1902 Encyclopedia > St Dominic

St Dominic
Spanish priest and founder of Dominican Order
(c. 1170 - 1221)

ST DOMINIC, founder of the Dominican order of monks, was born at Calahorra, a village of Old Castile, in 1170. His family name is said to have been Guzman, an illustrious name connected with many of the most honour-able families in Spain. Little is known of his father and mother, but in the mediaeval legends his birth is surrounded with portents indicative of his future greatness. His mother dreamed she gave birth to a boy with a torch in his mouth, which set the world on fire. At his baptism a new sign was given. A starry radiance encircled the baptismal font. His followers delighted to recognize a similar radiance in his countenance, which drew all hearts to him. His childhood gave evidence of his future devotion and self-denial. He used to creep from his bed and prostrate himself on the hard boards. At seven years of age he quitted the paternal home for the house of his uncle, who was a churchman, and gave him his first lessons in divine things. At fifteen he went to the university of Palencia, afterwards translated to Salamanca, where it attained reputation as the most famous university in Spain. He applied himself to letters and philosophy, but above all to theology,—opening his mind, according to one of his biographers, to the true knowledge, and his ears to the doctrines, of Holy Scripture. Two stories are told of him at this time, showing the intensity of his character, and indicating the future zealot in behalf of religion and the church. He sold his clothes to feed the poor in a time of famine, and, to a woman who complained that her brother had been made a slave by the Moors, he offered himself to be given in exchange. His career as a student is obscure. He appears to have remained at the university for about ten years, and it is only in 1195, when he was twenty-five years of age, that he begins to emerge into notice. He is then one of the canons of Osma, under the guidance of a new and zealous bishop, whose heart was full of extending the power of the church and reforming its abuses. He gradually became known by his fervour as a preacher and the severity of his austerities, although it was still nearly ten years later before the opportunity came for him to show his true character and abilities. In 1203 the bishop of Osma was delegated to negotiate the marriage of Alphonso VIII of Castile with a Danish princess, and for this he undertook a journey to Denmark with Dominic as his companion. Accustomed to the obedience and reverence everywhere paid to the clergy in Spain, a very different spectacle presented itself to them as soon as they crossed the Pyrenees, and found themselves in the plains and cities of Languedoc. There a new spirit—half poetical and half spiritual—had sprung up in opposition to the church. The Provengal poets found much of their inspiration in a prevailing excitement at the worldly vices and corruptions of the clergy, as well as in the chivalric loves and gaieties of their time. And in addition to the poets there had arisen in this interesting and beautiful country multitudes of preachers of a new, more simple, and more liberal faith. Peter de Brueys and Henry the Deacon became the organs of popular indignation against the superstitious observances which the priests everywhere encouraged,—the worship of the cross, transubstantiation, prayers, alms, and oblations
to the dead, and even infant baptism,—for, as in all such cases of popular movement, the church was attacked not merely in its abuses but in its essential rites and its very existence. The " Poor Men of Lyons " rejected the whole church system, and permitted women to officiate at the altars. The " Paulicians," a sect of Manichaeans surviving from the 5th century, had spread from the East through the Greek provinces of Sicily and Italy, and settled amongst the other elements of disturbance in the south of France. " It was discovered," as Gibbon says (c. 54), " that many thousand Catholics of every rank and of either sex had embraced the Manichaean heresy ; " and the flames consumed twelve canons of Orleans supposed to be tainted with the heresy. " The same vicissitudes of martyrdom and revenge as had been displayed in the East were repeated in the 13th century on the banks of the Bhone." The result of all was a state of heretical insurrection and confusion sufficiently startling to men like St Dominic or even St Bernard, who has left us a description of what he himself observed—" Churches without people, the people without priests, priests without respect, Christians without Christ, holy places denied to be holy, the sacraments no longer sacred, and holy days without their solemnities." (Quoted by Milman, Hist. of Latin Christianity, iv. 178.)

In such a country, and in such a state of things, St Dominic found his mission as a champion of the church arid a preacher of Catholic truth. Painfully impressed by what he saw on his journey to Denmark, he was so aroused by the spectacle of abounding heresy on his return that he resolved to devote himself to the conversion of the inhabitants, and the revival of the church in a land which appeared to him so given over to evil. The Pope had sent legates thither for the correction and repression of the heretics, but after a year's labours they had met with no success, and were on their way back to report the failure of their mission at Borne. Dominic met with them on his journey, and, struck at once by their splendid retinue and their failure, he exclaimed,—"How can you expect success with all this secular pomp t These men cannot be touched by words without corresponding deeds. The heretics deceive them by their simplicity. You must throw aside all your splendour, and go forth, as the disciples of old, barefoot, without purse or scrip, to proclaim the truth." He acted without delay on his own principle, and betook himself to the profession of a mendicant preacher. Even the legates were shamed for a time to follow in the wake of the enthusiastic Spaniard. But their enthusiasm did not last long, and Dominic was left alone in his self-deny-ing labours.

It is difficult to describe with any fidelity the character of St Dominic's career, which his mediaeval biographers have enveloped in a haze of miraculous exaggeration. Apparently at first he confined himself in the main to moral and intellectual influences, preaching against the heretical errors, and inviting the heretics to conferences and reasonings. His modern biographer, Lacordaire, has even ventured to compare this early phase of his work with St Paul's conferences with the Jews, and St Augustine's ex-postulations with the Donatists and Manichasans. His arguments were of course powerfully enforced by miraculous tokens when otherwise likely to fail of their purpose. Wherever he moved the glory of the supernatural moved with him. Signs and portents, most of them too trivial and absurd for mention, gave emphasis to his preaching and triumph to his mission. But withal the success that awaited him as a preacher was disappointing; and the flames of war, kindled by the growing antagonism of the sects and the church, and fomented by the rival ambitions which are always at hand to make use of the fury of religious passion, soon swept over the country, and hid from view the figure of the missionary and the preacher. It was, as Milman says, a stubborn generation, which, besides preaching, argument, and miracles, needed the sword of Simon de Montfort to cure it of its heresies. The atrocious crusade known as the Albigensian war, the violent incident and picturesque display of character on both sides, the plea-sant, vacillating, and humiliated Count Raymond, the intre-pid and bloodthirsty Montfort,—all belong to history rather than to the life of Dominic. What part he really played in the war evades clear historical judgment. Did he share in its atrocities, as religious zealots in similar cases have often done, or did he mourn the interruption of his peace-ful labours of conversion, and preach moderation to the conquerors, as well as penitence to the heretics 1 Facts fail us in the matter. All that is known is that he remained through all the friend of De Montfort, and obeyed the call to bless the marriage of his sons and the baptism of his daughter. This implies that the darker features of the crusade, and the conduct of its leader, awakened no such horror in him as they ought to have done; and when to this is added the glory (!) claimed for him of instituting the Holy Inquisition, the light which is thus thrown upon his character is far from pleasing. It is in no spirit of apostolic mildness, certainly, that he at last left the country in 1217, after the death of De Montfort. " For many years," he says, " I have spoken to you with tenderness, with prayers, and tears, but, according to the proverb of my country, where the benediction has no effect the rod may have much. Behold now we rouse up against you princes and prelates, nations and kingdoms, and many shall preach by the sword." This was a poor gospel for a people already decimated by the armies of the church, and the preacher of it was certainly no apostle of peace. Full of enthusiasm, of eloquence, of dogmatic zeal, with a genius for combina-tion and the great power of inspiring devotion in his followers, Dominic fails in the higher virtues of patience, magnanimity, reasonableness, and moderation. He is a prince of the church, but not a saint save in its official calendar.

On leaving Languedoc Dominic repaired to Rome, and spent the remainder of his life in the organization of his order, which received the papal sanction in 1216, and which, under his generalship, had extended in the course of five years throughout most of the countries of Europe. He died at Bologna in 1221, in the fifty-first year of his age. See DOMINICANS. (J. T.)

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