Friars Preachers: The Dominican Order in the Middle Ages

Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton

Ask most laymen what they associate with the Dominicans, and the usual answer is "the Inquisition". Of the two major mendicant orders to emerge in the early thirteenth century, the Ordo Predicatoris, or the Order of Preachers, is much less loved in the popular imagination than its cousin, the Friars Minor, or Franciscans. St. Francis, with his love of animals and nature and devotion to the ideals of poverty and humility, more naturally catches the imagination than St. Dominic, with his devotion to preaching against heresy. Both orders, however, share a number of common traits: they both are mendicant orders, which meant that they received no official church funding, living instead off the alms of the communities they lived in; unlike monks, both of these orders of mendicant friars saw a need to work in their communities, rather than staying cloistered away from society; and finally, in an age of Church reform and educational revival, both Orders recognized very early the uses of learning and thus were vital figures in the growth of the universities in Europe. This article will attempt to give readers a wider view of the Dominican Order in medieval society beyond their role in the Inquisition.


St. Dominic and the Early Years

The late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were a time of profound change for the Church. The Papal See was at the height of its influence as a guiding force in the lives of Europeans, and it was using this influence to attempt to correct many of the abuses which had plagued it for so long. Great church councils called by reforming popes like Innocent III were attempting to introduce uniformity in practice and doctrine, such that the Church in Sweden or France would closely resemble that in Rome. Attempts to insure the celibacy and education of clergy went along with these reforms as well. And, with the conversion of Europe nearly complete, the Church turned its attention to the troubling problem of heresy within its own ranks. The Dominican Order was a product of this era, and its eventual place in the Church would reflect each of these concerns.

Dominic himself was born about 1170 in Castile and was prepared for a career in the Church from boyhood. He eventually entered the cathedral chapter of Osma, becoming a canon (a staff official for the cathedral church, who lived according to a Rule as monks did) there. By 1201, he had become subprior there. It was on a trip to Denmark with his mentor, Bishop Diego, that he first became interested in missionary activities, but because of his commitments at home, he was not permitted to go, and he and Diego returned home. On the way back, they passed through southern France, where they learned of unsuccessful efforts to preach against the Albigensian heresy. The Albigensians, noted for their austere devotion to imitation of the apostles, were unimpressed with the first preachers sent by the Pope, with their huge entourages and shows of worldly wealth-- which only served to reinforce their ideas about the corruptness of the Church.

Dominic and Diego came up with an idea that at the time was revolutionary: Why not imitate the apostles themselves, traveling through the countryside barefoot and simply clad, preaching and living off alms? And when preaching, why not resort to good, solidly-argued doctrine, rather than flashy shows of wealth? This was revolutionary because it, in part, resembled what the Albigensians themselves were doing -- living austere lives and preaching their vision to the world. The Pope, however, convinced of Dominic and Diegošs sound doctrine, leant his support. But the Albigensian problem soon blew into a full-fledged political as well as religious issue when a papal legate was assassinated and a count suspected of sympathizing with the heretics was implicated; the result was the infamous Albigensian Crusade. Dominic continued to preach when he could, during lulls in the fighting, and eventually founded a community of preachers to serve the diocese of Toulouse -- not only in preaching against heresy, but also in instructing Catholics in the basics. This was the seed of what became the Dominican Order, which was formally recognized in 1215. From Toulouse, Dominicans were sent out all over Europe to found Dominican houses, such that by Dominic's death in 1221, there were five established Dominican provinces and six more in process.


The Mission of the Order

The Dominican order is often mistakenly thought to have been founded purely to combat heresy. This is only part of the story. The real focus of the order is contained in their name, the Ordo Predicatorum, or the Order of Preachers. While the Franciscans chose to imitate the apostles by focusing on poverty, the Dominicans focused on imitation through preaching. The Albigensian heresy was indeed the first focus of this preaching, but the Dominicans soon realized that there was a much greater need for preaching doctrine to Catholics -- after all, the Albigensians were confined mostly to southern France and northern Spain, but there were Catholics all over Europe. The parish clergy was notoriously ill-educated, sometimes not even understanding the Mass they said every day and botching the Latin, such that one official discovered to his horror that one of his charges had been baptizing his flock in nomine patriae, et filiae, et spiritu sancti -- "in the name of the nation, the daughter, and the Holy Spirit"! If the clergy were not even educated enough to know the correct wordings to the Mass and other ceremonies, how could they ever be expected to carry out the "care of souls" that was the chief duty of each parish priest? It had been long realized that most actual religious instruction did not take place during the Sacraments, which were in Latin and therefore inaccessible to all but the more educated laymen, but during preaching. Priests were expected to preach as often as they could; usually, a liturgical calendar determined which passage of Scripture should form the basis of the sermon, but the actual content was up to the individual.

The Dominicans thus began to specialize in preaching. They discovered quickly that to assemble a good sermon, one had to have a solid grounding in basic theology; thus, one of the first rules adopted by the Order was that each Dominican house had to have a school with a lector in theology. Lectors in theology were by no means common in the Order's early years, but the best place to find them was near a school, or, better yet, one of the universities which were now beginning to dot Europe. It is no coincidence that the first Dominican house outside of Toulouse was founded at Paris, home of Europešs largest university specializing in theology, and that the first English Dominican house was founded at Oxford, also known as a centre for theology. The schools founded by Dominicans were open not only to Dominicans from all over Europe, but also to outside students. By the middle of the thirteenth centuries, Dominicans (and Franciscans) were beginning to dominate the university schools of theology (often to the chagrin of other clergy, enraged at their rapid rise to prominence).

Some of the chief products of the Dominican education system were preaching aids and their cousins, confessional manuals, both of which fall under the wider heading of literature of pastoral care, or pastoralia. Even the great Summa Theologicae of the Order's most famous member, Thomas Aquinas, was at its heart designed to give preachers a good grounding in theology upon which to base their sermons; the fact that Thomas was a Dominican shows the place of the Order in the forefront of intellectual activity in the thirteenth century. Aids for preaching included treatises on the Virtues and Vices (always good sermon material), works of Biblical exegesis (usually an attempt by the author to explain the many meanings of Scripture, based both on previous writers and his own insight), whole published sermons or sermon collections of preachers of note, and collections of exempla.

Life in the Dominican Order

When Dominic received papal permission to found his Order, he adopted as its Rule that of St. Augustine, probably the most flexible of all such Rules. Flexibility became a hallmark of the Dominicans, as Humbert of Romans puts it in the prologue to the Constitutions of the Order:

Different countries all have different customs, and out of this diversity different people have brought different things to the Order, even though it is only one Order.

Unlike many other Orders, the Dominicans were quite content to adapt their lives to the circumstances around them. Part of this arose from the necessity of living off of alms, which could mean, for instance, that the clothing of the friars could differ from place to place, depending on what they were given. The Dominicans were usually more interested in getting their message out to the people than in following rules, and in fact their Constitutions were the first to mention specifically that breaking a rule was not a sin. Perfection was not demanded, but repeated efforts towards it was.

The Order as a whole was headed by a Master General, who was elected and served until he either retired or was removed. For administrative purposes, the Order was divided into provinces, each headed by a provincial prior, who was elected by the priors of his province. Some provinces, such as that of England, consisted of an entire country, while other countries were divided into two or more provinces. The lowest level in the order was the priory, which was governed by a prior elected by the brothers of the house.

The Dominican habit was almost always made of wool. They wore a white tunic, a white scapular with an attached white hood, and a black cloak with a black hood. In winter, the friars were allowed to wear extra tunics or a sheepskin tunic for warmth. At their waist they wore a leather belt from which to suspend their eating knife, handkerchief, and (later) their rosary. Unlike Franciscans, Dominicans usually wore shoes. Humbert of Romans makes it clear that variance was tolerated in the habit --for instance, the kind of wool available locally might dictate that the cloak be grey, rather than black.

Those who chose to join the Order usually came from one of two classes: mature, already ordained priests, or youths still in their teens who needed training. The desire to pursue knowledge for the sake of effective preaching was paramount in any candidate. The Dominicans were particularly successful at appealing to youthful clerics at universities and preferred such men as novices, though they were willing to provide preliminary training to entrants who lacked schooling. In theory, no one under 18 was supposed to take the habit without special permission, but in fact this seems often to have been ignored.

Though the Dominicans were a preaching order, not just anyone was allowed to preach. Competence, learning, character, and maturity were essential before any given friar would be granted their license to preach. Such "preachers-in-ordinary" usually traveled in pairs and were not permitted to preach outside the district of their own priory without special leave. More skilled preachers could be licensed as preachers-general by their provincial prior, giving them permission to preach anywhere in the province. Once licensed, Dominican preachers were expected to preach as much as possible, unless administrative duties or studies limited their time. Priors were excused from preaching, though they were welcome to continue if they wanted to and it did not interfere excessively with their duties.

The Dominicans were active in many other aspects of society as well. Their roles in the growth of universities and as confessors have already been mentioned. The Order seems to have been heavily involved in secular politics, particularly in the fields of negotiation and mediation, which eventually grew to be a significant burden. Dominicans were in such demand as learned arbitrators that restrictions had to be introduced allowing the Order to recall those on such assignments at any time. Royal and noble patronage became a significant source of alms for the Order; for instance, the Close Rolls note repeated grants of shoes and cloth to various groups of Dominicans by Henry III.

The Second and Third Orders Dominican houses for women (later termed the Second Order) were part of the Order almost from the beginning. Dominic recognized that there was a need for a well-organized religious life for women, since many of the older monastic orders had become unwilling to support nunneries. Unlike the friars, Dominican nuns lived a more traditional monastic lifestyle in cloistered communities (interestingly enough, there had previously been more opportunities for women to live as religious in the community than as cloistered nuns). Dominican nunneries were administered under the same constitutions that governed the friars, and while the women did not preach, they were expected to take an interest in the work of the friars, act as their friends, and support their efforts with their prayers. As the Dominicans were one of the few orders willing to support female religious houses, the number of Dominican nunneries soon leapt skyward.

The Dominican Order of Penance (later called the Third Order) was officially established in 1285 to accommodate laypeople who wanted to formally adopt the status of penitent into more organized groups under a single jurisdiction. This Order assisted the friars by running hospitals, hospices, almshouses, and other missions to the sick and poor. Perhaps its most famous member was Catherine of Siena. There were also Dominican lay confraternities, who did similar kinds of work and who often had a local chapter where they could hear Dominican preachers and receive instruction. Such confraternities were often organized around a particular aspect of Dominican life, such as assisting the struggle against heresy or veneration of the Virgin.

I hope this article has acquainted the reader a bit more with one of the more maligned religious orders of the Middle Ages. While the Dominicans' reputation as bulwarks of the Inquisitions is quite deserved, it is only a small part of the big picture.

For Further Reading:

Hinnebusch, W.A. History of the Dominican Order New York, 1973.
Tugwell, Simon, ed. Early Domincans: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
_____________. The Way of the Preacher. Springfield, IL, 1979.

Copyright 1996, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.