The Order of Friars Minor, or Greyfriars, began as a small band of enthusiasts led by the Little Poor Man of Assisi, the humble but gifted Francesco Bernadone. In 1209 he and his first companions accepted the challenge of literal and uncompromising obedience to the Gospel precepts. Pope Innocent III gave verbal assent to the first Rule (now lost) presented to him by St Francis. The earliest known Rule is that of 1221, confirmed in its final form in 1223 by a Bull of Honorius III. The Franciscan Rule is characterized by obedience to the Holy See and insistence on complete poverty. The friars could accept neither property nor money but were to live by the work of their hands or by begging. In course of time this total poverty caused practical difficulties, giving rise to two schools: those who still wished to adhere to the strict letter of the Gospel (Spiritualists) and the others who sought a compromise solution. Ensuing disputes over this, followed by such calamities as the Black Death (1348–52) and the Great Schism (1378–1417), led to a general weakening of the order. Laxity of discipline increased in proportion to the growth of material prosperity. Successive attempts at conciliation and reform resulted in the development of various branches: the Observants (officially recognized in 1415) were finally separated from the Conventuals in 1517; the reformed Capuchins were established in 1529, to be followed by the Reformati, the Recollects and the Discalced in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century there was a move towards reuniting the different branches. This was confirmed in 1897 by Leo XIII and was the starting-point of a great renewal of vigour.
The first English houses of Greyfriars were established in 1224 in Oxford, London and Canterbury. Henry VII introduced the Observants in the last decade of the 15th century. After being scattered at the Dissolution, the friars returned to England in the 19th century.
The order has produced many saints, including Anthony of Padua, Bernardine of Siena and John of Capistrano, and not a few scholars, among them Bonaventura, Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon and William of Ockham. It has sent missionaries to every part of the world. The Franciscans have for many centuries been the official guardians of the traditional sites of Christianity in the Holy Land.
The earliest Franciscans followed the liturgy of the local churches wherever they happened to find themselves. After 1223 they adopted the Use of the papal court. In the mid-13th century Haymo of Faversham reformed the liturgy, composing an ordinal for the breviary, for grace at meals and for the missal. This ordinal was used for the correction of the liturgical books of the order and it was to influence the course of the Roman rite throughout the West. The gradual was issued in 1251 and the antiphoner some three years later. Careful instructions were appended for scribes. From this time onwards the Franciscans used square notation.
Numerous chant treatises are the work of Franciscans, from the simple ‘Cantorinus’ type of concise instructions on intoning psalms and antiphons to the more developed prefaces of François de Bruges in his editions of the Roman Antiphoner (1505) and the Roman Psalter (1507). François commented in a practical way on the use of musica ficta in plainchant. The little handbook for novices and others by Bonaventura of Brescia, entitled Regula musice plane (1497), gives instructions on how to sing different categories of chant. An important medieval musical treatise describing both plainchant and mensural music is the Quatuor principalia, also the work of a Franciscan, the Friar of Bristol.
Franciscans figured among the many sequence writers of the Middle Ages, but the order has chiefly influenced the course of European music and poetry in ways not directly connected with the liturgy. The friars were closely associated with the composition and propagation of laude spirituali – simple religious songs in the vernacular that gained enormous popularity and were sung by numerous confraternities of lay folk in town and village. The Fioretti recount that St Francis himself went about ‘cantando e laudando magnificamente Iddio’. The texts, though not the music, of several of his songs survive. He sent out his friars to preach and sing the praises of God as if they were ‘joculatores Domini’, with the instruction to claim as largesse after their efforts not money but conversion of heart: ‘volumus in hoc remunerati a vobis, videlicet ut stetis in vera poenitentia’. This injunction was echoed in many of the laude, for example:
A voi gente facciam prego
ke stiate in penitentia …
The models used by the composers of laude were the wordly and amorous songs of the people. Often the melodies were taken over just as they stood and the words parodied. The Franciscans Jacopone da Todi and Bianco da Siena composed exquisite laude, and Jacopone made frequent use of dance forms. Many laude stressed penitential themes; numerous others were written in honour of the Blessed Virgin.
This popular Franciscan vernacular tradition was to prove an important influence in shaping the medieval lyric north of the Alps. Friar Jehan Tisserand is the first known composer of a French noël. In England Franciscans were directly associated with the development of the English carol. They produced translations, macaronic poems, parodies and original compositions. The Kildare collection (c1300) of Anglo-Irish poems (GB-Lbl Harl.913), which includes an early lullaby, was the work of Franciscans. Later in the 14th century Friar Johan de Grimestone wrote many religious lyrics, including carols, and towards the end of the 15th century Friar James Ryman of Canterbury composed no fewer than 119 carols and some 40 other poems, in a homely, simple style. He often used some well-worn Latin snippet, such a ‘O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Maria’, as a burden (Greene, 1935). Ryman also made English homespun translations of Latin hymns which were probably sung to their plainchant tunes. Either he or his scribe was familiar with the musical technique of faburden.
Franciscans have not confined their talents and interest to popular lyrics in the vernacular. When Salimbene de Adam described the multiple musical activities of his time in Italy in c1284 he made special mention of more technically complex music, in particular the polyphonic works of Philip the Chancellor. In later times the most celebrated of all Franciscan musicians was the scholar, composer and teacher Padre Martini (G.B. Martini, 1706–84), who was known and revered throughout Europe.