History of the Church: Later Middle Ages - Notre Dame

Military and Religious Orders

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I. Chivalry and the Military Orders

Chivalry, one of the most remarkable of medieval institutions, rose out of the continued influence of feudalism and religion, or, rather, from the softening effect of religion on feudalism, whose best features were retained, while its worst were suppressed. It may be termed a Christian code of morality regulating welfare and social life, and is a striking instance of the power of the Church to seize on what is good in a popular movement, to control its evil tendency, and to raise it to an exercise of virtue.

Thus, the love of honour, directed by respect for religion, framed a set of men whose noble independence, manly piety, and high sense of duty to their sovereign, and of the protection and deference due to the weaker sex, have made them the type of Christian manhood. Side by side with reckless bravery in the field were cultivated the beautiful social virtues of urbanity, self-denial, and respect for others. Courtesy of bearing and of speech, generous hospitality, coupled with a tender care for the weak and suffering, lent their refining influence to the sterner virtues, and completed the characteristics of a true knight.

It was during the Crusades that chivalry acquired its distinctive religious character, and that a mighty impetus was given to manly virtue in the ranks of knighthood being thrown open to all whose valour and merit entitled them to the honour. Up to this time the privilege had been hereditary, but henceforward a man raised to knighthood was equal with the lords of the soil in position and in dignity. In his moral standing he was often superior to the hereditary knight, as his title depended on personal merit.

We cannot pause over the magnificent pageants which make the days of chivalry so picturesque a period of history. Accounts of tournaments, of minstrelsy, of heraldry, and of the kindred arts, must be sought elsewhere—we can glance only at the religious side of the scene. The training of a knight and his reception into the highest grade of chivalry bear many points of resemblance to that undergone by candidates for religious profession. The noble youth began his chivalric education by being placed as a page in the household of some famed knight or courtly bishop. He was then taught every gentlemanly art and accomplishment—riding, tilting, and management of arms—while solid grounding in letters was by no means as rare as some would have us imagine. Courtesy, obedience, dignified self-restraint were sternly inculcated. If the young probationer passed through this time with credit, he was raised to the rank of squire, when his course of exercise became more severe, and the serious work of a military life began. Long and tried service, some act of special bravery or deed of self-denying heroism, entitled him to the honour of knighthood, which was occasionally given without ceremony on the battlefield, but more usually by a distinctly religious office. The knight-elect made a general confession of his lifetime, and spent the preceding days in fasting and prayer. On the eve of the great day the young aspirant to knighthood kept the vigil of arms in the church. In the morning he was clad in pure white raiment, heard Mass, and communicated. His sword was placed on the altar and there blessed. After an examination into his fitness for the honour, the knight-elect took a solemn oath of fealty to God and His Church and of loyalty to his sovereign, promising respect to women, relief to the suffering, and the maintenance of justice by righting human wrongs. He was then clad with the insignia of his rank; his gilded spurs were buckled to his heels, his sword was girded on, he received his shield and lance, and was dubbed a knight in the name of God and of the warrior saints, Michael and George. The kiss of peace, or accolade, terminated the ceremony.

Like every other institution which has human beings for its members, chivalry was subject to abuses, and often fell below its lofty aims. But it must be judged by what it did rather than what it failed to do. It turned rough and brutal warriors into courteous and high-minded gentlemen. Few nobler characters can be read of in history than such men as Bertrand du Guesclin, Tancred of Tiberias, Simon de Montfort the elder, Garcilaso de la Vega, the soldier poet and friend of St. Francis Borgia, not to speak of the warrior saints, Louis of France and Ignatius Loyola. It rave women a nobler part to play in social life, and on its most religious side it gave rise to the Military Orders, which so long were the glory of the Church.

Knights Hospitallers

The earliest Religious Order to combine the military with the monastic duties was that of the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. They date back to 1048, when some merchants of Amalfi obtained permission of the Mohammedan Caliph of Jerusalem to build a hospital for pilgrims in honour of St. John the Baptist. When the Crusaders had taken Jerusalem, and the necessity arose of providing for the defence of the Holy City, many of the knights stayed behind when the main body of the army returned home, and entering among the Hospitallers gave a military character to the Order. When Pope Pascal II. approved the Institute in 1113, it was as a Military Religious Order, and the protection of pilgrims was added to their duties. Commanderies, as their communities were called, were established in all ports on the route to the Holy Land.

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The Religious were grouped into three ranks. The Chaplains or Priests, the Knights, and the Brothers Servants-at-arms. All alike served the sick and the poor in the hospitals, and wonderful tales are told of their heroic charity. With the same magnificent self-sacrifice they would throw themselves on the enemy and conquer or die. After some time, the order spread so rapidly that it was divided into "Languages," corresponding to the principal nations which had contributed members. The whole Order was governed by a Grand Master. An assistant presided over each language. The distinctive dress of the Hospitallers was a red surcoat, with the white eight-pointed Maltese cross on the left shoulder.

As long as the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem lasted, these knights were its chief support. At the fatal battle of Tiberias, in 1187, the Grand Masters of both the great military Orders were taken prisoners, as well as King Guy of Jerusalem, and a great number of knights were slain. But the survivors rendered signal service throughout the Third Crusade. When, however, Jerusalem had to be evacuated, they settled at Acre, which King Richard gave them. Here they remained a hundred years, exercising the most liberal hospitality to pilgrims, and defending them from both Turks and Saracens. When the Seljukian Turks fell, the Saracens attacked and took Acre after a desperate siege. A boatful only of knights Escaped. They took refuge in Cyprus, where the Order again began to flourish. The Ottoman Turks, after conquering on land, began, in the fourteenth century, to form a naval power, and the knights found themselves forced to do the same. A siege of Rhodes by the Hospitallers ended in the capitulation to them of that island and of seven others, 1310. Rhodes was fortified, and the knights ruled there over a peaceful and prosperous people for two hundred years. They endeavoured to keep the Mediterranean free from pirates, and undoubtedly they served as a barrier to the advance of the Turks. They were, however, finally defeated. Rhodes was forced to capitulate on honourable terms, and the knights retired to Malta in 1523.

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Knights Templars

The Knights Templars, like the Hospitallers, were founded in Jerusalem. Nine noble Frenchmen formed themselves into a community, taking the ordinary religious vows, but adding to them the duty of defending the Holy Land. Their rule was drawn up by St. Bernard, and their name arose from their first dwelling lying close to the Temple. For a time they were more famous than the Hospitallers themselves, their numbers were higher, and they enjoyed greater privileges. They were exempt from all episcopal control, being subject to the Pope alone. Each commandery had the right to have within its precincts its own church or chapel, served by its own private chaplain, all such chapels enjoying the privilege of sanctuary. The Templars, like the Hospitallers, were governed by a Grand Master, but their sub-divisions were "provinces," not "languages." The Knight Templar must be a noble by birth; but gentlemen, craftsmen, retainers, and others were admitted among the ranks of the Brothers Servants-at-Arms. Their life was austere, their devotion to the sick tender and generous; but their valour was their grandest feature. They formed what was probably the finest body of soldiers the world has ever seen, and it was their proud boast that the heart of a coward had never beat beneath the red cross and white mantle of a Templar. They kept up their splendid reputation as long as fighting was needed, but when the Crusades were over, the Templars dispersed throughout Europe. Their distinctive work was gone, and their end was very sad.

Their privileges, their enormous riches, and their somewhat arrogant assumption of unequalled prowess, had early awakened jealousy. It was a disastrous day that saw the Hospitallers and Templars in the field wasting their prodigious valour against one another. But as time went on other and more serious questions arose. Justly or not, they were charged with odious crimes, and the Popes had on more than one occasion to complain of their insubordination to orders. Early in the fourteenth century, Philip the Fair ascended the French throne. His hostility to the Templars soon became public; his motive was probably an envious craving for their wealth. The opportunity of proceeding against them was given by two Templars, who, under examination for various crimes, to save themselves offered to supply the king with important information about the Order. They volunteered statements which, if true, would have proved the knights to be guilty of heresy, immorality, and other capital crimes. Philip gave secret orders for every Templar in his kingdom to be arrested on the same day, and to be examined by the Inquisition of the country. The Pope, Clement V., to protect the Order and take the affair into his own hands, suspended the powers of the French inquisitors, and appointed his own. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, and the Master of Normandy, Geoffrey de Charney, under torture acknowledged the charges, then retracted, again acknowledged them, probably with a hope of escaping punishment; for as soon as they knew they would be imprisoned for life, they once more declared the charges to be false. The French king the next day, before the Pope could possibly know the result of the trial, had the two men burned to death. Accusations began to pour in from all sides, and the Pope then restored their powers to the inquisitors of France. His own, however, continued their investigations. The French tribunal burned fifty-four knights for heresy in 1310.

During this time the prosecutions were going on in the other European countries. Very few trials seem to have been held in Germany. In England comparatively few were found guilty. It is rather a suspicious fact that by far the most serious charges were made and the greatest number punished in France, where the sovereign was most bitter against the Order.

In 1310 the General Council of Vienne was called. The Fathers met, however, only in 1311. As a number of Templars had been proved innocent, the Pope would not condemn the whole body, but it was agreed that the Order should be suppressed as a matter of prudence. The avaricious greed of Philip was disappointed, as the Pope adjudged the possessions of the Order to the Hospitallers, reserving a fair proportion for the innocent members.

Teutonic Knights

A third military Order must be noticed. The Teutonic Knights, so called because founded by merchants from Lubeck and Bremen, had the same object as the Hospitallers and observed almost the same rule. Their distinctive dress was the white mantle with a black cross. They were never as numerous as the members of the other Orders, and at first were confined to Acre, where they had been instituted in 1190. Thirty-five years later they withdrew to North Germany, where they carried on a warfare, sometimes called a Crusade, against the Pagan Russians and Poles. Thus they acquired large possessions and founded the Duchy of Prussia, which had many dependent commanderies, each with its wide estates. The Order lost its territories when the last Grand Master, Albert of Brandenburg, became a Protestant, secularized its possessions, and made them hereditary in his family.

II. Religious Orders

The great changes which came over Europe in consequence of the multiplication of towns or communes wrought corresponding changes in the form of religious life professed in the Middle Ages. The simple country folk, no longer grouped round the great monasteries, which gave them all the assistance they needed for this world and the next, were fast gathering into towns where they could not be reached by the cloistered monks. Crowded together in foul and narrow streets, struggling to maintain themselves in ways unknown to their forefathers, these poor people soon learned to fear that frightful scourge of the Middle Ages, known as the plague. Leprosy, too, was rife among them, perhaps brought home by the Crusaders, certainly increased and encouraged by the dirt and darkness of the filthy homes. Ignorance would grow apace now the people were at a distance from their former teachers, and carelessness about religion would be the necessary result. To meet the new needs, there arose new Religious Orders, more numerous than of old, as the wants of the poor were more various. The one great ancient Order, the Benedictine, which had filled the whole scene in the earlier and simpler days, continued and still continues its mission of affording silent solitudes for prayer and study to those called to its peaceful cloisters.

Contemplative Orders

Several Orders came into being in the later part of the eleventh and the early part of the twelfth centuries, which partook of the nature of the older congregation, many of them adopting the rule of St. Benedict, with modifications suited to the new mode of life. Such were the Camaldolese hermits, founded in 1023 by St. Romuald, and the monks of Vallombrosa, a similar institute, which had St. John Gualbert as founder, 1073.

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More widely spread than either of these were the Cistercians, founded by St. Robert of Molesme, who with a few fervent young monks started a reform in a monastery at Citeaux. The greatest glory of this Order is St. Bernard. He entered in 1113, at a time when the abbey was reduced to the direst distress. The abbot, St. Stephen Harding, an Englishman, who had given offence to the, Court of Burgundy by opposing the constant visits of the nobles to the cloister, was made to feel their displeasure. No more alms were sent and no new subjects presented themselves. St. Stephen's trust in God met with a magnificent reward. St. Bernard, with nearly thirty other young men—four of his own brothers among the number—arrived at the gates and asked admission to the Order. They were all of noble Burgundian families, and their fervour soon restored the prospects of the congregation. Two years later, St. Bernard was sent to found the monastery of Clairvaux. The fame of his disciples' and his own preaching brought immense numbers into the cloister. At first the austere character of his virtue made his rule a hard one; but supernatural lessons of gentleness softened his zeal into tender charity for natures less vigorous than his own. He had as great influence outside his monastery as within. He was called oil to draw up the rule for the Knights Templars. His persuasion brought the Kings of France and England and the Emperor of Germany to recognise Innocent II. as the lawful Pope instead of the usurping Anacletus. The antipope was supported by William, Duke of Aquitaine, who was suddenly converted during a mass celebrated by St. Bernard, who two years later induced the successor of Anacletus to lay down his pretensions and to strip himself of his insignia at the feet of Innocent II., 1130. The unhappy schism was thus terminated after having lasted about eight years.

St. Bernard.


Pope Eugenius III., formerly a monk of Clairvaux, who consulted St. Bernard on all occasions, set the saint the task of preaching the Second Crusade. St. Bernard's exhortations were accompanied by so marvellous a series of miracles that the story of his journey reads almost like a chapter of St. Matthew. Vast numbers offered themselves and took the cross. When St. Bernard reached Spires, the Emperor Conrad took him to the cathedral. The choir was chanting the "Salve Regina," and, as they finished, the saint exclaimed in a transport of devotion: "O Clemens! O Pia! O Dulcis Virgo Maria!" words which ever since have been joined to the Antiphon. The Crusade was a miserable failure, and St. Bernard was fiercely attacked as having been the cause of the loss of so many lives. He justified himself by pointing out that the conduct of the Crusaders had drawn down on them the anger of God. His apology was accompanied by a startling miracle of recovered sight, which silenced for a time his accusers.

All difficult questions seem to have been submitted to St. Bernard's decision. He it was who examined the writings of Abelard, and pointed out their errors, and who at Rheims convinced Gilbert, Bishop of Poitiers, of erroneous teaching on the subject of the Blessed Trinity. Gilbert showed magnanimous humility by submitting to the decision and destroying his own writings. When Peter of Bruys was spreading error throughout France, St. Bernard's saintly eloquence stemmed the tide of evil and brought back vast numbers to the Church. When some intemperate zealots incited the populace to the massacre of the Jews, St. Bernard stood forth as their protector. "Slay them not, lest My people forget," was his favourite text. His last act was one of mercy. Fierce contests tore the city of Metz. The saint, already on the verge of the grave, caused himself to be carried thither, and his dying voice restored peace to the inhabitants. On August 20, 1153, St. Bernard died at the age of seventy-three.

St. Bernard is classed among the greatest of mystical theologians; his works are all full of a tender piety that has won for him the love and admiration not only of his contemporaries, but of all succeeding ages. His hymns overflow with heartfelt devotion, the "Jesu dulcis Memoria" being the best known. His writings, which fill several large volumes, have from their excellence and method caused him to be ranked among the Fathers of the Church. After St. Bernard's days, the Cistercians almost rivaled the earlier Benedictine reforms of St. Maur and of Cluny in the number and fervour of their houses. Upwards of two thousand existed when the Reformation cane to sweep them and many others from the face of Europe.

Rivaling the Cistercians in fervour were the Carthusians, founded in 1086 by St. Bruno of Cologne, in the frightfully desolate valley of La Chartreuse, whence the Order takes its name. There were also several congregations of Regular Canons introduced at this time. The earliest was started by St. Peter Damian, under the rule of St. Augustine. The Norbertines or Premonstratensians made another congregation of the same nature. The object was to group the canons of a cathedral into a Religious body for the sake of greater perfection of life. These institutes were widely adopted.

Another group of Orders sprang up under the patronage of Our Blessed Lady. Such were the Gilbertines; the Carmelites, or Hermits of Mount Carmel, who, after the Saracens had taken Palestine, migrated to Europe; and the Servites, who specially honour the dolours of Mary. The Servites were founded by seven merchants of Florence in the thirteenth century.

Active Orders

The special needs of the time gave rise to yet another class of institutes, those whose members devoted themselves to active works of charity. We have already spoken of the military monks. Few combats occurred between Christians and Mohammedans without prisoners being captured. Two Orders, those of Our Lady of Mercy and the Trinitarians, were founded to bring redemption to these unfortunates, whose cruel captivity was a great temptation to give up their faith.

But the typical medieval religious were the friars, who did not, like the monks, live in an enclosed monastery. They came and went among those who had need of them. The prison, the battlefield, the lazar-house, and the hovels of the plague stricken—these were the cloister of the mendicant friars, and the scenes of their prayers and sacrifices. Foremost among the four congregations classed under the name are the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the others being the Carmelites and the Servites.

St. Francis of Assisi.


The Franciscan Friars, founded between 1204 and 1226 by St. Francis of Assisi, were "the providence of the poor," and a salutary example of mortification and poverty, in an age marked by an unbridled greed for pleasure and display. St. Francis was born at Assisi in 1182, and showed so great an aptitude for learning French that his own name of Bonaventure was dropped for that of Il Francese, the little Frenchman. He was a gay spendthrift, and not much of a scholar, but even in his vainest days he showed a tender compassion towards the poor and suffering. In one of the town feuds, so common in those days, Francis was captured and carried off to Perugia, where he was imprisoned with several others during two years, his simple faith and manly cheerfulness serving to make the trial endurable to his companions as well as to himself. The frivolity of his life came home to him in those days of suffering, and an illness which followed his liberation completed his determination to live as a Christian should who realized the life to come.

He gave up his gay clothes, his wasteful ways, and spent the hours once given to idle sports in prayer and penance. He felt that God was asking something from him, but at first he did not recognize in what way. A vision bade him turn his thoughts towards repairing God's Church. Taking the words literally, Francis looked out for a ruinous building on which to bestow his alms. Seeing that the old church of St. Damian needed restoration, he set about procuring the means. He sold his horse and some of his father's merchandise. This action and the change in Francis's life so angered his father, who was a worldly-minded man, that he locked up his son in a cellar, and for some months tried by harsh treatment to conquer his resolution. Francis would not give up what he felt was the call of God. When released by his mother, Francis went before the bishop and formally renounced his inheritance and his right to be regarded as his father's son and heir, and declared his wish of belonging alone to his Father in heaven. Henceforth he devoted himself to the service of the poor and suffering. But he also begged for and toiled at the rebuilding of St. Damian's Church. Then he undertook the same office for St. Mary of the Angels, a chapel on a little corner of land (Portiuncula) belonging to the Benedictines.

Disciples began to gather round the young saint, and the Benedictines gave him the Portiuncula with its chapel. Here St. Francis built his first convent, the model for later houses, a little dwelling not much more than a hut of wood and mud. The friars lived in the strictest poverty, and spent their days among the poor. When the Rule. was approved, in 1210, by Pope Innocent III., numbers begun to flock to the new institute. Then missionary work among the heathen was undertaken. The first five who started were martyred in Morocco by the Turks. St. Francis himself went to Egypt and Palestine, but beyond securing for his friars the privilege of guarding the Holy Places, some of which they still hold, he effected nothing. Two years before his death the saint, during an ecstasy, received the sacred Stigmata, or participation in the Five Wounds of his Divine Master. Worn out with the ardour of his love of God, this great saint, whose sweet and loving nature was stamped upon his teaching, which has come down to us in numberless anecdotes and in touching hymns, died on October 4, 1226.

With the assistance of St. Clare, a noble lady of Assisi, St. Francis had also founded an Order for women, equally austere with that of the friars. The nuns were cloistered, for the days when women might have the privilege of sharing in apostolic works among the poor, the ignorant, and the suffering were yet far off.

St. Clare


The spread of the Franciscan Order was one of the most marvellous features of this age of great virtues and great vices. In the next century, when the terrible plague known as the Black Death desolated Europe, it is said that no less than a quarter of a million of Friars Minor alone succumbed to its attack. For very many years, however, the great usefulness of the Order was hindered by contests among the friars, arising out of the extreme simplicity of their Rule—some interpreting it one way, and some another. In spite of these disputes, happily quelled in the end, the Order has continued to spread, and at the present day is one of the most populous of institutes. Perhaps not the least useful part of the work done was due to the Tertiaries, men and women living in the world, but observing a mitigated rule and sharing the spirit of the Franciscan friars as far as their state allowed. Thus they avoided extravagant expenditure on clothes, food, dwelling, and entertainments, and devoted considerable time to the care of the poor and the sick. What was of no less importance in those quarrelsome days, they forgave their enemies, and endeavoured to restore peace, so often endangered by party strifes. The instruction of the poor, too, was another work of mercy to which they dedicated themselves. In imitation of the Franciscan Tertiaries, other Orders also began to affiliate lay members. Thus was society leavened with piety and charity, and Christian social virtue showed itself in some of its most lovely forms.

Not less famed than the Franciscans or Grey Friars are the Black Friars of St. Dominic. This saint was a Spaniard of old Castilian blood. His ardent piety and penetrating intellect made him renowned from his university days. Palencia (transferred to Salamanca) had the honour of claiming him among its students. While he was still young, the Bishop of Osma enrolled him among his canons, and by his aid succeeded in introducing the Rule of St. Augustine into the Chapter of which St. Dominic was soon named prior. The next bishop, Diego de Ozevedo, when charged by the King of Spain with some important political missions, took with him the youthful superior. They had to traverse the South of France, then a prey to the Albigensian heresy, with its attendant corruption of manners. The two Spaniards, as soon as their duties were over, went to Rome and told the Pope of their desire to give themselves up to a life of cloistered holiness. But Pope Innocent III. sent them back to labour against the rapidly spreading heresy. As they journeyed, they. met the papal legates charged with the duty of preaching to the Albigenses. Finding that they had had no success, and seeing them surrounded with pomp and luxury, Dominic and Diego exhorted them to abandon worldly trappings and to preach, as our Lord Himself did, in poverty and humility. Their advice was taken, and good fruit was reaped. The story of the heresy has been already given. When the Bishop of Osma died, St. Dominic continued to preach alone. Ten years of incessant labour and many marvellous conversions followed, but progress was slow. It was about this time that the Rosary, revealed by Our Lady to St. Dominic, began to be used. Then Dominic began to gather disciples around him. His first convent for men was at Toulouse. Shortly after he founded another at La Prouille for women rescued from the heretics. This was the beginning of the Second Order of St. Dominic, that for nuns.

St. Dominic.


St. Dominic went to Rome to solicit the approval of his Order. The Fourth Council of Lateran had decided that no new Orders were to be founded; but, seeing the good St. Dominic was doing, Pope Innocent III. gave the desired permission, provided the friars followed an existing rule. St. Dominic chose that of St. Augustine, with certain modifications to adapt it to the new mode of life the friars were to observe. St. Dominic continued his labours in preaching, and trained his religious to do the like. He also occupied the office of inquisitor, or judge in cases of heresy, an act that has brought on him and his Order, which retained the office for many years, a vast amount of abuse. The special work of instructing the people in their religion has given the Dominicans the distinctive name of Friars Preachers. St. Dominic founded as many as sixty-five convents of his Order, several of the chief being in the great university towns, notably Bologna and Paris. These were grouped into eight provinces, in which the special work confided by St. Dominic to his religious, the preaching of missions among the people, was pursued with great zeal. St. Dominic died in 1221.

The spread of the Dominican Order was as rapid as that of the Franciscans. Whenever one of their great preachers appeared, crowds flocked to hear him, and it rarely happened that a sermon was preached without many vocations following. When Blessed Jordan of Saxony had appeared in a town, the first thought was to procure material to make habits, so great was the number of those who crowded into the Order wherever he gave a course of instructions. The ordinary supply in the conventual stores would soon have run short.

It has sometimes been stated that none but bishops preached during the centuries in which the Friars Preachers won such repute for themselves. This must be doubted, if we consider the minute directions given to parish priests respecting the instructions they were to give to their people. But it was a novelty to the people to see men in the garb of monks preaching in the public places, and the evident austerity of the new teachers won them a ready hearing in most quarters, though a decided opposition awaited them in others. The special glory of the Dominican Order lies in the mighty defence it has afforded to the teaching of the Church. "And," as Dr. Sheehan finely says, "equipped with all the knowledge of the sacred science, and with eloquence, taught not by the arts of the rhetorician, but by the Spirit of God, the Friars-Preachers for six hundred years have been the promoters of Divine science amongst the faithful; and preaching, as is meet, was supported by prayer—and that prayer, the golden chain that links every soul that uses it to the foot of Mary's throne in heaven. And the voice of eloquence and the voice of prayer commingled have been the all-powerful weapons with which the children of St. Dominic have combated and vanquished the enemies of Christ, even to our day." To the Dominicans learning and prayer were the necessary means of success, and their rule prescribed both. In St. Dominic's day learning was sought at the great fountain-heads of knowledge, the universities.

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