In contesting with the ‘Mendicant' [i.e., Begging] friars, so prodigiously diffused throughout Christendom, Wicliffe went beyond questioning Papal abuses. He attacked the Papacy's very legitimacy. Doubts sent him back again and again to Scripture, a struggle well chronicled by Foxe the martyrologist. Scripture showed him clearly that the Gospel and the Papacy were utterly irreconcilable. To follow the one is finally to renounce the other.
So who were these Mendicants? They were originally men drawn into seclusion to escape from the dominant wealthy church. Over time they sank into corruption but a superstitious world looking on saw them both as pure and redeeming of the erring ways of the Great Church. Actually, such romanticising of the friars was largely the creation of later ages. A nun of Cambray, Sir Thomas More's descendant , gives us the real truth. "I can speak by experience, if one be not in a right course of prayer, and other exercises between God and one's soul, one's nature grows much worse than ever it would have been if one had lived in the world."
Monasteries were now more corrupt than the world. Testimony from these times is unrepeatable here. Although individual monks could not possess wealth the corporate body, the monastery and monastic order, could and did. Lands, houses, hunting-grounds, forests; tithes, tolls, orchards, fisheries, wool and cloth all fabulously enriched the monasteries. Everything choice in the finest food, costly furnishing and extravagant apparel abounded in them. Their head, the abbot, equalled princes in wealth, and surpassed them in pride.
‘Past all shame'
Peter, Abbot of Cluny says, "Our brethren despise God, and having passed all shame, eat flesh now all the days of the week except Friday. They run here and there, and, as kites and vultures, fly with great swiftness where the most smoke of the kitchen is, and where they smell the best roast and boiled. Those that wilt not do as the rest, they mock and treat as hypocrites and profane. Beans, cheese, eggs, and even fish itself, can no more please their nice palates; they only relish the flesh-pots of Egypt. Pieces of boiled and roasted pork, good fat veal, otters and hares, the best geese and pullets, and, in a word, all sorts of flesh and fowl do now cover the tables of our holy monks.
"But why do I talk? Those things are grown too common, they are satiated with them. They must have something more delicate. They would have got for them kids, harts, boars, and wild bears. One must for them beat the bushes with a great number of hunters, and by the help of birds of prey must one chase the pheasants, and partridges, and ring-doves, for fear the servants of God (who are our good monks) should perish with hunger". Bernard in the 12th century says, "I must always take the liberty to inquire how the salt of the earth comes to be so depraved?"
Franciscans and Dominicans
But the Papacy was by now becoming wounded by all this corruption. The notorious profligacy of the monks must be countered - but how? Reformation of existing orders was hopeless. New fraternities must be created. Hence we find the Franciscan order was instituted by Innocent III in the year 1215, and the Dominicans by Honorius III three years later. Fresh humility, poverty, and apostolic zeal surely must recover Rome's loss through the pride, wealth, and indolence of the elder monks. New times were also demanding new preachers to confute the growing protests of "heretics" (remnants of the True Church). More deadly, the founders of these two new orders were very dissimilar but disturbingly complementary.
St. Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria in 1182. His father was a rich merchant but after an illness Francis sought holiness and virtue in poverty He gave away all his property, exchanging garments with a beggar and made his way to Rome, to petition the Pope. He discovered Innocent III. ailing upon a terrace of the Lateran Palace. Surprisingly the Mendicant had not come to beg, but to give alms to the Popedom. Francis hurriedly described his project but was quickly dismissed. That night he appeared to Innocent in a dream (see illustration). Pontifical approbation rapidly followed. Before Francis died the solitary fanatic had become an army. The Franciscans filled all the countries of Christendom bound together by their vow of poverty, exactly prosecuting their founders wishes with indefatigable zeal.
St. Dominic was born in Arragon, 1170. Unlike Francis he was stern erudite and prone to rage. He soon became the enthusiastic hammer of Waldensian heresy. Dominican monks on wooden soles were shortly haranguing heretics without mercy. The Dominicans were divided into two bands. One preached and the other slew those failing to convert. The one refuted heresy, the other exterminated heretics. Dominicans rapidly multiplied to be heard in almost all the cities of Europe in just a few years. Admiring crowds listened to their blustering addresses whilst zeal cloaked their ignorance . The Franciscans and Dominicans did then for the Papacy what the Jesuits were to do later. The elder orders of monks had been sedentary recluses. The new orders regarded convents as hotels in which to reside on preaching tours.
The secular or parish clergy were too ignorant to write sermons and too indolent to read any out. Latin ceremonial, incensed prayers and sung litanies were a sensual entertainment understood by no-one. Wicliffe recalled, "there were many unable curates that knew not the ten commandments, nor could read their psalter, nor could understand a verse of it". But these friars erected pulpits in markets, on street corners, or in tiny chapels to preach in the vernacular. They were vowed to edifyingly poverty and lived solely on alms as beggars , hence their name of Mendicants. They were the soldiers of the Pope traversing Christendom in two bands, yet forming one united whole.
Inevitably this ever increasing army extended the fame and dominion of the Papal See. But if the rise of the new Mendicant orders was unexampled in its rapidity, its decline was equally swift. Their shipwreck was again upon the rock of riches. But how was it possible for wealth to enter monasteries so effectually barred by the most stringent vow of poverty? How was it that, as their riches increased prodigiously, so did their degeneracy, hastening on the same declension former ages had witnessed in the Benedictines and Augustinians?
The original constitution of the Mendicant orders remained unaltered. Their vow of poverty stood un-repealed. They still lived on the alms of the faithful, and still wore their gown of coarse woollen cloth, white with broad sash in the case of the Dominicans, and brown tied with a thrice knotted cord in the case of the Franciscans. Both gowns still retained their numerous and capacious pouches, in which little images, square bits of paper, amulets, and rosaries, were mixed with bits of bread and cheese, morsels of flesh, and other victuals collected by begging. Yet in the midst of such professed poverty their hoards mysteriously increased every day. How came this?
Friars worse than monks
The answer is simple. Among the many gullible brothers were a few subtle guiding intellects. They taught the remainder of their brethren the happy distinction between being proprietors and stewards. As proprietors they could possess nothing. But as stewards they might hold vast wealth to dispense for the ends and uses of their order. This ingenious distinction soon unlocked convent gates allowing a stream of gold provided by the pious to flow in unimpeded. They did not, like the other monastic fraternities, become landed proprietors . But the splendour of their edifices eclipsed those of the Benedictines and Augustinians. Churches ,which the skill of the architect and the genius of the painter did their utmost to glorify, convents and cloisters which monarchs might have been proud to inhabit, rose in all countries for the use of the friars. With this wealth came a multiform corruption - indolence, insolence, dissolution of manners, and a grievous abuse of those vast privileges and powers which the Papal See, finding the Franciscans and Dominicans so useful, had heaped upon them.
"It is an awful presage", exclaims Matthew Paris, only forty years after their institution, "that in 300 years, nay, in 400 years and more, the old monastic orders have not so entirely degenerated as these fraternities". This is the situation into which Wicliffe entered into combat with the friars. He realised that a plague had fallen upon his kingdom, which was daily spreading and hourly intensifying its ravages, and it must be opposed.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis