The Mercedarian Order, known formally as the Order of Merced or Our Lady of Mercy, began as a redemptorist order in Catalonia following the rule of St. Augustine.
The Mercedarians institutionalized the ransom of captives on the Christian-Muslim frontier in Iberia. Previously, family and friends had redeemed captives on an individual basis, or a royal official called the exea (from an Arabic word meaning “guide”) intervened on a captive’s behalf. It is unclear whether the early Mercedarians collected alms on behalf of captives’ families, or ransomed captives personally. By the late thirteenth century, the Mercedarians raised alms and traveled to Muslim depots to negotiate the redemption of groups of captives as well as specific individuals.
Despite claims by the order’s early historians, the Mer- cedarians were not a military religious order, nor was the king of Aragon the founder. The earliest evidence for the order’s existence dates from a bequest to Pere Nolasc, the founder of the order, of a sum of money to redeem captives in 1230. Nolasc and his associates received grants of property in Mallorca in 1232 and Gerona in 1234. Pope Gregory IX recognized the Order of Merced in 1235 and gave it the Rule of St. Augustine.
By 1245 the Mercedarians had acquired properties in Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia, Languedoc, and Mallorca. Eventually, the order had properties in Castile and as far south as Seville. These provided a stable income for the order and a base for its ransoming activities. James I, king of Aragon, gave the order its first guidaticum (safe-conduct) in 1251, which enabled members to travel safely and conduct business on the Christian-Muslim frontier. James II of Aragon became the order’s patron in the early fourteenth century, while it was given an exclusive license to collect redemptive alms in the Crown of Aragon by Peter IV in 1366.
The statutes of the military orders of Santiago, the Hospital, and the Temple influenced the first statutes of the order (1272), which has caused the mistaken identification of the Mercedarians as a military order. The early order was a laic brotherhood, whose members administered properties, collected alms, preached, and, on occasion, traveled to ransom captives. It also admitted men and women as confraters (associate members). The master of the Mercedarians was a layman until 1317, when the order became clericalized. Clerics became more influential and gained control of most of the commanderies. A new constitution of 1327, modeled on that of the Dominicans, emphasized a stricter religious life. The master was the order’s spiritual and temporal leader, and made decisions with the chapter about properties, revenues, and discipline. Commanders were responsible for local houses, and traveled to redeem captives. Captives ransomed as an act of Mercedarian charity also agreed to serve the order for a period of time, raising money to ransom other captives.
After the fall of Muslim Granada in 1492, the Order of Merced followed Spanish expansion to the New World, where it founded American provinces. The first female convents were established in the late sixteenth century. The order underwent a major reform in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and still exists today.