The Early Friars and the University

Glasgow Aquinas Lecture


Delivered in 2001 by V Rev Fr Allan White OP
in the Bute Hall as part of the celebration of the
550th Jubilee of the University of Glasgow

The Early Friars and the University

In March 1217 what every religious community dreads occurred in the newly-founded house of Augustinian canons at the church of Saint Romain in Toulouse: the superior Dominic of Spain, not long returned from the court of Pope Honorius III, had an idea. He told his shocked brethren that they were no longer to be canons bound to stable service of a particular church, but friars whose stability would be in the universal church, they would move wherever the need was. Instead of preaching the faith and combating the Cathar heresy in the diocese of Toulouse they were to take up the doctrinal preaching of the faith in every diocese in the known world. They would preach in poverty and would not own anything. Instead of travelling by horse or mule they would go on foot. They would retain the basic structures of monastic life and the remnants of their canons’ habits, white woollen tunics and the black cappa or cloak, and shoes, but instead of the canon’s rochet they would wear the scapular. Dominican told his brothers that he was dividing the community and sending some brothers away from Toulouse to the major European university towns of Paris and Bologna.

This new Order of Preachers, as the Pope allowed it to be called, was to be an Order of Doctors too. Study was essential for the intelligent preaching of the faith. As Humbert of Romans, one of the first and greatest of the Masters of the Order wrote, ‘first the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching.’ Unfortunately, he did not go on to give further advice about improving your aim. Dominic’s friars were to go to the universities of Europe, use their resources and make foundations to attract recruits. In Paris, the leading theology faculty of the time, they met with great success. Large numbers of students and even Masters joined them, bringing their schools with them and thus integrating the Dominicans, as they were to be called into the academic structures of Europe.

They reached Oxford in 1221, Edinburgh in 1230/31 and Glasgow about 1246. The majority of their houses were founded by King Alexander II in the principal towns of Scotland. The main foundations were thus made in the twenty or so years after 1230. Scottish Dominican friars are to be found throughout the medieval centuries as masters of Ordnance, like Brother Andrew Lissouris, who was also an architect and the King’s favourite joiner, bishops, including a whole string of Argyll, and a whisky distiller, Friar John Cor, who made whisky for the King. Glasgow was an episcopal foundation by William de Bondington and his cathedral chapter, possibly with the intention of promoting clerical and pastoral renewal in his diocese. It also provided useful space for official civic or ecclesiastical functions in 1301 Edward I of England had stayed three days in the Blackfriars, we do not how welcome a guest he was, but his bill was paid by an English Dominican who had come with him, he is described as being ‘skilful in the Scots language’. The three days in the Blackfriars cost the King six shillings.

Link to full text.

See Fr. White’s article, “Dominicans and the Scottish University Tradition,” New Blackfriars 82 (2001) 434 – 449.