Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
Or BEGGING FRIARS, several orders of religious in popish countries, who, having no settled revenues, are supported by the charitable contributions they receive from others. This sort of society began in the thirteenth century, and the members of it, by the tenor of their institution, were to remain entirely destitute of all fixed revenues and possessions; though in process of time their number became a heavy tax upon the people. Innocent III. was the first of the popes who perceived the necessity of instituting such an order; and accordingly he gave such monastic societies as made a profession of poverty, the most distinguishing marks of his protection and favour. They were also encouraged and patronized by the succeeding pontiffs, when experience had demonstrated their public and extensive usefulness. But when it became generally known that they had such a peculiar place in the esteem and protection of the rulers of the church, their number grew to such an enormous and unwieldy multitude, and swarmed so prodigiously in all the European provinces, that they became a burden, not only to the people, but to the church itself.
The great inconvenience that arose from the excessive multiplication of the Mendicant orders was remedied by Gregory X., in a general council which he assembled at Lyons in 1272; for here all the religious orders that had sprung up after the council held at Rome in 1215, under the pontificate of Innocent III. were suppressed; and the extravagant multitude of Mendicants, as Gregory called them, were reduced to a smaller number, and confined to the four following societies or denominations, viz. the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Augustins, or hermits of St. Augustin. As the pontiffs allowed these four Mendicant orders the liberty of travelling wherever they thought proper, of conversing with persons of every rank, of instructing the youth and multitude wherever they went; and as those monks exhibited, in their outward appearance and manners of life, more striking marks of gravity and holiness than were observable in the other monastic societies, they rose all at once to the very summit of fame, and were regarded with the utmost esteem and veneration through all the countries of Europe.
The enthusiastic attachment to these sanctimonious beggars went so far, that, as we learn from the most authentic records, several cities were divided or cantoned out into four parts, with a view to these four orders: the first part being assigned to the Dominicans, the second to the Franciscans, the third to the Carmelites, and the fourth to the Augustins. The people were unwilling to receive the sacraments from any other hands than those of the Mendicants, to whose churches they crowded to perform their devotions while living, and were extremely desirous to deposit there also their remains after death. Nor did the influence and credit of the Mendicants end here; for we find in the history of this and of the succeeding ages, that they were employed not only in spiritual matters, but also in temporal and political affairs of the greatest consequence, in composing the differences of princes, concluding treaties of peace, concerting alliances, presiding in councils, governing courts, levying taxes, and other occupations, not only remote from, but absolutely inconsistent with the monastic character and profession. However, the power of the Dominicans and Franciscans greatly surpassed that of the other two orders, insomuch that these two orders were, before the reformation, what the Jesuits have been since that happy and glorious period; the very soul of the hierarchy, the engines of the state, the secret springs of all the motions of the one and the other, and the authors and directors of every great and important event, both in the religious and political world.
By very quick progression their pride and consequence arrived at such a pitch, that they had the presumption to declare publicly, that they had a divine impulse and commission to illustrate and maintain the religion of Jesus. They treated with the utmost insolence and contempt all the different orders of the priesthood; they affirmed, without a blush, that the true method of obtaining salvation was revealed to them alone; proclaimed with ostentation the superior efficacy and virtue of their indulgences; and vaunted beyond measure their interest at the court of heaven, and their familiar connexions with the Supreme Being, the Virgin Mary, and the saints in glory. By these impious wiles they so deluded and captivated the miserable, and blinded the multitude, that they would not intrust any other but the Mendicants with the care of their souls. They retained their credit and influence to such a degree towards the close of the fourteenth century, that great numbers of both sexes, some in health, others in a state of infirmity, others at the point of death, earnestly desired to be admitted into the Mendicant order, which they looked upon as a sure and infallible method of rendering heaven propitious.
Many made it an essential part of their last wills, that their bodies after death should be wrapped in old ragged Dominican or Franciscan habits, and interred among the Mendicants. For such was the barbarous superstition and wretched ignorance of this age, that people universally believed they should readily obtain mercy from Christ at the day of judgment, if they appeared before his tribunal associated with the Mendicant friars. About this time, however, they fell under an universal odium; but, being resolutely protected against all opposition, whether open or secret, by the popes, who regarded them as their best friends, and most effectual supports, they suffered little or nothing from the efforts of their numerous adversaries. In the fifteenth century, besides their arrogance, which was excessive, a quarrelsome and litigious spirit prevailed among them, and drew upon them justly the displeasure and indignation of many.
By affording refuge at this time to the Beguins in their order, they became offensive to the bishops, and were hereby involved in difficulties and perplexities of various kinds. They lost their credit in the sixteenth century by their rustic impudence, their ridiculous superstitions, their ignorance, cruelty, and brutish manners. They discovered the most barbarous aversion to the arts and sciences, and expressed a like abhorrence of certain eminent and learned men, who endeavoured to open the paths of science to the pursuits of the studious youth, recommended the culture of the mind, and attacked the barbarian of the age in their writings and discourses. Their general character, together with other circumstances, concurred to render a reformation desirable, and to accomplish this happy event. Among the number of Mendicants are also ranked the Capuchins, Recollects, Minims, and others, who are branches or derivations from the former. Buchanan tells us, the Mendicants in Scotland, under an appearance of beggary, lived a very luxurious life; whence one wittily called them not Mendicant, but Manducant friars.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Mendicants'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/m/mendicants.html. 1802.