The Medieval Review 14.04.22

Lawrence, C.H. The Friars: The Impact of the Mendicant Orders on Medieval Society, Revised Edition. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Pp. x, 245. £ 22.50. ISBN: 9781780764672.

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Robinson
Independent Scholar

It is good to have this book back in print. Originally published in 1994, Lawrence's book was the only good general introduction to the topic. Although the text and notes have been left virtually untouched--the only updated footnote (n. 77) is to the third edition of his own Medieval Monasticism (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001), which I also recommend--it remains a highly readable and informative introduction to a vast topic that defies worthwhile summary.

All but one of the strengths of the earlier edition remain on display here. With commendable brevity, Lawrence manages to explore virtually all of the salient aspects of the first century of mendicant history. The subtitle of the earlier edition, which is still present on the publisher's title page of this edition (iii), captures the chronological focus a little better: The Impact of the Early Mendicant Movement on Western Society. That is to say, while the first one hundred years following, say, the conversion of Francis of Assisi is not the exclusive focus, there are only occasional forays into the later decades of the fourteenth century (or beyond).

This leaves Lawrence plenty to discuss, of course. Dominicans and Franciscans (especially) loom large in the narrative, although Lawrence makes an effort to illuminate the histories, brief though they sometimes were, of the other mendicant orders. The "other" friars pop up occasionally, but merit a chapter of their own following an introduction to the Franciscans and Dominicans. Here, no doubt Frances Andrews' recent study of the "other" friars would have helped pinpoint what kind of "impact" these other friars had [1]; although Andrews is one of the updates included in the "Selective Bibliography," her findings do not work their way into Lawrence's own account.

The introductory chapter, which is meant to set the scene for the arrival of Francis (Chapter 2) and Dominic (Chapter 4), displays its age the most. Twenty years ago it was easier to take it for granted that there was a Cathar "Church," which owed its origins to direct Bogomil influence than it should be today. The sole reference to an article Fr. Antoine Dondaine, O.P., published in 1949-1950 in this connection is likely to signal less an adherence to the traditional "exogenous" hypothesis of Cathar origins than suggest that the matter of eastern influence was settled nearly sixty years ago. This is not a book where we should expect a definitive answer about the origins of heresy in western Europe, of course, but it is one where we should expect some sort of indication that not all scholars agree, at least in the bibliographical guide to further reading. (The bibliographies for this chapter, along with Chapters 8 and 10, were not updated.) The unbalanced discussion regarding heresy is particularly unfortunate in this case since it relates directly to the founding story of the Dominican Order. It is of course more exciting to imagine Dominic involved in a preaching campaign against members of an implacable counter-Church, and indeed it may well have been what Dominic thought he was doing, but students should be cautioned that not all participants might have agreed as to what was at stake.

With Francis and the origins of the Franciscan Order, the problem is not so much that there is a small but vocal minority pushing for a re-interpretation of the evidence, [2] but that there is too much material to deal with. One would be hard-pressed just to keep a handle on Francis alone, whose own works are re-edited with surprising, if not superfluous, frequency, and who is the subject of an endless stream of biographies. Here Lawrence charts a sure path, touching briefly the so-called Franciscan Question, the story of the saint's early life, his fascination with the vita apostolica, the incremental development into an Order, to his eventual retirement from a "directive role." Along the way, the reader is made aware that his desire to live an authentic apostolic life was not in itself unusual for the time, but that Francis seemed to push the poverty ideal to new heights. This naturally leads to the issue of how central a role Francis thought poverty should play in the Franciscan life. As Lawrence rightly points out, so lofty an ideal is difficult to maintain in a religious order that grew so rapidly, and, even more importantly, grew to become so important to the goals and needs of the papacy in the thirteenth century. It is difficult even today, and even for non-Franciscan historians, to avoid a degree of partisanship regarding how later generations of Franciscans often seemed to fall short of the high standards set in the earliest days. Lawrence takes something like the middle path, arguing that a literal observance of the ideal simply could not be successfully institutionalized. Yet the nature of the mendicant orders, which--the failure of several smaller orders notwithstanding--evolved to include a disproportionately large "mobile and highly educated corps of schoolmen" who owed their obedience to the pope rather than local bishops well suited the needs of a papacy that was increasingly aware of the need for "a single centralised administrative and legal system" (181). The early bulls of Innocent IV and those of Martin IV concerning the Franciscans can be read as evincing a strong concern that the technicalities of Franciscan poverty should not impede their ability to perform their pastoral duties.

Lawrence documents the growth of the Franciscans and Dominicans in a simple but not overly simplified fashion. The focus throughout is on the members of the first, rather than second or third orders. The Franciscan commitment to corporate poverty meant they were more likely to suffer from external and internal criticism, but it is well known that there was resistance to the Preachers at times as well. Their early focus on education famously led to controversy at the University of Paris, where critics like William of St-Amour would refer to Franciscans and Dominicans alike as "pseudo-preachers" and "penetrators of homes." The sixth chapter documents the friars' preoccupation with the cities. The Franciscan pattern of settlement expanded more quickly than that of the Dominicans, which Lawrence does not attribute simply to a quicker growth rate of the overall numbers of friars in each order. Rather, Dominicans seemed to have envisioned from the outset a methodical expansion that would ensure each new community had a quorum of friars and at least one individual who was qualified to lecture in theology. Carmelites and Austin Friars grew at an even slower rate, although it quickened in the years after 1270---and thus really in the years following the decree Religionum diversitatem of the Second Council of Lyons (1274), [3] which suppressed several other mendicant orders. Lawrence notes that these orders often established themselves in towns where there was not already a mendicant presence. This was a sound decision since latecomers did not only need to worry about aggravating the local clergy, but also the entrenched mendicants, who were prone to verify that the new convent was located far enough away from their own. Frances Andrews, for example, has noted that (unintentionally humorous) disputes arose on this very issue. The question some had was whether this distance, which was eventually reduced to 140 rods (cannae), should be measured in a straight line or around buildings. [4] Monty Python should have done a sketch.

As the mendicant orders grew in size, their cultural footprint grew as well. As is well-known, a significant proportion of the leading theologians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were friars. In this respect William of St-Amour's fears were well founded even if his extant writings make him out to be a conspiracy theorist avant la lettre. Dominicans made education a priority from the outset, and the Franciscans quickly followed suit. Lawrence's chapter on the "capture" of the schools (Chapter 7) adroitly covers mendicant involvement in the universities and some of the academic controversies in which they were embroiled in the thirteenth century. Again, however, there was a lost opportunity in the bibliography. There is certainly nothing wrong with mentioning Christopher Cullen's recent introduction to Bonaventure, [5] but, if I had to pick, I would rather see mention of some of Bert Roest's many studies of Franciscan intellectual history and Michèle Mulchahey's equally important study of Dominican education. [6]

The final chapters explore in greater detail some of the ways mendicants interacted with the elites of day and finishes with a chapter on mendicant missions beyond what we now call Europe (Chapter 11). Just as the mendicant involvement at centres of higher learning produced sharp reaction from the secular clergy who feared and indeed witnessed an erosion of their traditional sphere of influence, the move into "the Houses of Kings" (Chapter 9) and their direct engagement in "the Service of the Papacy" (Chapter 10) did not go unchallenged. Lawrence documents the vocal and financial support of these new orders, but his interest is in the roles the friars played within the royal sphere, which was primarily pastoral, and the reasons the friars likely proved attractive agents. Lawrence stresses that the friars, unlike others who made their living in some capacity in secular government, were appealing because their livelihood was (in theory) independent of the structures of government. It is perhaps overly idealistic to imagine that elites, let alone all individual friars, thought that membership in a mendicant order meant an active "opting out of the race for ecclesiastical preferment" (173). But, even so, the fact that a friar's advancement (should he be so inclined) was not dependent only upon his position at court must have proven appealing to many a ruler. And of course some of the examples Lawrence offers of services individual friars provided does suggest they were found useful. The same is even more true of the friars' relationship with the papacy, which did at times compromise their relationship with local rulers. Here, one of the bigger sections deals with the rise of the inquisition in the thirteenth century and the efforts to stem, if not reverse, the rising tide of heresy. If Dominicans have the dubious honour of being first to take charge of ecclesiastical efforts, the Franciscans were not far behind. Lawrence suggests Gregory IX's apparent early reluctance to share inquisitorial duties with the Franciscans may have been due to the still large lay element in the Order. Indeed, when Innocent IV reorganized efforts and increased the Minorite role (1254), the early internal Franciscan fight over clericalization was, in effect, largely over.

Lawrence's book has much to recommend it. It covers all the above topics and more in an accessible and engaging way. Teachers will be glad to have this book available again for it could be used in a variety of different courses, and it is affordable enough that no one will feel guilty about breaking a student's budget by assigning it. Yet teachers who wish to use this book should not hesitate to mention to students that they could use the first edition if they can find it more cheaply. As far as I can tell, there is no substantial updating of the content of any of the chapters, which in fact even start on the same pages as the first edition. This is obviously a missed opportunity in some ways, but it is a testament to the original that it has held up so well for the last twenty years. My only complaint is that the Select Bibliography was not given the re-working it deserved. It would be a herculean task to absorb all the essential scholarship of the last twenty years and distill it into a form suitable for an introduction to the friars, but it would not be difficult to have done more when it comes to listing them. Similarly, as this book will be most useful to students--although it is a perfectly suitable introduction for anyone--I would like to have seen some mention of primary sources in translation. There has been a veritable explosion since the early 1990s in the amount of source material available in English, and some suggestions of what is available and where to look would have been a nice addition. I would say the same thing for web resources. Although the danger of link rot is ever present, it is not the early days of the web where the only site on Bonaventure (say) was hosted by a hobbyist who is unlikely to maintain it: there are many reputable academic websites that are about as stable as can be expected. And some suggestions of where to look would surely alleviate some strain on Wikipedia's overworked servers. Even so, libraries and individuals without a copy of the first edition are well advised to purchase this one. [7]



1. Frances Andrews, The Other Friars: The Carmelite, Augustinian, Sack and Pied Friars in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006).

2. Notably, Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered (Oxford Studies in Historical Theology; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), is not mentioned.

3. VI 3.17.1 (Corpus iuris canonici, ed. Emil. Friedberg, 2:1054-1055). This decree invoked c. 13 of Lateran IV, which prohibited the founding of new religious orders.

4. Andrews, The Other Friars, 27-28 and n. 7.

5. Christopher Cullen, Bonaventure (Great Medieval Thinkers; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

6. Bert Roest, A History of Franciscan Education (c. 1210-1517) (Education and Society in the Middle Ages and Renaissance 11; Leiden: Brill, 2000); idem, Franciscan Literature of Religious Instruction Before the Council of Trent (Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 117; Leiden: Brill, 2004); and M. Michèle Mulchahey, "First the Bow Is Bent in Study": Dominican Education before 1350 (Studies and Texts 132; Toronto: , 1998).

7. There are only a few typos, many of which are present only in this edition (e.g., pp. 47, 68, 79, n. 115, n. 120, n. 126, n. 176, 235 [bis], 240). Presumably these are computer rather than human errors. None of them impede comprehension.

Copyright (c) 2014 Jonathan Robinson

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