There came a time when Medieval Christianity was at its highest point. However, the growth of cities, trade, and the monetary economy brought about changes that were not always welcome. This was also the time when the mendicant orders began and flourished. “Mendicants” refer to those who lived by begging. A forerunner of the mendicant orders was Peter Waldo, a merchant from Lyons who heard the story of a monk who practiced extreme poverty and was moved by it to devote himself to a life of poverty and preaching. His followers were thereafter called “Waldensians” who, along with him, were treated with derision due to their ignorance. Despite repeated condemnations, they continued preaching. Persecution then forced them to withdraw to remote valleys in the Alps, where they continued existing until the Protestant Reformation. At that time, they were approached by Reformed theologians whose teachings they accepted, and thus became Protestant.
The next mendicant movement was the Franciscans, which was very similar to the Waldensians. Francis, like Waldo, belonged to the merchant class. His true name was Giovanni. Due to his French lineage on his mother’s side and his father’s trade relations with France, not to mention his fondness of the songs of the French troubadours, his friends in his native Assisi called him “Francesco” or the little Frenchman. Hence, he is known today as St. Francis of Assisi, a name that the present Pope, Jorge Bergoglio, took his name from. A sister order for women was founded by St. Clare, a spiritual sister of Francis, and became commonly known as the “Clarisses” or “Poor Clares.” St. Francis died on October 3, 1226 in a chapel that he had rebuilt in his youth.
Another major mendicant order was St. Dominic de Guzman. Albeit twelve years older than Francis, his work as the founder of an order was somewhat later. He was born in the town of Calaruega, in Castile, to an aristocratic family whose tower still dominates the landscape. Dominic became the canon of the cathedral at Osma. Four years later, when he was twenty-nine, the chapter of the cathedral resolved to follow the monastic rule of St. Augustine. Despite living in a monastic community, the members of the chapter did not withdraw from the world nor did they set aside their ministry to the faithful. Due to Dominic’s concerns regarding heresy, he set out to teach and preach on orthodoxy. This he joined to a disciplined monastic life and rigorous study in order to make use of the best possible arguments against heresy. Officially, th Dominican order is called the “Order of Preachers.” From the beginning, Dominicans had seen poverty as an argument that strengthened and facilitated their task of refuting heresy. Their main objective was preaching, teaching, and study, and poverty was seen as a means to that end. A few years from their humble beginnings, the most famous and influential theologian of the West arose. His name was Thomas Aquinas, dubbed by the Catholic Church as the “Angelic Doctor of the Church,” whose monumental work was the Summa Theologica.
Both the Franciscan and Dominican orders spread throughout most of Europe. Soon there were other movements, or ancient orders that now followed their example.