Franciscans is the common name used to designate a variety of mendicant religious orders of men or women tracing their origin to Francis of Assisi and following the Rule of St. Francis. The official Latin name is the Ordo Fratrum Minorum.

Important Franciscans

Francis of Assisi
Anthony of Padua
Roger Bacon
Alexander of Hales

Table of contents
1 The Beginning of the Brotherhood
2 Work and Extension of the Brotherhood
3 The Last Years of Francis
4 The Three Rules of the Order and the Testament of Saint Francis
5 Development of the Order after the Death of Francis
6 The Clarisses or Poor Clares
7 The Third Order
8 External links
9 Books

The Beginning of the Brotherhood

A sermon which Francis heard in 1209 on Matt. x. 9 made such an impression on him that he decided to devote himself wholly to a life of apostolic poverty. Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance.

He was soon joined by a prominent fellow townsman, Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work, and by other companions, who are said to have reached the number of eleven within a year. The brothers lived in the deserted lazar-house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time traveling through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations. Their life was extremely ascetic, though such practises were apparently not prescribed by the first rule which Francis gave them (probably as early as 1209), which seems to have been nothing more than a collection of Scriptural passages emphasizing the duty of poverty.

In spite of the obvious similarity between this principle and the fundamental ideas of the followers of Peter Waldo, the brotherhood of Assisi succeeded in gaining the approval of Pope Innocent III. Many legends have clustered around the decisive audience of Francis with the pope. The realistic account in Matthew Paris, according to which the pope originally sent the shabby saint off to keep swine, and only recognized his real worth by his ready obedience, has, in spite of its improbability, a certain historical interest, since it shows the natural antipathy of the older Benedictine monasticism to the plebeian mendicant orders.

Work and Extension of the Brotherhood

It was not, however, a life of idle mendicancy on which the brothers entered when they set out in 1210 with the papal approbation, but one of diligent labor. Their work embraced devoted service in the abodes of sickness and poverty, earnest preaching by both priests and lay brothers, and missions in an ever widening circle, which finally included heretics and Mohammedans. They came together every year at Pentecost in the little church of the Portiuncula at Assisi, to report on their experiences and strengthen themselves for fresh efforts.

The Last Years of Francis

Francis had to suffer from the dissensions just alluded to and the transformation which they operated in the originally simple constitution of the brotherhood, making it a regular order under strict supervision from Rome. Especially after Cardinal Ugolino had been assigned as protector of the order by Pope Honorius III-- it is said at Francis' own request-- he saw himself forced further and further away from his original plan. Even the independent direction of his brotherhood was, it seems, finally withdrawn from him; at least after about 1223 it was practically in the hands of Brother Elias of Crotona, an ambitious politician who seconded the attempts of the cardinal-protector to transform the character of the order.

However, in the external successes of the brothers, as they were reported at the yearly general chapters, there was much to encourage Francis. Caesarius of Speyer, the first German provincial, a zealous advocate of the founder's strict principle of poverty, began in 1221 from Augsburg, with twenty-five companions, to win for the order the land watered by the Rhine and the Danube; and a few years later the Franciscan propaganda, starting from Cambridge, embraced the principal towns of England.

The Three Rules of the Order and the Testament of Saint Francis

The First Rule

The oldest rule, referred to above, no longer preserved in its original form, seems to have contained not much more than the three Scriptural commands in Matt. xix. 21; Luke ix. 3; and Matt. xvi. 24. The attempted reconstruction by Muller ascribes to it too extensive a content, though Sabatier goes too far in the other direction when he limits it to these three sayings of Christ, which, according to Thomas of Celano, formed the kernel of the rule, surrounded by certain other more detailed prescriptions. Sabatier's theory that these were gradual accretions, depending especially on decisions of the yearly general chapter, needs further evidence to confirm it; the oldest biographers say nothing of any intermediate stage between the primitive rule and that of 1221. The former, based upon the idea of poverty and self-denying labor in the cause of Christ, was intended for an association of a similar kind to the Pauperes Catholici or "Poor Men of Lyons." It had little or nothing in common with the older monastic rules, Benedictine or Augustinian.

The Rule of 1221

The rule of 1221 is more adapted to the needs of a monastic order intended to further the general ends of the Church and based upon the three usual vows, but laying special stress on that of poverty. It was drawn up by Francis himself, but under the influence of Cardinal Ugolino, as well as of the learned and practical Caesarius of Speyer and apparently of Brother Leo, who from 1220 on was the constant companion of the founder. The matter of the primitive rule was included in it, but scattered among a large part of detailed directions, besides many edifying thoughts and pious outpourings of the heart, probably the work of Francis. But there is much in the new rule which breathes a different spirit. The humble founder, though refusing the title of general of the order, and appearing simply as "minister-general," sometimes with the addition "the servant of the whole brotherhood," appears now at the head of a regular monastic hierarchy, consisting of provincial ministers over the provinces, custodes over smaller districts, and guardians over single houses. Definite rules for the novitiate, the habit, hours of prayer, and the discipline of the houses were modeled after the older monastic tradition. In place of the informal yearly gatherings of the brotherhood, there are now regular chapters at fixed times. Of special interest are the provisions for apostolic poverty and the ascetic life in general, which show this rule to be essentially a development of the older discipline, with the obligation of poverty made more strict while that of other ascetic practises was mitigated, partly for the reason that the new Fratres minores were expected to be diligently occupied in exhausting labors.

The Third Rule

The third rule, confirmed by Honorius III on November 29, 1223, has still less of Francis' own work in it. The edifying tone, the citation of the Scriptural texts, have disappeared from it. Instead of the strong emphasis upon Christ's admonitions to his disciples with which the rule of 1221 had begun, the enumeration of the three traditional monastic vows is here substituted. The character of the order as a mendicant order, pledged to an ideal of the strictest poverty, comes out here, it is true; but these concessions to the spirit of the earlier rules are intermingled with a number of other prescriptions which clearly show the externally official character of the new statutes, framed in the interest of the papacy and in conformity with the other organs of the hierarchy. A cardinal appointed by the pope as protector of the whole order was to supervise its activity. The conditions for entrance are more definitely laid down; the Roman Breviary is expressly named as the obligatory basis of the daily devotions of priests belonging to it; and the preaching brothers have a more dependent position than before. In a word, the life here regulated is no longer the old free, wandering life of the first years, marked by apostolic poverty and loving, simple-hearted devotion to the Lord, but rather a carefully arranged quasi-monastic system, shorn of much of its original freedom.

The Testament

Francis, as may be seen from more than one passage in the accounts of his last years, was unhappy about these changes. As a demonstration against them, he left what is called his "Testament," whose occasional reading together with the rule was enjoined on the brethren. Its tone is rather plaintive than angry; it looks back in a spirit of regret to the primitive days of the first love. It urges unswerving obedience to the pope and the heads of the order, but at the same time emphasizes the necessity of following its principles, especially the imitation of the poverty of Christ. The brethren are commanded to oppose the introduction of any future secularizing influences, and at the same time are forbidden to ask for any special privileges from the pope. In spite of the direct command in the "Testament" against considering it as a new rule, the Observantist section of the Franciscans practically regarded it as even more binding than the formal rule, while the advocates of a less strict observance paid little attention to it, especially to its prohibition of asking for ecclesiastical privileges.

Development of the Order after the Death of Francis

Dissentions During the Life of Francis

The controversy about poverty which extends through the first three centuries of Franciscan history began in the lifetime of the founder. The ascetic brothers Matthew of Narni and Gregory of Naples, to whom Francis had entrusted the direction of the order during his absence, carried through at a chapter which they held certain stricter regulations in regard to fasting and the reception of alms, which really departed from the spirit of the original rule. It did not take Francis long, on his return, to suppress this insubordinate tendency; but he was less successful in regard to another of an opposite nature which soon came up. Elias of Crotona originated a movement for the increase of the worldly consideration of the order and the adaptation of its system to the plans of the hierarchy which conflicted with the original notions of the founder and helped to bring about the successive changes in the rule already described. Francis was not alone in opposition to this lax and secularizing tendency. On the contrary, the party which clung to his original views and after his death took his "Testament" for their guide, known as Observantists or Zelanti, was at least equal in numbers and activity to the followers of Elias. The conflict between the two lasted many years, and the Zelanti won several notable victories, in spite of the favor shown to their opponents by the papal administration-- until finally the reconciliation of the two points of view was seen to be impossible, and the order was actually split into halves.

Development to 1239. The Laxer Party

St. Anthony of Padua has usually been regarded as the first leader of the Observantists; but recent investigations have shown that he was inclined to the opposite side. When Elias sent a delegation to Rome in 1230 to obtain papal sanction for his views, Anthony was one of the envoys; and there is little doubt that the bull Quo elongati of Pope Gregory IX, favoring this side, was due in large measure to his influence. The earliest leader of the strict party was rather Brother Leo, the witness of the ecstasies of Francis on Monte Alverno and the author of the Speculum perfectionis, a strong polemic against the laxer party. Next to him came John Parens, the first successor of Francis in the headship of the order. In 1232, however, Elias succeeded him, and administered the affairs of the order in the interest of his own, party for seven years. Much external progress was made during these years; many new houses were founded, especially in Italy, and in them, without regard to the founder's depreciation of secular learning, special attention was paid to education. The somewhat earlier settlements of Franciscan teachers at the universities (in Oxford, for example, where Alexander of Hales was teaching) continued to develop. Contributions toward the promotion of the order's work came in abundantly, and Elias authorized his subordinates to get around the provision of the rule against the receiving of money, usually by the appointment of agents outside the order, who had the custody of the funds. Elias pursued with great severity the principal leaders of the opposition, and even Bernardo di Quintavalle, the founder's first disciple, was obliged to conceal himself for years in the forest of Monte Sefro.

To 1274. Bonaventure

At last, however, the reaction came. At the general chapter of 1239, held in Rome under the personal presidency of Gregory IX., Elias was deposed in favor of Albert of Pisa, the former provincial of England, a moderate Observantist. None the less, Elias' attitude remained widely prevalent in the order. The next two ministers-general Haymo of Faversham (1240-44) and Crescentius of Jesi (1244-47), governed to a great extent in this sense, and had the new Pope Innocent IV on their side. In a bull of November 14, 1245, he even sanctioned an extension of the system of financial agents, and declared the funds in their custody the property of the Church, to be held at the disposal of the cardinal-protector and not to be alienated without his permission. The Observantist party took a strong stand in opposition to this ruling, and carried on so successfully an agitation against the lax general that in 1247, at a chapter held in Lyons, where Innocent IV. was then residing, he was replaced by the strict Observantist [[John of Parma]] (1247-57). Elias, who had been excommunicated and taken under the protection of Frederick II., was now forced to give up all hope of recovering his power in the order. He died in 1253, after succeeding by recantation in obtaining the removal of his censures. Under John of Parma, who enjoyed the favor of Innocent IV. and Pope Alexander IV, the influence of the order was notably increased, especially by the provisions of the latter pope in regard to the academic activity of the brothers. He not only sanctioned the theological institutes in Franciscan houses, but did all he could to facilitate the entrance of their teachers to the universities, especially Paris, the headquarters of theological study. It was due to the action of his representatives, who were obliged to threaten the university authorities with excommunication, that the degree of doctor of theology was conceded to the Dominican Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Bonaventure (1257), who had previously been able to lecture only as licentiates. In the same year Bonaventura succeeded John of Parma. In spite of his adherence to Observantist principles, Bonaventura took a decided stand against the teaching of Joachim of Fiore, which John of Parma had been inclined to favor. Not a few of the "Spiritual" party, as they were now coming to be called, were condemned to lifelong imprisonment; and for the purpose of discouraging their extreme tendency a new life of the founder was compiled by Bonaventura, at the request of the general chapter held at Narbonne in 1260, and authorized by that of Pisa three years later as the only approved biography. Apart from the severe measures taken against Joachim's followers, Bonaventura seems to have ruled (1257-74) in a moderate spirit, which is represented also by various works produced by the order in his time-- especially by the Expositio regulae written by David of Augsburg (q.v.) soon after 1260.

To 1300. Continued Dissensions

The successor of Bonaventura, Jerome of Ascoli (1274-79), the future Pope Nicholas IV, and his successor, Bonagratia (1279-85), also followed a middle course. Severe measures were taken against certain extreme Spirituals who, on the strength of the rumor that [[Pope Gregory X]] was intending at the [[Council of Lyons]] (1274-75) to force the mendicant orders to tolerate the possession of property, threatened both pope and council with the renunciation of allegiance. Attempts were made, however, to satisfy the reasonable demands of the Spiritual party, as in the bull Exiit qui seminiat of Pope Nicholas III (1279), which pronounced the principle of complete poverty meritorious and holy, but interpreted it in the way of a somewhat sophistical distinction between pos- session and usufruct. The bull was received respectfully by Bonagratia and the next two generals, Arlotto of Prato (1285-87) and Matthew of Aqua Sparta (1287-89); but the Spiritual party under the leadership of the fanatical apocalyptic [[Peter Olivi|Pierre Jean Olivi]] regarded its provisions for the dependence of the friars upon the pope and the division between brothers occupied in manual labor and those employed on spiritual missions as a corruption of the fundamental principles of the order. They were not won over by the conciliatory attitude of the next general, Raymond Gaufredi (1289-96), and of the Franciscan Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92). The attempt made by the next pope, Pope Celestine V, an old friend of the order, to end the strife by uniting the Observantist party with his own order of hermits (see Celestines) was scarcely more successful. Only a part of the Spirituals joined the new order, and the secession scarcely lasted beyond the reign of the hermit-pope. Pope Boniface VIII annulled Celestine's bull of foundation with his other acts, deposed the general Raymond Gaufredi, and appointed a man of laxer tendency, John de Murro, in his place. The Benedictine section of the Celestines was separated from the Franciscan section, and the latter was formally suppressed by Boniface in 1302. The leader of the Observantists, Olivi, who spent his last years in the Franciscan house at Narbonne and died there in 1298, had pronounced against the extremer "Spiritual" attitude, and given an exposition of the theory of poverty which was approved by the more moderate Observantists, and for a long time constituted their principle.

Temporary Success of the Stricter Party. Persecution

Under Pope Clement V (1305-14) this party succeeded in exercising some influence on papal decisions. In 1309 Clement had a commission sit at Avignon for the purpose of reconciling the conflicting parties. Ubertino of Casale, the leader, after Olivi's death, of the stricter party, who was a member of the commission, induced the Council of Vienne to arrive at a decision in the main favoring his views, and the papal constitution Exivi de paradiso (1313) was on the whole conceived in the same sense. Clement's successor, Pope John XXII (1316-34), favored the laxer or conventual party. By the bull Quorundam exigit he modified several provisions of the constitution Exivi, and required the formal submission of the Spirituals. Some of them, encouraged by the strongly Observantist general Michael of Cesena, ventured to dispute the pope's right so to deal with the provisions of his predecessor. Sixty-four of them were summoned to Avignon, and the most obstinate delivered over to the Inquisition, four of them being burned (1318). Shortly before this all the separate houses of the Observantists had been suppressed.

Renewed Controversy on the Question of Poverty

A few years later a new controversy, this time theoretical, broke out on the question of poverty. The Spirituals contended eagerly for the view that Christ and his apostles had possessed absolutely nothing, either separately or jointly. This proposition had been declared heretical in a trial before an inquisitor. A protest was now made against this decision by the chapter held at Perugia in 1322, as well as by such influential members of the order as William of Occam, the English provincial, and Bonagratia of Bergamo. John XXII ranged himself decidedly with the Dominicans, who combated the theory, and by the bull Cum inter nonnullos of 1322 declared it erroneous and heretical. Appealing from this decision, Bonagratia, Occam, and Michael of Cesena were imprisoned at Avignon for four years, until they escaped by the help of the Emperor Louis the Bavarian. Supported by him, they carried on a literary war against the papal and Dominican denial of the absolute poverty of Christ and his apostles. The pope deposed Cessna and Occam from their offices in the order, and excommunicated them with the Franciscan antipope Peter of Corvara (Nicholas V.) and all their adherents. Only a small part of the order, however, joined them, and at a general chapter held in Paris (1329) the majority of all the houses declared their submission to the pope. The same step was taken in the following year by the antipope, later by the ex-general Cesena, and finally, just before his death, by Occam.

Separate Congregations

Out of all these dissensions in the fourteenth century sprang a number of separate congregations, almost of sects. To say nothing of the heretical parties of the Beghards and Fraticelli, some which developed within the order on both hermit and cenobitic principles may here be mentioned:

The Clareni

or Clarenini, an association of hermits established on the river Clareno in the march of Ancona by Angelo da Clareno after the suppression of the Franciscan Celestines by Boniface VIII. It maintained the principles of Olivi, and, outside of Umbria, spread also in the kingdom of Naples, where Angelo died in 1337. Like several other smaller congregations, it was obliged in 1568 under Pope Pius V to unite with the general body of Observantists.

The Minorites of Narbonne

As a separate congregation, this originated through the union of a number of houses which followed Olivi after 1308. It was limited to southwestern France and, its members being accused of the heresy of the Beghards, was suppressed by the Inquisition during the controversies under John XXII.

The Reform of Johannes de Vallibus

This was founded in the hermitage of St. Bartholomew at Brugliano near Foligno in 1334. The congregation was suppressed by the Franciscan general chapter in 1354; reestablished in 1368 by Paolo de' Trinci of Foligno; confirmed by Gregory XI. in 1373, and spread rapidly from Central Italy to France, Spain, Hungary and elsewhere. Most of the Observantist houses joined this congregation by degrees, so that it became known simply as the "brothers of the regular Observance." It acquired the favor of the popes by its energetic opposition to the heretical Fraticelli, and was expressly recognized by the Council of Constance (1415). It was allowed to have a special vicar-general of its own and legislate for its members without reference to the conventual part of the order. Through the work of such men as Bernardin of Siena John of Capistrano, and Dietrich Coelde (b. 1435? at Munster; was a member of the Brethren of the Common Life, died December 11, 1515), it gained great prominence during the fifteenth century. By the end of the Middle Ages, the Observantists, with 1,400 houses, comprised nearly half of the entire order. Their influence brought about attempts at reform even among the Conventuals, including the Observantists of the Common Life, founded by Boniface de Ceva and spreading principally in France and Germany; the reformed congregation founded in 1426 by the Spaniard Philip de Berbegal and distinguished by the special importance they attached to the little hood (cappuciola); the Neutri, a group of reformers originating about 1463 in Italy, who tried to take a middle ground between the Conventuals and Observantists, but refused to obey the heads of either, until they were compelled by the pope to affiliate with the regular Observantists, or with those of the Common Life; the Caperolani, a congregation founded about 1470 in North Italy by Peter Caperolo, but dissolved again on the death of its founder in 1480; the Amadeists, founded by the noble Portuguese Amadeo, who entered the Franciscan order at Assisi in 1452, gathered around him a number of adherents to his fairly strict principles (numbering finally twenty-six houses) and, died in the odor of sanctity in 1482.

Unsuccessful Attempts to Unite the Order

Projects for a union between the two main branches of the order were put forth not only by the Council of Constance but by several popes, without any positive result. By direction of Martin V., John of Capistrano drew up statutes which were to serve as a basis for reunion, and they were actually accepted by a general chapter at Assisi in 1430; but the majority of the Conventual houses refused to agree to them, and they remained without effect. At Capistrano's request Eugenius IV. put forth a bull (Ut sacra minorum, 1446) looking to the same result, but again nothing was accomplished. Equally unsuccessful were the attempts of the Franciscan pope Sixtus IV., who bestowed a vast number of privileges on both the original mendicant orders, but by this very fact lost the favor of the Observantists and failed in his plans for reunion. Julius II. succeeded in doing away with some of the smaller branches, but left the division of the two great parties untouched. This division was finally legalized by Leo X., after a general chapter held in Rome, in connection with the reform-movement of the Fifth Lateran Council, had once more declared the impossibility of reunion. The less strict principles of the Conventuals, permitting the posesssion of real estate and the enjoyment of fixed revenues, were recognized as tolerable, while the Observantists, in contrast to this usus moderatus, were held strictly to their own usus arctus or pauper. The latter, as adhering more closely to the rule of the founder, were allowed to claim a certain superiority over the former. The Observantist general (elected now for six years, not for life) was to have the title of "Minister-General of the Whole Order of St. Francis" and the right to confirm the choice of a head for the Conventuals, who was known as "Master-General of the Friars Minor Conventual"-- although this privilege never became practically operative.

Spread of the order in Modern Times

See: Franciscan Order in modern times

Distinguished Names

Although surpassed in the number of prominent and influential theological authors by the Jesuits and Dominicans, the order still boasts a number of distinguished names. The first century of its existence produced the three great scholastics Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, the "Admirable Doctor" Roger Bacon, and the well-known mystic authors and popular preachers David of Augsburg and Berthold of Regensburg.

Among Franciscan celebrities of the later Middle Ages may be mentioned Nicholas of Lyra, the Biblical commentator, Bernardin of Sienna, John of Capistrano, Mollard and Menot as preachers, and the famous canonists Astesanus, Alvarus Pelagius, and William of Occam. Later again came sound historical investigators such as Luke Wadding and Pagi.

In the field of Christian art, during the later Middle Ages, the Franciscan movement exercised considerable influence, especially in Italy. Several great painters of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, especially Cimabue and Giotto, were spiritual sons of Francis in the wider sense, and the plastic masterpieces of the latter, as well as the architectural conceptions of both himself and his school, show the influence of Franciscan ideals. The Italian Gothic style, whose earliest important monument is the great convent church at Assisi (built 1228-53), was cultivated as a rule principally by members of the order or men under their influence.

The early spiritual poetry of Italy was inspired by Francis himself, who was followed by Thomas of Celano, Bonaventura, and Jacopone da Todi; and in a certain sense even Dante may be included within the sphere of Franciscan influence (cf. especially Paradiso, xi. 50).

The Clarisses or Poor Clares

For the history of the female branch of the order, founded in the lifetime of Francis, see Poor Clares.

The Third Order

Origin and Rule

The Tertiary rule which passes under the name of St. Francis not only can not have been drawn up by him, but does not even show a basis of his original instructions. There must have been, however, in his lifetime a following of devout laity who composed a sort of third order, beside the Friars Minor and the Clarisses.

External links


  • A History of the Franciscan Order: From Its Origins to the Year 1517 by John Moorman ISBN 0198264259

copyright 2004