An order founded by Francis of Assisi* in 1209, when he gave his followers a simple rule advocating a life of apostolic poverty, preaching, and penance. The order was officially recognized when Francis and eleven others went to Rome in 1209 where Innocent III gave his oral approval and the brothers became known as the Order of Friars Minor. At first the primitive rule and the life of Francis provided enough cohesiveness for the order, but as the numbers increased with astonishing rapidity problems of administration became apparent. In 1221 Francis composed a second rule which reflected more the needs of a larger community, but was still not workable. In 1223 the third rule written by Francis and Cesarius of Speyer was confirmed by a papal bull of Honorius III and became known as Regula bullata. This rule maintained some of the spirit of the early rule but was more concerned with the official character of the order and its organization in accordance with church hierarchy. Francis expressed his regret for the loss of the freedom of the early rule in his Testament, which he wrote in 1226 reaffirming the need for a life of apostolic poverty and the imitation of Christ.
The conflict within the order which lasted for almost four centuries arose between those who wished to adhere strictly to the admonitions of the saint and those who felt modification was necessary in the practical administration of a large organization. Elias of Cortona* was instrumental in expanding the order, but was disliked for his worldliness and overbearing methods. During these formative years two schools of thought arose: the zelanti, or Spirituals, wished to follow the rule and Testament to the letter, while the Conventuals advocated moderation. Eventually John XXII decided in favor of the less strict interpretation in 1317-18, causing many Spirituals to rebel and form the schismatic Fraticelli.*
As the Franciscans grew in material wealth, laxity increased and a general decline ensued in the fourteenth century, aided by the Black Death* and the Great Schism.* Reform movements were in force, however, and a group of friars known as the Observants, who wished to live austere lives, were granted ecclesiastical recognition in 1415 and became a separate order in 1517. The Capuchins* also adhered to a doctrine of absolute poverty, adding an eremitical element. Altercations and divisions within the branches continued throughout the next three centuries, and culminated in the decree of Leo XIII which united all the different factions under a uniform constitution in 1897. Today the Franciscans consist of three orders: the Conventuals, the Observants, and the Capuchins.
The Franciscans have contributed much to the development of the Roman Catholic Church. Five of their members have been pope (Nicholas IV, Sixtus IV, Julius II, Sixtus V, Clement XIV). Franciscan scholarship has had great significance (Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and numerous educational institutions). The missionary and social work carried out has been outstanding.
See also Poor Clares and Tertiary.
A.G. Little, A Guide to Franciscan Studies (1920); E. Hutton, The Franciscans in England 1224-1538 (1926); R.M. Huber, A Documented History of the Franciscan Order (1944); H. Holzapfel, History of the Franciscan Order (tr. A. Tibesar; 1948); I.C. Brady (ed. and tr.), The Marrow of the Gospel: A Study of the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi (1958).