The Franciscan Order: Why Were Townspeople Drawn to Them?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The High Middle Ages

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

The Franciscan ethos of an extreme form of poverty, begging for a living, refusing to calculate in the future, was in some ways the antithesis of the reality of medieval urban life. Nonetheless, there were also some interesting parallels and similarities between the Franciscans and the town dwellers. Was this combination of being very different in certain respects, yet similar in others, what made the Franciscans even more alluring?

Statue of Saint Francis or Francis of Assisi offering blessings.
Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order preached to the townspeople, heard their confessions, and granted penance, something that the Benedictine monks didn’t do. (Image: Bikenbark/Shutterstock)

Franciscans Preached to Townspeople

The Franciscans cared enough about the townspeople to talk to them. That was something that the townspeople found helpful. Monks were not going to go to a town to encourage townspeople to lead a better sort of life; and indeed, preaching, the verbal active preaching to townspeople was relatively rare before the rise of the Franciscans.

The Franciscans preached frequently and constantly, although they harshly condemned many aspects of urban life, such as calculation, they did not condemn urban life entirely. They did not refuse to hold out the prospect that the townspeople could be good people. The fact that they were willing to preach to townspeople showed that they felt that the townspeople were at least worth saving.

The tactics that Franciscans used in their missions were almost perfectly designed to appeal to urban populations. It was apparent when a group of Franciscans came to town, because they would go to the town square, or someplace where there was certain to be a group of people, and begin to argue with them.

They would walk up to people and engage them in the debate. They would ask questions, and when people responded to their questions, they would ask them more questions. They almost tried to pick fights.

Why would this appeal to the townspeople? It was the behavior that they recognized and understood; to live in a medieval town was to talk for a living. A merchant was constantly haggling, constantly bargaining. There was give-and-take between the merchant and those the merchant sold to or bought from. This was precisely what Franciscans did, and what no one had really done before, in terms of preaching.

Learn more about those who worked – the townspeople.

Franciscans Transformed the Act of Confession

When they wrote about themselves, Franciscans liked to speak of themselves as ‘merchants for souls’. They were going to bargain and haggle with people until they got the best deal possible. Whereas, Benedictine monks liked to use military imagery to describe themselves. They described themselves as ‘knights battling Satan for souls,’ but not haggling for them, and not bargaining for them.

The distinctive Franciscan approach to preaching, their willingness to engage in debate, whether people wanted to debate or not—they would follow people around town, pestering them, until they finally argued with them—carried over into other spheres of Franciscan activity, most notably, penance and confession.

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

Before the Franciscans, confession and the giving of penance to those who had confessed their sins was a rather legalistic experience. There were handbooks called ‘penitentials’ that listed all the sins that one could possibly commit, and had very specific penances that were to be performed for each sin.

Scenes from the life of Francis of Assisi.
Francis of Assisi embodied the Franciscan willingness to engage in debate, whether the townspeople wanted to debate or not. (Image: Master of San Francesco Bardi/Public domain)

When someone confessed to a priest, the priest would get out the penitential, read down: ‘All right, you coveted your neighbor’s property; that will be five years on bread and water’. The priest did not want to know why the person coveted their neighbor’s property or anything about extenuating circumstances. He didn’t particularly want to talk to them about this; he simply issued the penance listed in the book.

Franciscans, when they heard confessions from laypeople, and granted penances, actively engaged laypeople in the debate, even if the person didn’t want to discuss their sins in any great detail. The second they confessed that they had coveted their neighbor’s property, the Franciscan would ask you why. ‘Which neighbor’s property? How much property’?

The Franciscans would try to see if there were any extenuating circumstances. ‘Were you drunk when you coveted your neighbor’s property? Have you done it again since the initial incident’? They would try to understand the root cause of sin.

Learn more about those who prayed – the monks.

The Franciscans had a great deal of latitude as well, in assessing a penance, because they would try to size up the person as an individual and try to determine how much circumstances should affect the penance. For townspeople, who liked haggling, there was nothing better than getting into a confessional, and trying to bargain one’s way down, after committing a particularly heinous offense.

The approach of the Franciscans was radical for the High Middle Ages, but it was in line with what the townspeople, the urban populace was used to. This was the key to the popularity of the Franciscans among the townspeople. The Franciscans spoke the language of the townspeople.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan movement.

Common Questions about the Franciscan Order and Its Appeal

Q: What is the purpose of the Franciscan Order?

The purpose of the Franciscan Order was to spread their beliefs among the townspeople of the High Middle Ages in Europe. They rejected the money and embraced poverty, begged for a living, didn’t possess any property, and refused to plan for the future. They engaged the townspeople in debates and constantly spoke to them. This was starkly different from what the monks of that period, who looked down upon the townspeople. The Franciscans liked to speak of themselves as ‘merchants for souls’.

Q: What do the Franciscans believe in?

The Franciscan Order believed in living a life of extreme poverty, begging for a living, and refusing to calculate in the future. Francis of Assisi demanded that Franciscans embrace poverty, that they should eschew greed as completely as humanly possible. He also demanded that individual Franciscans possess nothing and that his Franciscan Order also possesses nothing: no houses, no churches, no land, nothing.

Q: What did the Franciscan Order do?

The Franciscan Order cared enough about townspeople to talk to them, which the townspeople found helpful. The Franciscans preached frequently and constantly. They would walk up to people and engage them in the debate. They would ask questions, and when people responded to their questions, they would ask them more questions. The Franciscans also engaged in debate during the acts of hearing confessions and granting penance, which was distinctively different from what monks did.

Q: When did the Franciscan Order begin?

The Franciscan Order was founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209. In 1210, the Franciscan Order received papal recognition. By 1300, there were about 1,400 Franciscan religious houses throughout all of Europe, and the numbers of individuals who had joined the Franciscans stood at around 28,000.

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