The Order of Friars Minor (generally known as the Franciscan Order) was founded during the second decade of the thirteenth century. It was based on the ideal of apostolic poverty and followed a rigorous program of pastoral reform within the church. The Franciscan Order shows many points of contact with the crusades throughout the later Middle Ages. It came into existence during one of the most vital periods of the crusade movement, and its founder Francis of Assisi (canonized in 1228) was himself an active supporter of the crusade movement, joining the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) at Damietta in 1219. Later the Franciscan friars, alongside their Dominican counterparts, became one of the most important and effective bodies of crusade preachers in the service of the papacy and thus played a vital role in spreading the crusade message and sustaining the crusade movement throughout Europe.
The common ground between the Franciscan Order and the crusade movement was the context of church reform. The bulk of the Franciscan friars supported the papacy’s impetus toward spiritual and institutional renewal of the church, embracing an active role in reforming pastoral care by popular preaching and advocating penance. Their support of the crusade movement was to a large extent due to the fact that they saw individual participation in the crusade above all as a penitential and spiritual activity. Thus crusading could be understood in terms of Franciscan ideas of Christocentric theology and corresponded well to the overall importance the friars attached to penance as an expression of a life spent in accordance with the precepts of Christian religion.
Whether St. Francis openly supported all aspects of the crusade movement remains a moot point. As well as participating in the crusade, he was portrayed as a mediator between the Christian and Muslim forces, advocating peaceful mission alongside, though not necessarily instead of, crusading, since crusade and mission were at the time viewed as complementary rather than mutually exclusive activities. St. Francis seems to have been in favour of the spiritual and political objectives of the crusades as an expression of Chris- tocentric spirituality on the part of individual participants and as a collective effort of the church to defend and spread Christianity and the Christian message. Throughout the later Middle Ages the Franciscan friars by and large followed their founder’s attitude toward the crusade, leading to an active involvement in the crusade movement.
Early on in the order’s history, the papacy was aware of the potential of the new mendicant friars for spreading crusade propaganda effectively over large areas. Following the rapid growth of the order throughout Europe, Pope Gregory IX began using friars as crusade preachers and money collectors for the crusade from the early 1230s. Throughout the thirteenth century and beyond, the popes made use of the Franciscan friars, alongside their Dominican counterparts, to target and control the propaganda for specific crusades in particular areas and at particular times. The large number of trained preachers and the strictly hierarchical organization of the order made this possible. The Franciscan Order thus became a sophisticated propaganda tool employed by the papacy for the promotion of the crusades in all parts of Christendom. Despite their insistence on poverty, the Franciscan friars also took on the role of collecting money given in support of the crusade during their propaganda activities. Through the practice of redeeming crusade vows for money, which became a regular feature in the later Middle Ages, the friars’ activities provided the crusades with much needed financial resources. In contrast, the Franciscan friars were reluctant to collect crusade taxes on behalf of the papacy, as this brought them into conflict with the secular clergy and, being an activity solely concerned with money, could be seen as compromising their commitment to the ideal of poverty.
Of the two great mendicant orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the Franciscan Order was perhaps the less reliable agent of crusade propaganda. Even though there is no doubt about the overall volume, importance, and impact of Franciscan crusade preaching, there were periods in the order’s history when internal strife made it more difficult for the papacy to rely on the Franciscan friars as effective crusade propagandists. Although there seems to have been little internal resistance to the Franciscans’ support of the crusades specifically, divisions within the order, especially in the fourteenth century, sometimes translated into political activism that obstructed papal crusade policy. This activism mainly played a role during the political crusades in Italy in the fourteenth century and had little bearing on the Franciscans’ support of other crusading ventures. The Franciscans showed a particular interest in the crusades to the Near East and Northern Africa, as these provided them with a context for developing missionary activities in Muslim countries. By the thirteenth century, the Franciscans had established houses at Constantinople, in Cyprus, at Acre, and at Ceuta in the wake of crusading campaigns. After their expulsion from Palestine in 1291, they returned to the Holy Land in the 1320s, establishing houses at Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and elsewhere.