The History of Leith

January 2, 2007

Friars in Medieval Scotland

The orders of friars that emerged in the early thirteenth century spread rapidly throughout Europe and were a radical new force amongst the religious orders.

The two most significant orders were the Franciscans founded by St. Francis of Assisi and the Dominicans founded by St. Dominic. Both received papal approval in around 1215.

These orders of friars were committed to a life of poverty and were ‘mendicant’ in nature that is to say that they relied on the charity of others to support them. This was in marked contrast to monastic orders like the Benedictines whose abbeys were given endowments of land by their founder and as major landowners their monasteries were able to become wealthy institutions. Friars differed from monks in that the latter sought a secluded contemplative live which did not usually involve very much contact with the lay folk whereas the friar’s role was to go out and preach to the masses. They believed in an apostolic way of life (modelled on the apostles of Christ) which meant wandering about preaching to the ordinary people and begging for food and other things they required. From the beginnings of their order the Dominicans were based in buildings but they would go out on preaching missions and to collect alms. As the Franciscans increased in numbers they needed buildings in which to be based and so not owning property became impractical. Friars also helped the poor and cared for the sick. Houses of friars were established in towns and cities where the friars could preach to the lay folk and the population was large enough to support organised begging. From simpler beginnings friaries became increasingly more architecturally ambitious. They often resembled conventional monasteries in that the church, refectory, dormitory and other domestic buildings were grouped around a cloister.
Dominicans, Franciscans and also Carmelite friars became widespread in Scotland throughout the middle ages. Two smaller orders the Augustinian friars and the Friars of the Sack also had a house each in Scotland. At the reformation all these houses of friars were forcibly dissolved. Unfortunately as a result of destruction during the reformation and neglect in later centuries, most of these friaries have been totally destroyed. However some good examples of friar architecture still remain in Scotland such as at South Queensferry, Elgin, Inverkeithing, St. Monans and St. Andrews.

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