Changes in the Franciscan Order After Francis of Assisi’s Death

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William and Mary

The Franciscan Order grew by leaps and bounds right through the 13th century, but it didn’t remain exactly how Francis of Assisi had envisioned it to be. After his death in 1226, the Franciscan Order faced problems that Francis of Assisi’s personal charisma had kept at bay, and the vacuum left by his death also led to the religious order morphing into an entity he wouldn’t have approved. What were the changes and why did this happen?

Franciscans taking part in the friday parade in (Old City) Jerusalem.
The Franciscan Order split into two warring factions in the 13th century – the Spiritual Franciscans and the Conventual Franciscans. (Image: Dr. Gilad Fiskus/Shutterstock)

Hostility Faced by the Franciscans

The Franciscans were appealing to many townspeople, as the growth of their order attests, but not everybody loved the Franciscan Order or Francis of Assisi. The Franciscan Order encountered a certain amount of hostility, even before Francis of Assisi’s death. Once he was gone, and his personal charisma was lacking, the hostility only grew.

Local clergy, priests, bishops, were often deeply jealous of the Franciscans. After all, they were taking away a lot of business from them. They were performing the burial rites, they were hearing the confessions, and eventually, they were going to start to attract the donations as well. The religious pie was getting sliced smaller due to the presence of the Franciscans.

Some felt that the Franciscans, by begging, were simply a burden on society. They were able-bodied individuals, and monks, at least, did some physical labor, or they were supposed to. In this respect, monasticism was superior to the Franciscan movement. Far worse for the Franciscans, though, than the hostility of the local clergy and the outside criticism, was the success that the Franciscans encountered. Once again, in the history of a medieval religious order, we see that, in fact, success was a failure in disguise.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan movement.

The Franciscan Order Amassed Wealth

Donors and townspeople were so impressed with the Franciscans and the austerity of their lives, that they wanted to do more than simply flip a few coins at a Franciscan, so a Franciscan could eat that day. They wanted to build churches for Franciscans. They wanted to build houses and give them to the Franciscans. They wanted to give more lavish donations than their neighbors had given so that they would be remembered more by the Franciscans in their prayers.

Miniature of Pope Gregory IX from a medieval manuscript.
Pope Gregory IX passed an order in 1230 that allowed the Franciscan Order to appoint an official who would hold onto gifts offered to the Franciscans, on their behalf. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Toward the end of his life, Francis of Assisi had a foreshadowing of what was going to happen to his order. He knew as more and more people joined, that the quality of the Franciscans was going to suffer and that temptations of this sort, offered by well-meaning individuals, might very well result in the corruption of his order. Indeed, shortly after his death, the Franciscans began to change in ways that he would never have approved of.

In 1230, only four years after Francis of Assisi’s death, the Franciscans asked the pope for a ruling and got one. According to this ruling, Franciscans were given the right to appoint an official, whose official title was a nuntius, who was to receive and keep all gifts that were offered to the Franciscans henceforth.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

This ruling was put in place so that technically, land, churches, or real property was given to the Franciscans don’t belong to the Franciscans. On the surface, they were still observing the Rule of Saint Francis, who said they may not have these things, but at least they could use these items, and these items were possessed by someone whom they had appointed.

It was a legal fiction, and during the rest of the 13th century, there would be more and more legal fictions created that allowed the Franciscans to begin to amass more and more wealth.

In 1245, the papacy ruled that henceforth, the Franciscans could consider any gifts given to them to simply be the property of the papacy, which made it even easier for the Franciscans to accept the things Francis of Assisi had not wanted them to accept.

As the Franciscans began to accept property, and to accumulate wealth, begging, one of the most distinctive features of the Franciscan movement, never having more money than you need for that one day, became a formality that you might, as a Franciscan, do once in a while, just for show, and that by 1300 you probably didn’t ever do anymore, because you didn’t have to.

Learn more about heretics and heresy.

Division of the Franciscan Order

The townspeople were happy that the Franciscans had started accepting their ‘gifts’ and ‘offerings’, but not everyone took this development well. Criticism of the Franciscans became harsher and harsher during the 13th century, as they increasingly came to resemble other wealthy religious orders.

By 1300, the Franciscans had acquired the reputation, rightly or wrongly, as gold diggers. People charged them with intentionally giving out very light penances for the sole purpose of bringing in as much business as possible. Some members of the Franciscan Order fought the development.

The Franciscan Order split into two fightings, often warring factions in the 13th century. One group was known as the ‘Spiritual Franciscans’. They were horrified at the changes that were taking place in the order, and they wanted strict observance of the Rule of Saint Francis.

Other Franciscans, though, formed a more moderate party called the ‘Conventual Franciscans’. They welcomed these changes and felt that it would be impossible to run order the size of the Franciscans by begging from day today. You needed to have some sort of property to support 28,000 members.

The disputes and fights between the Spiritual Franciscans and the Conventual Franciscans were rather unseemly and even turned deadly. In the early 14th century, a group of Spiritual Franciscans was condemned for heresy, because they wanted to adhere to the Rule of Saint Francis so strictly, and in fact, they were burned as heretics. This was a clear sign of the fact that the Spiritual Franciscans had lost this fight. The Conventual Franciscans had won.

Learn more about those who prayed – the monks.

The reorganization of Europe had created a need for new spiritual models. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans fulfilled that need. Unlike monks, Franciscans were constantly on the move, constantly talking and speaking with people, preaching and hearing confessions, and ministering to urban populations.

The Franciscans also rejected the money, the physical possession of money, and believed in begging for a living. However, after the death of Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans began accepting donations, which led to a division within the religious order. It also attracted a lot of hostility and criticism.

Common Questions about the Changes in the Franciscan Order

Q: What are the different Franciscan orders?

Around 1300, there was a dispute within the Franciscan Order regarding the decision to start accepting ‘gifts’, property, and accumulate wealth. The Franciscan Order split into two factions that were constantly fighting with each other. The first group was known as the ‘Spiritual Franciscans’, and they continued to strictly follow the Rule of Saint Francis and reject money and planning. The second group was called the ‘Conventual Franciscans’, which welcomed the changes.
Eventually, in the early 14th century, the Conventual Franciscans prevailed over the Spiritual Franciscans. Currently, there are three Franciscan orders, namely the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Saint Clare, and the Third Order of Saint Francis.

Q: What are the Franciscan core values?

The core values of the Franciscan Order were to live a life of extreme poverty, begging for a living, and not plan for the future. However, in the last 13th century, some decades after the death of Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan Order started accepting donations and property, which was completely against the Rule of Saint Francis. This led to a division within the Franciscan Order.

Q: What does the Franciscan Order do?

The Franciscan Order used to travel to towns in High Medieval Europe and preach to the townspeople. They would engage people in debates and ask them questions. The Franciscans also heard confessions and granted penance, which monks didn’t do in that day and age. The Franciscan Order encountered a certain amount of hostility because of this. Local clergy, priests, and bishops were often deeply jealous of the Franciscans because they were taking away a lot of business from them.

Q: What is the Franciscan way of life?

The Franciscans were constantly on the move, constantly talking and speaking with people, preaching and hearing confessions, and ministering to urban populations. They rejected the money, and believed in begging for a living. They also rejected planning for the future. According to them, planning for the future was akin to not trusting God.

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