed, perhaps the oratorical prowess of the friars anticipated the likes of Hitler, Lenin and other twentieth-century political demagogues? One thing is certain. The friars managed to bring people of all classes under their influence and a legion of simple friars soon began to spring up around the country.

Preaching was perfectly suited to the needs of urban society because it

“had never been a necessary accomplishment of the parish priest, monks taught by example not by exultation, and the friars offered something most men had never experienced before, the exhilaration which can come from listening to a trained speaker preaching from both heart and head.” [13]

Indeed, the fact that people actually welcomed the friars also played an important part in their success. As John Moorman explains: “With the townsfolk the friars seem to have been universally popular in the early days.”[14]

The second area in which the friars attempted to counteract the growing scepticism of thirteenth-century English society was education, and they made a determined effort to establish schools and libraries. As far as the Church was concerned, it was necessary to concentrate upon winning the war of ideas lest more intellectual folk “be led astray by the novelty of Arabic philosophy or be disturbed by the rumour that Aristotle had solved all the problems of human existence long before Christ was even born.”[15] In 1229, many ecclesiastical scholars in France (a large percentage of whom were friars) came to Oxford after the university in Paris had been temporarily closed. Among the more famous of these scholars was Alexander of Hales, who became a Franciscan. In addition, Robert Grosseteste – who later became Bishop of Lincoln – had been master of the schools at Oxford since 1214, was lecturing to the friars well before 1229 and was helping to solidify the growing links between the University of Oxford and the Franciscan Order. There were certain academic differences between the student friars and their secular counterparts, however, and the “studies of the friars were confined to the faculty of theology (in its wide Medieval sense), and of canon law, the ‘handmaid’ of theology. The regulars were for the most part subject to the same statutes as the secular students in these facilities, with some important modifications.”[16] But the friars did not simply pursue knowledge for its own sake, on the contrary, the acquisition of an effective mind was merely the foundation stone upon which the propagation of their message was to be built. As Andrew G. Little has pointed out, learned friars were also very active amongst the ordinary people of Oxford and “[i]f the Franciscans became leaders of scholastic thought, they were first and foremost practical workers.”[17] In addition, it is worth noting that the educational renaissance undertaken by the friars was in no way confined to Oxford, and the town itself

“was more than a place for study; it was the centre of a great educational organisation which extended throughout the land.” [18]

Friars became so involved in the intellectual fabric of the country’s main centres of learning that at one point they had no less than thirty different lecturers. Indeed, the great versatility of the friars and their ability to oscillate between lecturing to the common people on the one hand, and attempting to have an effect on the aristocratic elite based in the universities on the other, meant that they were able to administer to the needs of all urban classes.

As with all ecclesiastical missions, the real purpose for the strategic intervention of the friars revolved around the acquisition of as many souls as possible. This brings us on to the third main reason accounting for why it was necessary for the friars to intervene on behalf of the country at large. Due to a growing hostility towards the secular clergy on the part of the laity, the friars were able to administer the sacrament of Confession and, thus, keep conflict to an absolute minimum. Bonaventura even believed that the friars had been endowed with a God-given right to protect the people from the tyranny of priests: “The clergy exaggerate their rights over their subjects (…) and if we added to this by frightening them still more and magnifying the power of the clergy over them, we should further provoke the audacity of the clergy, and take the heart out of their timid subjects.”[19] If priests were intimidating the laity, therefore, surely none but the friars could safely ensure that confessions were effectively administered on their behalf? Many priests were also uneducated and it was felt “that the lead in carrying it out should be taken by men who had made a careful study of the questions involved.”[20] Indeed, as Little explains: “Among the twenty-two Oxford minorities, for whom in the year 1300 the Provincial, Hugh of Hertepol, claimed the episcopal licence to hear the confessions of the crowds who thronged to the church of St. Francis, eight were then or afterwards doctors of divinity and theological lecturers to the Friars at Oxford”[21]. So the friars, then, were more than capable of satisfying the spiritual requirements of an estranged Catholic multitude and were akin to highly politicised cadres who gradually managed to eclipse the achievements of their secular brethren by formulating an intelligent synthesis between the complimentary attributes of Thought and Action. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that between 1270 and 1292 two successive Archbishops of Canterbury were also drawn from the ranks of the friars. These were Robert Kilwardby (a Dominican) and John Peckham (a Franciscan). If nothing else, this demonstrates that the friars had made an important shift from the outer fringes of the Church in the 1220’s to the very centre of the religious establishment just fifty years later.

To conclude, I have shown how both the Franciscans and the Dominicans managed to cater to the spiritual needs of thirteenth-century urban English society. The fact that many towns and cities had become bastions of intellectual and mercantile excellence meant that England’s formerly parochial, island-based societies had developed into thriving centres of pan-European cosmopolitanism. This was rather dangerous for a Church proud to have maintained its authority and survived the uncertainties of the Norman invasion two hundred years earlier. The arrival of new traders and travellers led to an influx of unorthodox ideas, concepts which threatened the theological domination of the Church. As a result, in order to stem the diverse mish-mash of imported philosophies which were gradually beginning to seep into the hearts and minds of all classes, it was necessary for the friars to re-establish the supremacy of Christian values. The scepticism on the streets was eradicated by a campaign of preaching; the war of ideas was concurrent with the formation of new schools and libraries; and, finally, public hostility towards the secular clergy was obliterated by a shift in emphasis which led to the friars being welcomed as the sole energetic sustenance capable of quenching the religious thirst of the nation. In short, the friars were propagators of both the Word and the Deed.


1. Rule of St. Francis, VI.

2. C. H. Lawrence; Medieval Monasticism (Longman, 1984), p. 249.

3. Ibid., p. 250.

4. Ibid.

5. O. Holder-Egger (ed.); Cronica Fratis Salimbene de Adam (MGH SS, 1913), p. 157, quoted in C. H. Lawrence, op. cit., p. 250.

6. C. H. Lawrence, op. cit., p. 252.

7. Laurance Goulder; Church Life in Medieval England: The Monasteries (Guild of Our Lady of Ransome, 1967), p. 58.

8. C. H. Lawrence, op. cit., p. 253.

9. Laurance Goulder, op. cit., p. 55.

10. Ibid., p. 50.

11. Ibid., p. 55.

12. C. H. Lawrence, op. cit., p. 240.

13. Doris Mary Stenton; English Society in the Early Middle Ages: 1066-1307 (Pelican, 1962), p. 240.

14. John Moorman; A History of the Franciscan Order: From its Origins to the Year 1517 (Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 172.

15. Laurance Goulder, op. cit., p. 56.

16. Andrew G. Little; The Grey Friars in Oxford (Clarendon Press, 1892), p. 37.

17. Ibid., p. 63.

18. Ibid., p. 65.

19. Bonaventura, Opera Omnia, viii, 372.

20. Andrew G. Little; Studies in Early Franciscan History (Manchester University Press, 1917), p. 120.

21. Andrew G. Little, The Grey Friars in Oxford, op. cit., pp. 63-4.


Margaret Bonney; Lordship and the Urban Community: Durham and its Overlords 1250-1540 (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Sir Francis Hill; Medieval Lincoln (Cambridge University Press, 1965).

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