Third Franciscan order should be taken seriously

In the late Middle Ages the diocese of Utrecht had more than 150 monasteries of the third order of St Francis. The majority of these were affiliated to the Chapter of Utrecht, an umbrella organisation founded in 1399. This can be considered part of the Modern Devotion, the religious reform movement which –starting in the valley of the river IJssel – influenced large parts of Europe. Based on a large number of archives within the Netherlands and further afield, Hildo van Engen investigated the history of this Utrecht Chapter and its communities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In Antwerp, Van Engen came across two copies of letters from Geert Grote concerning the third Franciscan order, which were previously unknown. These date from about 1380 and were possibly intended for third order sisters in Zwolle. According to Grote they did not adhere strictly enough to third Franciscan order regulations concerning food and clothing. The letters reveal that contrary to previous opinion, the early modern devout had a favourable attitude towards the third Franciscan order. Although Grote reprimanded the sisters, he found the principles of their lifestyle could be of the highest service. Interestingly these letters were written in Medieval Dutch, whereas the majority of Grote's work is written in Latin.

The third Franciscan order was originally a lay order and the members took no solemn vows. Yet in the northern Netherlands the communities served as monasteries in which the lifestyle of the brothers and sisters acquired an increasingly stricter character. This can, for example, be seen from the making of vows of chastity, poverty and obedience but also the introduction of the monastic clausura. Then contact with the outside world was only possible through a small window with bars.

Yet despite these efforts it was thought that the modern devout did not hold this order in high regard. Van Engen's study of the archives and the discovery of Grote's letters point in a different direction. The development towards a more ordered way of life was not only due to the pressure of the Church authorities. There was clearly an element of voluntary participation among the Utrecht third order members. This can be regarded as an early expression of the desire to reform monastic life, an aim that would surface in almost all monastic orders during the course of the fifteenth century. Van Engen therefore proposes that the third Franciscan order should be characterised as a fully-fledged monastic movement and not as a half-hearted group of men and women.

Hildo van Engen's research was funded by NWO.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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