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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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(otherwise called Friars Minor, or Minorites; also the Seraphic Order; and in England Grey Friars, from the colour of the habit, which, however, is now brown rather thangrey), a religious order founded by St Francis of Assisi. It was in 1206 that St Francis left his father's house and devoted himself to a life of poverty and to the service of the poor, the sick and the lepers; and in 1209 that he felt the call to add preaching to his other ministrations, and to lead a life in the closest imitation of Christ's life. Within a few weeks disciples began to join themselves to him; the condition was that they should dispose of all their possessions. When their number was twelve Francis led the little flock to Rome to obtain the pope's sanction for their undertaking. Innocent received them kindly, but with some misgivings as to the feasibility of the proposed manner of life; these difficulties were overcome, and the pope accorded a provisional approval by word of mouth: they were to become clerics and to elect a superior. Francis was elected and made a promise of obedience to the pope, and the others promised obedience to Francis.

This formal inauguration of the institute was in 1209 or (as seems more probable) 1210. Francis and his associates were first known as "Penitents of Assisi," and then Francis chose the title of "Minors." On their return to Assisi they obtained from the Benedictine abbey on Mount Subasio the use of the little chapel of St Mary of the Angels, called the Portiuncula, in the plain below Assisi, which became the cradle and headquarters of the order. Around the Portiuncula they built themselves huts of branches and twigs, but they had no fixed abode; they wandered in pairs over the country, dressed in the ordinary clothes of the peasants, working in the fields to earn their daily bread, sleeping in barns or in the hedgerows or in the porches of the churches, mixing with the labourers and the poor, with the lepers and the outcasts, ever joyous - the "joculatores" or "jongleurs" of God - ever carrying out their mission of preaching to the lowly and to the wretched religion and repentance and the kingdom of God. The key-note of the movement was the imitation of the public life of Christ, especially the poverty of Christ. Francis and his disciples were to aim at possessing nothing, absolutely nothing, so far as was compatible with life; they were to earn their bread from day to day by the work of their hands, and only when they could not do so were they to beg; they were to make no provision for the morrow, lay by no store, accumulate no capital, possess no land; their clothes should be the poorest and their dwellings the meanest; they were forbidden to receive or to handle money. On the other hand they were bound only to the fast observed in those days by pious Christians, and were allowed to eat meat - the rule said they should eat whatever was set before them; no austerities were imposed, beyond those inseparable from the manner of life they lived.

Thus the institute in its original conception was quite different from the monastic institute, Benedictine or Canon Regular. It was a confraternity rather than an order, and there was no formal novitiate, no organization. But the number of brothers increased with extraordinary rapidity, and the field of work soon extended itself beyond the neighbourhood of Assisi and even beyond Umbria - within three or four years there were settlements in Perugia, Cortona, Pisa, Florence and elsewhere, and missions to the Saracens and Moors were attempted by Francis himself. About 1217 Franciscan missions set out for Germany, France, Spain, Hungary and the Holy Land; and in 1219 a number of provinces were formed, each governed by a provincial minister. These developments, whereby the little band of Umbrian apostles had grown into an institute spread all over Europe and even penetrating to the East, and numbering thousands of members, rendered impossible the continuance of the original free organization whereby Francis's word and example were the sufficient practical rule of life for all: it was necessary as a condition of efficiency and even of existence and permanence that some kind of organization should be provided. From an early date yearly meetings or chapters had been held at the Portiuncula, at first attended by the whole body of friars; but as the institute extended this became unworkable, and after 1219 the chapter consisted only of the officials, provincial ministers and others. During Francis's absence in the East (1219-1220) a deliberate movement was initiated by the two vicars whom he had left in charge of the order, towards assimilating it to the monastic orders. Francis hurried back, bringing with him Elias of Cortona, the provincial minister of Syria, and immediately summoned an extraordinary general chapter (September 1220). Before it met he had an interview on the situation with Cardinal Hugolino of Ostia (afterwards Gregory IX.), the great friend and supporter of both Francis and Dominic, and he went to Honorius III. at Orvieto and begged thatHugolino should be appointed the official protector of the order. The request was granted, and a bull was issued formally approving the order of Friars Minor, and decreeing that before admission every one must pass a year's novitiate, and that after profession it was not lawful to leave the order. By this bull the Friars Minor were constituted an order in the technical sense of the word. When the chapter assembled, Francis, no doubt from a genuine feeling that he was not able to govern a great world-wide order, practically abdicated the post of minister-general by appointing a vicar, and the policy of turning the Friars Minor into a great religious order was consistently pursued, especially by Elias, who a year later became Francis's vicar.

St Francis's attitude towards this change is of primary importance for the interpretation of Franciscan history. There can be little doubt that his affections never altered from his first love, and that he looked back regretfully on the "Umbrian idyll" that had passed away; on the other hand, there seems to be no reason for doubting that he saw that the methods of the early days were now no longer possible, and that he acquiesced in the inevitable. This seems to be Professor Goetz's view, who holds that Sabatier's picture of Francis's agonized sadness at witnessing the destruction of his great creation going on under his eyes, has no counterpart in fact, and who rejects the view that the changes were forced on Francis against his better judgment by Hugolino and Elias (see "Note on Sources" at end of article Francis Of Assisi; also Elias Of Cortona); Goetz holds that the only conflict was the inevitable one between an unrealizable ideal and its practical working, among average men. But there does seem to be evidence that Francis deplored tendencies towards a departure from the severe simplicity of life and from the strict observance of poverty which he considered the ground-idea of his institute. In the final redaction of his Rule made in 1223 and in his Testament, made after it, he again clearly asserts his mind on these subjects, especially on poverty; and in the Testament he forbids any glosses in the interpretation of the Rule, declaring that it is to be taken simply as it stands. Sabatier's view as to the difference between the "First Rule" and that of 1223 is part of his general theory, and is, to say the least, a grave exaggeration. No doubt the First Rule, which is fully four times as long, gives a better picture of St Francis's mind and character; the later Rule has been formed from the earlier by the elimination of the frequent scripture texts and the edificatory element; but the greater portion of it stood almost verbally in the earlier.

On Francis's death in 1226 the government of the order rested in the hands of Elias until the chapter of 1227. At this chapter Elias was not elected minister-general; the building of the great basilica and monastery at Assisi was so manifest a violation of St Francis's ideas and precepts that it produced a reaction, and John Parenti became St Francis's first successor. He held fast to St Francis's ideas, but was not a strong man. At the chapter of 1230 a discussion arose concerning the binding force of St Francis's Testament, and the interpretation of certain portions of the Rule, especially concerning poverty, and it was determined to submit the questions to Pope Gregory IX., who had been St Francis's friend and had helped in the final redaction of the Rule. He issued a bull, Quo elongati, which declared that as the Testament had not received the sanction of the general chapter it was not binding on the order, and also allowed trustees to hold and administer money for the order. John Parenti and those who wished to maintain St Francis's institute intact were greatly disturbed by these relaxations; but a majority of the chapter of 1232, by a sort of coup d'etat, proclaimed Elias minister-general, and John retired, though in those days the office was for life. Under Elias the order entered on a period of extraordinary extension and prosperity: the number of friars in all parts of the world increased wonderfully, new provinces were formed, new missions to the heathen organized, the Franciscans entered the universities and vied with the Dominicans as teachers of theology and canon law, and as a body they became influential in church and state. With all this side of Elias's policy the great bulk of the order sympathized; but his rule was despotic and tyrannical and his private life was lax - at least according to any Franciscan standard, for no charge of grave irregularity was ever brought against him. And so a widespread movement against his government arose, the backbone of which was the university element at Paris and Oxford, and at a dramatic scene in a chapter held in the presence of Gregory IX. Elias was deposed (1239).

The story of these first years after St Francis's death is best told by Ed. Lempp, Frere Elie de Cortone (1901) (but see the warning at the end of the article Elias Of Cortona).

At this time the Franciscans were divided into three parties: there were the Zealots, or Spirituals, who called for a literal observance of St Francis's Rule and Testament; they deplored all the developments since 1219, and protested against turning the institute into an order, the frequentation of the universities and the pursuit of learning; in a word, they wished to restore the life to what it had been during the first few years - the hermitages and the huts of twigs, and the care of the lepers and the nomadic preaching. The Zealots were few in number but of great consequence from the fact that to them belonged most of the first disciples and the most intimate companions of St Francis. They had been grievously persecuted under Elias - Br. Leo and others had been scourged, several had been imprisoned, one while trying to escape was accidentally killed, and Br. Bernard, the "first disciple," passed a year in hiding in the forests and mountains hunted like a wild beast. At the other extreme was a party of relaxation, that abandoned any serious effort to practise Franciscan poverty and simplicity of life. Between these two stood the great middle party of moderates, who desired indeed that the Franciscans should be really poor and simple in their manner of life, and really pious, but on the other hand approved of the development of the Order on the lines of other orders, of the acquisition of influence, of the cultivation of theology and other sciences, and of the frequenting of the universities.

The questions of principle at issue in these controversies is reasonably and clearly stated, from the modern Capuchin standpoint, in the "Introductory Essay" to The Friars and how they came to England, by Fr. Cuthbert (1903).

The moderate party was by far the largest, and embraced nearly all the friars of France, England and Germany. It was the Moderates and not the Zealots that brought about Elias's deposition, and the next general ministers belonged to this party. Further relaxations of the law of poverty, however, caused a reaction, and John of Parma, one of the Zealots, became ministergeneral, 1247-1257. Under him the more extreme of the Zealots took up and exaggerated the theories of the Eternal Gospel of the Calabrian Cistercian abbot Joachim of Fiore (Floris); some of their writings were condemned as heretical, and John of Parma, who was implicated in these apocalyptic tendencies, had to resign. He was succeeded by St Bonaventura (1257-1274), one of the best type of the middle party. He was a man of high character, a theologian, a mystic, a holy man and a strong ruler. He set himself with determination to effect a working compromise, and proceeded with firmness against the extremists on both sides. But controversy and recrimination and persecution had stiffened the more ardent among the Zealots into obstinate fanatics - some of them threw themselves into a movement that may best be briefly described as a recrudescence of Montanism (see Emile Gebhart's Italie mystique, 1899, cc. v. and vi.), and developed into a number of sects, some on the fringe of Catholic Christianity and others beyond its pale. But the majority of the Zealot party, or Spirituals, did not go so far, and adopted as the principle of Franciscan poverty the formula "a poor and scanty use" (uses pauper et tennis) of earthly goods, as opposed to the "moderate use" advocated by the less strict party. The question thus posed came before the Council of Vienne, 1312, and was determined, on the whole, decidedly in favour of the stricter view. Some of the French Zealots were not satisfied and formed a semi-schismatical body in Provence; twenty-five of them were tried before the Inquisition, and four were burned alive at Marseilles as obstinate heretics, 1318. After this the schism in the Order subsided. But the disintegrating forces produced by the Great Schism and by the other disorders of the 14th century caused among the Franciscans the same relaxations and corruptions, and also the same reactions and reform movements, as among the other orders.

The chief of these reforms was that of the Observants, which began at Foligno about 1370. The Observant reform was on the basis of the "poor and scanty use" of worldly goods, but it was organized as an order and its members freely pursued theological studies; thus it did not represent the position of the original Zealot party, nor was it the continuation of it. The Observant reform spread widely throughout Italy and into France, Spain and Germany. The great promoters of the movement were St Bernardine of Siena and St John Capistran. The council of Constance, 1415, allowed the French Observant friaries to be ruled by a vicar of their own, under the ministergeneral, and the same privilege was soon accorded to other countries. By the end of the middle ages the Observants had some 1400 houses divided into 50 provinces. This movement produced a "half-reform" among the Conventuals or friars of the mitigated observance; it also called forth a number of lesser imitations or congregations of strict observance.

After many attempts had been made to bring about a working union among the many observances, in 1517 Leo X. divided the Franciscan order into two distinct and independent bodies, each with its own minister-general, its own provinces and provincials and its own general chapter: (1) The Conventuals, who were authorized to use the various papal dispensations in regard to the observance of poverty, and were allowed to possess property and fixed income, corporately, like the monastic orders: (2) The Observants, who were bound to as close an observance of St Francis's Rule in regard to poverty and all else as was practically possible.

At this time a great number of the Conventuals went over to the Observants, who have ever since been by far the more numerous and influential branch of the order. Among the Observants in the course of the sixteenth century arose various reforms, each striving to approach more and more nearly to St Francis's ideal; the chief of these reforms were the Alcantarines in Spain (St Peter of Alcantara, St Teresa's friend, d. 1562), the Riformati in Italy and the Recollects in France: all of these were semi-independent congregations. The Capuchins, established c. 1525, who claim to be the reform which approaches nearest in its conception to the original type, became a distinct order of Franciscans in 1619. Finally Leo grouped the Franciscans into three bodies or orders - the Conventuals; the Observants, embracing all branches of the strict observance, except the Capuchins; and the Capuchins - which together constitute the "First Order." For the "Second Order," or the nuns, see Clara, St, and Clares, PooR; and for the "Third Order" see Tertiaries. Many of the Tertiaries live a fully monastic life in community under the usual vows, and are formed into Congregations of Regular Tertiaries, both men and women. They have been and are still very numerous, and give themselves up to education, to the care of the sick and of orphans and to good works of all kinds.

No order has had so stormy an internal history as the Franciscans; yet in spite of all the troubles and dissensions and strivings that have marred Franciscan history, the Friars Minor of every kind have in each age faithfully and zealously carried on St Francis's great work of ministering to the spiritual needs of the poor. Always recruited in large measure from among the poor, they have ever been the order of the poor, and in their preaching and missions and ministrations they have ever laid themselves out to meet the needs of the poor. Another great work of the Franciscans throughout the whole course of their history has been their missions to the Mahommedans, both in western Asia and in North Africa, and to the heathens in China, Japan and India, and North and South America; a great number of the friars were martyred. The news of the martyrdom of five of his friars in Morocco was one of the joys of St Francis's closing years. Many of these missions exist to this day. In the Universities, too, the Franciscans made themselves felt alongside of the Dominicans, and created a rival school of theology, wherein, as contrasted with the Aristotelianism of the Dominican school, the Platonism of the early Christian doctors has been perpetuated.

The Franciscans came to England in 1224 and immediately made foundations in Canterbury, London and Oxford; by the middle of the century there were fifty friaries and over 1200 friars in England; at the Dissolution there were some 66 Franciscan friaries, whereof some six belonged to the Observants (for list see Catholic Dictionary and F. A. Gasquet's English Monastic Life, 1904). Though nearly all the English houses belonged to what has been called the "middle party," as a matter of fact they practised great poverty, and the commissioners of Henry VIII. often remark that the Franciscan Friary was the poorest of the religious houses of a town. The English province was one of the most remarkable in the order, especially in intellectual achievement; it produced Friar Roger Bacon, and, with the single exception of St Bonaventure, all the greatest doctors of the Franciscan theological school - Alexander Hales, Duns Scotus and Occam.

The Franciscans have always been the most numerous by far of the religious orders; it is estimated that about the period of the Reformation the Friars Minor must have numbered nearly ioo,000. At the present day the statistics are roughly (including lay-brothers): Observants, 15,000, Conventuals, 50o; to these should be added 9500 Capuchins, making the total number of Franciscan friars about 26,000. There are various houses of Observants and Capuchins in England and Ireland; and the old Irish Conventuals survived the penal times and still exist.

There have been four Franciscan popes: Nicholas IV. (1288-1292), Sixtus IV. (1471-1484), Sixtus V. (1585 - I 590), Clement XIV. (1769-1774); the three last were Conventuals.

The great source for Franciscan history is Wadding's Annales; it has been many times continued, and now extends in 25 vols. fol. to the year 1622. The story is also told by Helyot, Hist. des ordres religieux (1714), vol. vii. Abridgments, with references to recent literature, will be found in Max Heimbucher, Orden and Kongregationen (1896), i. §§ 37-51; in Wetzer and Welte, Kirchenlexicon (2nd ed.), articles "Armut (III.)," "Franciscaner orden" (this article contains the best account of the inner history and the polity of the order up to 1886); in Herzog, Realencyklopridie (3rd ed.), articles "Franz von Assisi" (fullest references to literature up to 1899), "Fraticellen." Of modern critical studies on Franciscan origins, K. Miller's Anfcinge des Minoritenordens and der Bussbruderschaften (1885), and various articles by F. Ehrle in Archiv fiir Litteraturand Kirchengeschichte des Mittelalters and Zeitschrift fiir Katholische Theologie, deserve special mention. Eccleston's charming chronicle of "The Coming of the Friars Minor into England" has been translated into English by the Capuchin Fr. Cuthbert, who has prefixed an Introductory Essay giving by far the best account in English of "the Spirit and Genius of the Franciscan Friars" (The Friars and how they came to England, 1903). Fuller information on the English Franciscans will be found in A. G. Little's Grey Friars in Oxford (Oxford Hist. Soc., 1892). (E. C. B.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Franciscans'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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