There were four orders of medieval friars; the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and just because confusion is good for the soul – the Augustinians. The Augustinian friars were not related in any way to the canons. All four groups flourished, initially at least, because of changing social and economic conditions. There was also a growth in population in the thirteenth century.
Rather than living within the confines of their houses friars travelled from place to place. They were mendicant. They begged and they preached. They did not rely upon endowments or noble patronage. This made them very popular.
The Dominicans or ‘Black Friars’ as they were also called arrived circa 1221. They swiftly became associated with education, in particular university education. The Franciscans or ‘Grey Friars’ recruited from the lower echelons of society and initially eschewed learning although in later years it was argued that the more learning a friar had the better he would be able to preach. The Carmelites began as hermits but by the thirteenth century were doing what the other friars were doing.
Friars swore their spiritual allegiance to their order rather than to a particular abbey or priory. Indeed there are very few remaining friaries because the early friars took their vows of poverty very seriously and ensured they lived in poor conditions. Later, when they lived in larger more substantial houses they did not conform to a particular plan of the kind that can be discerned in monasteries and nunneries. This oath to an order rather than a place gave them freedom to roam. In addition to teaching and preaching they saw it as their duty to minister to the people around them. This, for the Franciscans, on account of St Francis’s beliefs included administering the sacraments – hearing confessions and absolving folk from their sins. This stance rather peeved the average parish priest as well as the local bishops who regarded the friars as intruding upon their territory. The other services that they offered including burial took fees from the Church. In short, friars were popular with the lower classes, less so with the clergy: inevitably as time went on friars lost some of their initial shine, as illustrated by Chaucer’s description of a friar in The Canterbury Tales.
In the medieval world it would have been unsuitable for women to go wandering around the countryside so female friars did not exist as such. In their place the order known as the ‘Poor Clares’ was formed. They were a female order of Franciscans formed by St Clare. Their role was prayer, poverty, fasting and silence. In England the Poor Clares were called Minoresses.
In the first of these posts I identified three specific groups of religious orders. There is actually a part four: I overlooked a key group people in the medieval period – the military orders.