The twelfth century saw great changes in western Europe. As commerce revived, urban centers arose and with them an urban middle class. New directions in spirituality were called for. Dissatisfaction with the pastoral care and preaching offered by the secular clergy abounded. Ecclesiastical reform became a major theme of the cultural revival of this era.
The emergence of urban centers meant concentrated numbers of the homeless and the sick. This created problems for the parish churches who found themselves unable to address these issues. In response to this crisis, there emerged the new mendicant orders founded by Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) and Dominic of Guzmán (c.1170-1234).
The Franciscan and Dominican orders intended to live by begging, hence their name, mendicant. The freedom of mendicancy allowed Franciscans and Dominicans mobility. Since they were not tied to monasteries or territorial parishes, they were free to take the gospel into the streets, to preach, hear confessions, and minister to people wherever they were. Essentially, both orders saw themselves as imitating Christ in their mission of preaching and their practice of poverty. The mendicant orders’ choice to pursue the vita apostolica (the apostolic life) made them very popular with the ordinary people who had come to see the Church as remote from their concerns and in need of reform. This desire for reform on the part of lay people led to other spiritual movements such as the Waldensians and Cathars, who were later deemed heretical. As time went by, however, both the Franciscans and Dominicans found their ideal of radical poverty difficult to carry out. Eventually, the Pope allowed both communities to hold property.
An excellent website about Franciscanism can be found at http://www.franciscanfriarstor.com/resources/stf_course.htm. This website contains all kinds of information ranging from the history of Francis himself, to the blessing of animals, to the Franciscan commitment to peace and justice.
Here an example of Francis’ spirituality is seen in the Paraphrase of the Our Father—http://www.franciscan-archive.org/patriarcha/opera/parafras.html.
A great website about Dominicanism can be found at http://www.domcentral.org/default.htm. You can find information about studying the Dominican tradition, Dominican theology, and many other Dominican sites of interest.