From: St. Dominic and His Work, by Pierre Mandonnet, O.P.,
        Translated by Sister Mary Benedicta Larkin, O.P., B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis/London, 1948.

Nature of the Order of Preachers

THE purpose of the Order of Preachers was determined by the life and activity of St. Dominic subsequent to the year 1205. His one quest was for the salvation of souls. The earliest Constitutions of the Preachers, in a text issued by the general chapter of Bologna in 1220, state that the Order, from the beginning, was instituted especially for preaching and for the salvation of souls; that the work of its members was to be directed chiefly, zealously, and supremely toward what would be helpful to the souls of their fellow men.(1) The intensity of the effort to be expended in pursuit of their purpose could not be more forcibly and briefly stated, and no other institution of the Middle Ages expressed its apostolic aim so explicitly. As a natural consequence, the purpose of the Preachers determined the nature of their apostolate and dictated the character of their organization.

Their activity assumed many forms; but these had their own degrees of importance and were carefully graded, so that the whole possessed an organized and integral character. According to their contemporaries, the Preachers were apostles, clerics, canons, and monks. Of these constitutive elements of their state and their life, the first two were most essential, and totally new in a religious order. The other two were of ancient lineage, and were reduced to an auxiliary and modified influence, intended to sustain and foster the principal work. The Preachers were, first and foremost, apostles and scholars.

The regime of the apostolic life was officially instituted in the Church by Innocent III in his letter of November 17, 1206, in favor Of St. Dominic and his companions. The apostolic life meant work for souls by word and example. It meant imitation of the poverty of Christ, the wearing of coarse raiment, and labor in a spirit of zeal. This mission was defined further in the letter of Honorius III (January 21, 1217 )(2) as well as in other letters of later date. In the papal and Dominican documents of the period it has a current formula: the Preachers had a mission to effect by word and example, pariter verbo et exemplo. The guaranty of example was aimed at by the adoption of monastic observances. Their office as Preachers could not have been more explicitly stated than it was in their official title, Ordo Praedicatorum, conferred by the Holy See.


Previous to that time the term denoted the teaching activity of the episcopal order, upon which lay all responsibility for the instruction of the people. In his letter of February 11, 1218,(3) Honorius III declared that the Friars Preachers were deputed to the office of preaching. In the letter of February 4, 1221,(4) enlarging on the earlier formula, he announced to all the bishops that the Preachers were deputed without reserve to that office: totaliter deputati. The Church did not confer the office of preaching on any other religious order so expressly and absolutely. In ecclesiastical tradition, the bishops, who were the ministers of theological training for the clergy, claimed also the collective title, Ordo doctorum, and it was considered identical with Ordo praedicatorum. Consequently, in their teaching functions the Friars Preachers were called doctors. This title was conferred on them by the first Constitutions, which provided that a convent could not be founded without a doctor, that is, without a professor of sacred science.(5)

In embracing the clerical life, the Preachers did not take upon themselves the care of parishes and the administration of the sacraments, except penance and the Eucharist. On the other hand, they introduced into clerical life, in a most intense form, the obligation of study and of teaching sacred science.

Instituted as canons regular in 1216, the Preachers, in their chapter of 1220, finally abandoned several elements of the canonical life: possessions and revenues in common;(6) the title of abbot, which Matthew of France had used as the first superior of the convent in Paris;(7) the surplice, for which the monastic scapular was substituted;(8) travel on horseback and the carrying of money.(9) From the practices that were regular in the canonical institution, they retained the habit, life in common, and the choral office, to be recited breviter et succincte. Exercises of piety and the spiritual life, such as the individual celebration of Mass, were left, according to the custom of the time, to the choice of each religious, who performed them privately according to his devotion. The title of canon, already rendered obsolete by that of Preacher, was virtually dropped by the general chapters from 1249 to 1251.(10)

There were changes from the traditional monastic practice in regard to manual work, the vow of stability, and foundations in isolated places. The Preachers belonged not to one convent but to Christendom, though ordinarily they were assigned to particular provinces which were vast in extent, but the monasteries were established in the heart of the great cities, as the normal scene of their preaching. In accordance with monastic tradition, the friars took the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the common basis of the life of all religious. Like that of the monks, their observance included silence, concerning which St. Antoninus wrote: "Silence is the father of preachers"; perpetual abstinence, the fast from September 14 to Easter and on all Fridays of the year; the exclusive use of wool for clothing and bed-coverings, the discipline, the daily chapter of faults with a code of penance for infractions of the Rule.

Such practices of asceticism, which might appear out of harmony with a life so intensely active as that of the Preachers, were prompted by the desire of preaching by example, of training athletes for the Church, and of countering heretical sects conspicuous for their extreme penances, particularly the Cathari of southern France, in the midst of whom the Order was born. Since the rigor of observance might easily constitute an obstacle to the aim and work of the Order, the legislative authority provided, as a moderating principle at the very beginning of the Constitutions, the right of dispensation vested in the conventual prior. Moreover, to free the conscience of religious and superiors in any perplexity about the use of dispensation, the Chapter Generalissimum of Paris in 1236 declared that the Constitutions did not bind under pain of sin.(11)

What was dominant in Dominican life, therefore, was the apostolic activity of the preacher and the doctrinal activity of the professor of sacred science. This end was effected by an intense application to study, by a life of prayer and a severe asceticism, happily moderated by a system of dispensation which was usual for students and professors.(12)


As the purpose of the Order of Preachers determined the nature of its activity, so the nature of the activity influenced the character of its organization; and as the apostolic and academic ministries were new in the life of religious, the Constitutions of the Preachers framed a type of government which further differentiated the Order from the earlier monastic institutions.

Structurally, the Order of Preachers was divided into convents. The convents were grouped in provinces, and all the provinces together constituted a strong unity which formed the Order.

The legislative power belonged to the general chapters. They were held annually at Pentecost. Each year from 1220 to 1227 inclusive, they were constituent assemblies, and a single chapter could promulgate an article of law. For greater stability, the Chapter Generalissimum of Paris in 1228 decreed that, to establish a new article in the Constitution, to change or abolish one, the intervention of three successive general chapters would be required.(13) From then on, the general chapters had sequence in the following way: the first was composed of provincial priors and the next two of representatives, including a delegate from a province for each chapter. This representative, known as a definitor, was elected by the provincial chapter. Only twice in the history of the Order,(14) did a Chapter Generalissimum occur, once in 1228, and again in 1236, at Paris. Such assemblies were composed of the members of three consecutive chapters, including the provincial and two delegates from each province. During their tenure, the general chapters held supreme power: they could correct and depose the master general. They also had full administrative and judicial authority. They brought the term of office of provincials to a close.

Executive and administrative authority in the convent was represented by the prior. He was elected by all the religious of the convent. His term of office, which was for only a few years, was ended by the authority of the provincial chapter. The province was governed by a provincial prior, elected by the provincial chapter, which was composed of priors of convents, of a delegate from each of these houses and of the preachers general of the province, to which number were later added masters in theology. This chapter had full authority over whatever concerned the government of the province. It assigned religious to the convents, named the professors, and annually appointed four religious to visit and supervise the convents, and in the next chapter to give an oral or written report on the state of the religious and their work.

The Order as a whole was governed by the master general. He was elected at the general chapter by all the provincials and two delegates from each province as chosen by the provincial chapter. His office was for life. He was the great governing agent and constituted the permanent principle of unity in the Order. He had to visit the Order, supervise, correct. He could undertake, suggest, or approve useful projects, give dispensations, assume exceptional powers conferred on him by the general chapter, and confer personally with the Sovereign Pontiff, who would acquaint him with his desires or his will.

What was characteristic of the new organization of the Preachers is evident from this summary. Whereas in the older monastic and canonical orders, the prelates assumed all authority and exercised it in perpetuity without control, and subjects never participated in its exercise, with the Preachers the whole body governed itself through members drawn temporarily from its ranks and returned thither more or less promptly, according to the office held in the hierarchy. This new kind of government was made possible by the fact that the Preachers were educated men, experienced clerics, capable of understanding the general interests of their Order and trained not to sacrifice the common good to individual and personal views. It was this twofold condition that Thomas Aquinas required in civil society in order that the citizens might there enjoy the full exercise of their rights.

The monks, ordinarily unlettered, were thought of as minors perpetually in tutelage; the Preachers were of age, legally emancipated, and each individual possessed the plenitude of his rights: in the social structure of his Order, the Preacher was always an elector and eligible for election. The regime of election held on all levels and that of representation in the capitular assemblies was arranged in favor of the subjects. But as liberty without control and without check always tends to anarchy, authority in the Order was strongly supported. It confirmed or annulled elections, and terminated the office of subordinate authorities when it pleased through the medium of provincial or general assemblies. Even though elective in origin, in the thirteenth century the authority in the Order asserted itself with firmness and great decision. Through the whole of this Constitutional regime, the Order of Preachers represented a highly individualist spirit and yet a strongly centralized power. The principle of centralization was comparable to that which then characterized the Catholic Church and the French monarchy. The principle of election and eligibility, as well as that of a limited tenure of office, was similar to that practiced in the case of magistrates in the communes where the Preachers were established and in that of the rising universities with which they were in contact or from which they had drawn a large number of their members.

By the adoption of a representative rule in their assemblies, the Preachers gave impetus to a movement already in the initial stages in some European states at the close of the twelfth century, and awaiting its acceptance in ecclesiastical circles. But nowhere, either in Church or in state, was it applied in so frequent or so firm a way as with the Preachers.(15)


1 Denifle, Archiv für Literatur, I, 194.

2 Laurent, no. 77.

3 The formula "officium praedicationis ad quod deputati sunt" appeared in the letter of recommendation of the Preachers only on April 26, 1218 (Laurent, no. 87).

4 Ibid., no. 129.

5 See Denifle, Archiv, I, 221.

6 Ibid., p. 222; Jordan, no. 87.

7 Laurent, nos. 111, 121; Jordan, no. 48.

8 Echard (I, 71 ff.; thinks there was no change in the habit from the beginning. But it seems that the surplice, which is spoken of by John of Navarre (Processus [Bologna], no. 26) and which disappeared before 1220, was generally worn by the first Preachers, doubtless in conformity with a law of the Council of Montpellier (Hefele, V, 1300).

9 Processus, no. 26.

10 Acta capitulorum, I, 44, 49, 55.

11 Acta capitulorum, I, 8.

12 Denifle, Archiv, I, 223.

13 Ibid., I, 194, 214; cf. Humbert, De vita regulari, II, 58.

14 The general chapter of Le Saulchoir in 1932, at which the Constitutions of the Preachers were corrected, revised, and adopted all at the same time, might deserve a title of generalissimum with regard to its effect, if not to its nature.

15 Before going on to the next chapter, many readers may prefer at this point to read the detailed and masterly Studies of Father Vicaire in the Appendix. (Translator's note.)