In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Friars

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • History
  • Organization
  • Education and Culture
  • Relationship with Urban Centers
  • Controversies
  • Role within the Church
  • Politics
  • Regional Studies
  • Friars of the Sack

Medieval Studies Friars
Jens Röhrkasten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0069


The friars (mendicants, mendicant orders) represented a form of religious life that clearly differed from earlier forms of monasticism. They had their roots in the lay religious movements of the 11th and 12th centuries that focused on the ideal of the vita apostolica, the way of life modeled on the Gospel advocating penance and the dissemination of the word of God, and in the efforts of the church to counter heresy, the spread of which had been part of the same religious enthusiasm. There were four main orders, the Dominicans (Ordo Praedicatorum), founded by Dominic Guzmán of Caleruega, a canon of the church of Osma; the Franciscans (Ordo Fratrum Minorum), founded by Francesco Bernardone of Assisi, the female branch by Chiara Offreduccio; the Austin Friars (Augustinian Hermits, Ordo Eremitorum Sancti Augustini), created in 1256 by the union of older Italian hermit communities; and the Carmelites (Ordo Carmelitorum), which had its roots in 12th-century eremitical groups on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land who moved to Europe in the first half of the 13th century, where they changed into a mendicant order entrusted with the cure of souls. Apart from the four great orders, there were several smaller ones, some of which also expanded into different regions, like the Friars of the Sack (Fratres de Poenitentia Jesu Christi), while others never gained more than regional significance. The Franciscans in particular developed a way of life based on absolute poverty, humility, and obedience modeled on that of the Apostles. This included the delivery of exhortative sermons, but preaching and specifically the conversion of Cathar heretics were the key activities of the early Dominicans. In order to do this effectively, they recruited students at the universities, especially at Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, while developing study centers in their own convents. The friars pursued an active ministry among the laity, usually settling in urban centers, where they preached to the population and from where they moved in small groups through the surrounding countryside. Their preaching activities and their stand against heresy required careful training, and the educational facilities developed by the mendicant orders, at the local level, in their provinces, and at the universities, mark a significant stage in the history of education. The mendicants were the last and at the same time the largest element of the religious upsurge between the 11th and the 13th centuries. Rooted in different social strata of the medieval population, their pastoral work reached and affected many social groups.

Reference Works

The four works of reference listed in this section (Dictionnaire de spiritualité, ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, Dizionario degli istituti di perfezione, Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie écclesiastiques, and the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) offer good information on the orders’ religious ideas, their geographical extent, and their organization.

  • Baudrillart, Alfred, et al., eds. Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie écclesiastiques. 31 vols. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1912–.

    This important and very useful dictionary is unfortunately not yet complete, and progress is very slow. The first volume appeared in 1912 and the most recent fascicles in 2010, bringing the entries up to the letter “L.” It provides wide-ranging information on historical and structural themes related to the church.

  • Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Offers concise information on individual orders followed by brief bibliographies.

  • Pelliccia, Guerrino, and Giancarlo Rocca, eds. Dizionario degli istituti di perfezione. 10 vols. Rome: Edizioni Paoline, 1974–2003.

    Contains clearly written and concise articles on diverse aspects of religious orders, including the mendicants. The authors are usually the leading scholars in their fields.

  • Viller, Marcel, et al., eds. Dictionnaire de spiritualité, ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire. 16 vols. Paris: Beauchesne, 1932–1995.

    A combination of different approaches, doctrinal and historical. Although the work evolved over a long period of time and not all entries are up-to-date, the dictionary remains important because of its references to sources and its summaries of the historiography.

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