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.

Development and Activity of the Preachers

BEFORE reviewing the special activity of the Preachers during the first century of their existence, it is desirable to sketch ,briefly the material development of the Order and its administration, to enumerate the various forms of its labor, and to note the judgment of the Church on its achievements.

The vocation of the Preachers, requiring as it did that the members come exclusively from the ranks of the educated, that is, the clerical order, might seem to limit the field for recruits. An institution established on such a foundation might be expected to have a restricted rate of development. Rather it was the very opposite trend that created a danger for the Preachers.

At the general chapter of Bologna in 1221, the Order was divided into eight provinces: Spain, Provence, France, Lombardy, Roumania, Teutonia, England, and Hungary. The chapter of 1228 added four new provinces: the Holy Land, Greece, Poland, and Dacia (Denmark and the Scandinavian countries). At the juncture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, six provinces were divided and the total brought to eighteen.

In 1221, at the death of St. Dominic, according to Bernard Guidonis, the Order had about sixty convents of friars, and there were also four convents of sisters. According to the official census of 1277, there were then 404 houses of friars and 58 of sisters. In 1303, there were 582 of the first class and 149 of the second. In 1358 the figures were 642 and 157 respectively.

There is no record of the number of the religious in the thirteenth century. But on good grounds we may estimate that the Order, which counted sixteen members at the time of the dispersal (August 15, 1217), numbered about 7,000 in 1256, 10,000 at the end of the century, and 12,000 in 1337. These last two calculations probably fall below the correct figure.

The Order found recruits in all social classes, from royal families to simple laborers, but by way of the clerical state, a circumstance that tended to limit the plebeian element to the advantage of the aristocratic and bourgeois elements. During their great period of formation, the Preachers increased their membership mainly in the university centers, especially at Paris and Bologna, and these intellectual forces exerted a preponderant influence on the progress of the Order during a great part of the thirteenth century.

Throughout that first century, the Preachers possessed skilled administrators among their masters general. St. Dominic, Founder of the Order (1206-21), had a penetrating insight into the needs of his time. He executed his designs with an accuracy of view, a strength of resolution, and a tenacity of purpose that could not be surpassed. Jordan of Saxony (1222-37), a man of gentle character, eloquent, and endowed with a rare power of persuasion, attracted numerous and talented subjects to the Order. St. Raymond of Peñafort (1238-40), the great canonist of the age, was in office only long enough to re-codify the legislation of the Preachers. John the Teuton (124152), a polyglot bishop, in association with the most distinguished personalities of his era, strengthened the Order with numerous privileges. Humbert of Romans (1254-63), a genius of the practical type, a comprehensive and moderate spirit, brought the Order to its apogee, and wrote many works that perfectly reflect what he thought the Order of Preachers and Christian society should be. John of Vercelli (1264-83), an energetic and prudent man, maintained the Order in its brilliance during his long government. The successors of these illustrious masters did their best to fulfill their task and to face situations which conditions in the Church, from the late thirteenth century on, rendered more and more difficult.

The general chapters, which enjoy supreme authority in the Order of Preachers, stand out as the great regulators of Dominican life during the Middle Ages. They were remarkable for their spirit of decision and for the firmness with which they ruled the whole body. Held alternately each year at Bologna and at Paris until 1244, afterward they were held at various places throughout Christendom. The solemnity of their celebration assumed for the places where they convened the importance of a historical event. Princes, prelates, towns, and ordinary individuals were eager, by means of alms, to support these assemblies which ordinarily numbered many hundred persons and at times reached a total of seven hundred.


The Preachers' activity was intense and took many forms. It extended first and principally to what was the immediate purpose of their foundation: study, preaching, teaching, literary productions, and missions beyond the borders of the Christian world. But the Church and the civil power added other works to this already absorbing program. The popes made heavy demands on the Order for the services of its members in interests of the Church. During one century, we find appointed nearly 450 Dominican bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs, a dozen cardinals, and two popes, Innocent V and Benedict XI. The Preachers were called on for vicars, penitentiaries and papal chaplains, masters of the sacred palace, and Inquisitors. There was a continual appeal for their help in many capacities. They were legates, nuncios, apostolic commissioners for causes of many kinds; bishops used them for the administration of their dioceses; kings took them for counselors, confessors, and ambassadors; communes made them their peacemakers; convents of religious women sought their direction, as did numerous fraternities and lay associations.

The Order soon tried to obtain relief from some of these numerous Commissions which partly withdrew it from the principal work of its vocation. After 1225 the Church permitted the Order to refuse certain requests, even those made by papal legates. But it could not free itself from a multitude of extra duties which the worth of its members drew upon it, and willy-nilly it was always the public horse (equus publicus) of Christendom, as Innocent IV called it (November 14, 1248).

How did the Preachers acquit themselves of their task during the first century after their foundation? How did they carry out the program mapped out for them by Honorius III in 1216, when he declared they would be "the champions of the faith and the true lights of the world"? We shall limit our inquiry to judgments voiced by the Church, since her authority is supreme and she never ceased to watch with attentive interest the action of the militia in which she had placed her highest hopes.

We have the following words of Gregory IX in 1223, 1239, and 1240:

The conversion of so great a multitude of people in so short a time by the Order which professes the evangelical life is manifest proof that the Almighty has worked a wonder of His right hand. Holy Mother Church rejoices to be illuminated by the rays of so great a light.

We have an unshakable confidence in you.

It is evident that the wisdom of God has given you to be the light of nations.

The Friars Preachers are powerful in word and work. Their life vivifies their doctrine, and doctrine informs their life; what they teach in their sermons is readable in their conduct.

In 1244, 1245, and 1248, Innocent IV said:

From its foundation, the Order of Preachers has continued to grow with notable progress; we love it with whole-hearted affection. It is illustrious by reputation, renowned for learning, fervent in virtue.

In whatever concerns the glory of God, the honor of the Church, ecclesiastical power and liberty, the Preachers show no fear and they hesitate at nothing, once the prudent will of the Apostolic See is made known. We are proud in the Lord that He has fortified His Church with men who love to die for Christ and to suffer for justice.

The Order of Preachers has been divinely instituted to be the staff of the old age of the Church. It is like a public horse, ever ready to struggle against the malice of heretics, to correct the mistakes of the faithful, to temper the malice of tyrants, to bear the burdens of the universal Church, and above all, to come to the aid of the prelates.

The following are the words of Alexander IV in 1254, 1255, 1256, 1257, and 1261.

We have always been the friend of your Order and the fervent promoter of its honor and its welfare.

Your Order is a fertile field which produces flowers of strong religion and sanctity. It diffuses far and near the perfume of a life worthy of praise.

Nearly everywhere, the world over, your brethren are agreeable in the eyes of God and men.

The Preachers are eminent by the great uprightness of their life and illustrious for their discretion and prudence.

You are the special and beloved sons of the Roman Church.

The friars of this Order are men proved, filled with divine knowledge, efficacious in zeal, powerful in preaching, whose lips grace has touched to teach true doctrine and direct others in the way of salvation. Loud as the trumpet, their word re-echoes throughout the whole earth, and resounds to the ends of the world.

Among the other plantations of the Lord, the Order of Preachers is specially adorned by purity of life, the gift of knowledge, and the merit of virtue.

Urban IV (1261):

Your Order, illustrious for its works of piety, is like the candelabra of God on the surface of the earth.

Clement IV (1266 and 1267):

Your Order is a fortified city which guards the truth and welcomes the faithful through its open portals. It is the sun shining in the temple of God, the cypress on the heights lifting minds that regard it, the field of the Lord fragrant with celestial roses.

We can make this eulogy of your famous Order, that it possesses in itself the glory of perfect beauty and is absolutely pure of every stain.

Nicholas IV (1278):

We surround your Order with the privilege of a special affection. We delight in its beauty and find repose in its religion as a power of stability.

Celestine V (1294):

The religion of the Preachers is rich in the fecundity of its virtues and strong in the Lord by its good works. Since it was instituted to be the bulwark and the defense of the orthodox faith, it has not ceased, even to this day, by the grace of its distinguished merits and the doctrine of sacred preaching, to produce in the universal Church abundant fruits of sanctity and salvation, and this it continues to do.

Boniface VIII (1304):

The ineffable Providence of the Creator, wishing to exalt the glory of His name and procure the salvation of the faithful, has in our time produced, among the beautiful and fruitful plantations of the Church, an illustrious Order which is like a new tree of life, watered with heavenly benediction. From its earliest years it has grown with laudable progress. Elevated by the action of divine grace, it has finally unfolded its spreading branches to touch heaven in its sublimity and reach to the ends of the earth. The brethren of the Order of St. Dominic are the chosen ministers of Christ, brilliant for their worthy consecration, illustrious for their upright life, given by the wisdom of God to be the light of nations. They are like splendid stars in the firmament of the Church, like gleaming torches in the house of God. They enlighten all men by evangelical teaching, and their spiritual beams show the way of life to mortals.

John XXII (1318 and 1325):

Among the other religious orders, that of the Friars Preachers shines by the more abundant grace of its merits, by the prerogative of its virtues, and, as a model of religion, by a greater light.

We delight in the sidereal beauty of your Order and find repose in the stability of its religion.