Authorities at Oxford University in the fourteenth century bore a grudge against Dominican friars. "We have learned from experience," grumbled the Congregation of Masters at Oxford, "that noble persons of this kingdom, gentlemen, and even those of common birth, desist from sending their sons … to the university … because they are very fearful that the friars will entice them into joining the Mendicant orders."

Thomas Aquinas's family had reason to fear the friars' influence. His wealthy parents sent their son off to school to begin a lucrative church career, and the next thing they knew, he had renounced riches and joined the Order of Preachers.

Why were men like Aquinas so attracted to the friars that they would risk their family's disapproval and rejection? And just what were a young man's choices when considering the religious life?

The classic choice

In Aquinas's day, thousands of abbeys throughout Europe subscribed to the Rule of Benedict, written in the sixth century. The Rule, not a book of rules only, set up a whole way of life for the monk. It designated eight calls to prayer and worship each day—Vigils began at 2:00 a.m., then Lauds, Prime at dawn, Tierce, Sext at noon, Nones, Vespers in early evening, and Compline. At these hours, monks prayed aloud and sang the psalmody in a choir, then listened to lengthy readings from Scripture or the Rule.

Benedictines lived with many restrictions. Monasteries regulated the monks' diet, forbidding them to eat meat, though some could eat fowl. Monks were allowed one meal per day, usually consisting of vegetables.

They were expected to engage in regular manual labor—monasteries were to be self-sufficient. They could not speak in the church or dormitory, though conversation was permitted elsewhere.

The abbot had absolute charge over the monks' spiritual and physical affairs, including their mobility. And abbots forbade their monks to own private property.

But there was another matter for men like Aquinas to consider—Benedictine monasteries had grown wealthy and powerful. In twelfth-century Canterbury, England, half the houses in the town and suburbs belonged to the monastery.

Some monasteries had political loyalties as well. In England, the king appointed abbots to act as local governors.

The people's choice

When Francis of Assisi began wandering the countryside and preaching in the town squares in 1209, he departed from the pattern of contemplative, structured religious life.

Francis debated with his friends "whether they ought to live among men, or betake themselves to solitary places." But Francis would not be tied to a monastery, as monks had to be. His passion for the gospel and for the common people who needed to hear it was too great.

Francis demanded absolute poverty from his followers, who became known as friars (from the Latin word for brother). He forbade them to own houses or receive money. For clothing, they were given a gray tunic with a white cord at the waist—hence their name, "Gray Friars." Beyond this, Franciscans relied on charity, begging for daily sustenance.

This radical approach appealed to rich individuals who were disillusioned with the church's wealth. Salimbene, a Franciscan friar, wrote, "there are many in both orders of friars [Franciscans and Dominicans] who, if they had been in the world … would have been priests, canons, archdeacons, bishops and archbishops, perhaps even cardinals and popes, like them. They should recognize that we have given up all these things to go begging." In fact, all of Francis's companions were children of merchant or knightly families of the town of Assisi.

To become a follower of Francis, then, was to reject family wealth, join a fraternity of men, and live with few belongings and often little food. It meant spending much time ministering to the needs of the poor (particularly lepers) and going out in pairs to preach repentance and penance. In many cases, it meant settling in urban centers, where audiences and charitable donations were plentiful but quarters were cramped and sanitation was lacking.

The Franciscan order soon split into two groups, the "Conventuals," who permitted communal property ownership, and the "Spirituals," who argued for a return to absolute poverty and emphasized the need to be always on the move.

But even as the order obtained property and created hierarchy, Francis's ideal remained central to the friars' convictions: to trade the pursuit of wealth for the ministry of the gospel among the poor.

The apologist's choice

The life of Dominic de Guzman paralleled Francis's in several ways. Dominic lived simply, owning only what he could carry and begging for his food. Dominic also insisted on absolute poverty, refusing to allow his followers even to own communal property. And like Francis, Dominic turned down the contemplative, cloistered life to spend his time preaching.

But the order Dominic founded was unique in two key ways. First, Dominic did not abandon monasticism altogether. For example, he required his followers to wear the habit of an earlier order, a white tunic under a large black cloak and hood—hence the name "Black Friars."

He incorporated traditional elements he believed would be beneficial, such as the Rule of Augustine. This rule offered little practical guidance on organizing a monastic community, though, thus giving Dominic freedom to accommodate the Rule to a friar's itinerant life.

Further, he omitted sections on manual labor and government. And he required the friars to sing the office in choir "briskly and succinctly lest the friars lose devotion."

Second, Dominic fashioned his new order after an encounter with heretical Albigensians, a dualistic sect that rejected material possessions, marriage, and the eating of meat and eggs, and preached that the soul must be freed from its material body. To combat such ideas, Dominic sought papal approval for an order of preachers. He was granted permission by Pope Honorius III in 1216.

Countering heretical teachings meant securing those places where new ideas flourished, so Dominicans entered the great universities. By 1218, they had taken positions at Paris and Bologna, and in 1221, they established a presence at Oxford.

To join the Dominicans during Aquinas's time was to embrace the vita apostolica—the simple, evangelistic lifestyle of the friar. It was also to embrace all that education could offer for the service of the Church.

How attractive this was to young men in the universities like Aquinas can be verified by looking at the numbers. Jordan of Saxony, who succeeded Dominic, proudly reported in 1226 that "within four weeks of our arrival [in Paris], 21 brethren entered" the order, and he duplicated his success at Vercelli and Oxford.

Not all of the Dominicans were university-educated—some "lay brothers" performed minimal manual labor needed to release their more educated members to study. But most Dominicans clearly committed their lives to the pursuit of knowledge.

Making the decision

Why did Aquinas choose the Dominicans? The reason he did not choose the Benedictines seems clear—he desired a humble station, and the cloistered life in a wealthy monastery held no appeal. But why not the Franciscans?

The answer seems to lie with Aquinas's growing fascination with Aristotle and his admiration for the leading Aristotelian scholar of the time, Dominican master Albert the Great. Aquinas likely applied to the Dominican order in the hope he could study with Albert, which, in fact, he did.

To understand why Aquinas chose as he did is to understand perhaps the greatest truth of his time. The Dominicans and Franciscans represented nothing less than a new commitment to revitalized spirituality and apostolic fervor. When the church had grown lazy and increasingly materialistic, the friars reminded people what being a Christian was all about.

Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator for Christian History.