Medieval Religious Orders - Life in Medieval Days

Religion was a VERY powerful force in medieval life - almost as powerful as the lords and ladies that a peasant owed his land and life to. In some cases religion was more powerful. Churches would own giant tracts of land, and often children who had no other path in life would become a nun, priest or monk in order to stay fed and clothed. There were many groups they could choose from, although their local area might only have one or two orders within easy travel distance.

St. Benedict
St. Benedict's order was founded in 529 and was very popular with nunneries. St. Benedictine was based on three main tenets:

* Vow of Poverty - the incoming nun must donate ALL worldly goods to the church.
* Vow of Chastity - the incoming nun must deny all male contact
* Vow of Obedience - whatever the church wanted, the nun must agree to do without question.

There were male as well as female groups of Benedictines. In accordance with their vow of poverty, they did not even dye their clothes. Their habits were originally of a natural color. As the habit grew and became more wealthy, they began to dye their robes black and began to be known as the Black Monks.

The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 by a group of "ex Benedictines". The Cistercians were rebelling against the "wealthy monks" who took in money and goods from locals and then lived a life of leisure while those around them starved. To distinguish themselves from the now "Black Monks" of Benedictine, they wore white robes.

St. Francis / Franciscans
One of my favorite movies is The Name of The Rose, which features Brother William, a Franciscan, played by Sean Connery. This movement was founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209. The people who follow this path wore only grey, coarse cloaks. They believed in the poverty of Christ and the desire to tend to the sick and "do good deeds" for no income. The Pope gave his blessing to this group.

By the mid 1200s, there were already well known centers at Oxford, Paris and other large university towns. The Franciscans were known for their desire to research things, to be able to "argue" persuasively for various points in Christian theology. They felt research and learning were extremely important in being a well rounded person.

St. Dominic / Dominicans
The Dominicans began in 1206 specifically to try to convert the heretical Cathars in France. They wore a tunic with a hood and were known as the "black friars". They focused on poverty, but also very much on education. They ensured that all of their members could read and write and were very well trained. Many of our best writings of this period come from Dominican writers. Thomas Aquinas was Dominican. So was Albertus Magnus.

In a sad note in history, the Inquisition with its quest for the truth was put in the hands of the Dominicans, who became overzealous in its pursuit.

St. Augustine / Augustinians
The Augustinians were begun in 1256, in Italy. They generally wore black, but if they were in an area full of Dominicans they would tend to wear white to be kept apart from them by the lay people in the area. Their key tenet was "Nothing conquers except truth and the victory of truth is love". They loved beauty, singing, and education.

Note that the Jesuits did not come around until the 1500s.

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