Return to simplicity: Francis, Dominic and the friars
Few figures in the Western church have been so popular as Francis of Assisi (1181-1226); yet the real Francis, underneath the romances and legends, is probably almost as unknown as his contemporary, Dominic Guzman (cl 170-1221). For most people, Francis is the great nature-lover who preached to the birds and who tamed wolves, and the chivalrous champion of his 'Lady Poverty'. And if Dominic is thought of at all, it is perhaps most commonly as an Inquisitor. In fact Francis really was a lover of nature and of poverty, though the heart of his message lies elsewhere. But Dominic was definitely not an Inquisitor, as the office did not even exist until some ten years after his death.
The truth about these two saints and the Orders they founded is both less glamorous and more important than the myths. Between them, they brought to the church something which was desperately needed in the early thirteenth century. Many people longed for a more straightforward, evangelical way of life. Francis and Dominic showed that it was possible to do justice to this widespread desire, while remaining within the unity of the church.
As C. S. Lewis remarked. 'There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up'. And one of the things which they had, seemingly, sorted out and tidied up by the early thirteenth century was religious life. From the ninth century onwards the monks had been tidied up under the Rule of St Benedict, from the eleventh century onwards the orders of clergy had been tidied up under the Rule of St Augustine, and ever more effective steps were being taken to ensure that everyone who wanted to be set apart for a religious life would fit into some recognizable legal slot. Individuals ...