Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Dominic

[Saint Dominic de Guzman]Article

(1170-1221), founder of the Dominican Order of Preaching Friars, was born in 1170 at Calaroga in Old Castile. He spent ten or twelve years in study, chiefly theological, at Palencia, and then, about 1195, he was ordained and became a canon in the cathedral chapter of Osma, his native diocese. The bishop induced his canons to follow the Rule of Saint Augustine and thus make themselves Augustinian Canons; and so Dominic became a canon regular and soon the prior or provost of the cathedral community. The years from 1195 to 1203 have been filled up with fabulous stories of missions to the Moors; but Dominic stayed at Osma, preaching much in the cathedral, until 1203, when he accompanied the bishop on an embassy in behalf of the king of Castile to “The Marches.” This has commonly been taken as Denmark, but more probably it was the French or Italian Marches. When the embassy was over, the bishop and Dominic repaired to Rome, and Innocent III charged them to preach among the Albigensian heretics in Languedoc. For ten years (1205-1215) this mission in Languedoc was the work of Dominic’s life.

The Albigenses have received much sympathy, as being a kind of pre-Reformation Protestants; but it is now recognized that their tenets were an extreme form of Manichaeism. They believed in the existence of two gods, a good (whose son was Christ) and an evil (whose son was Satan); matter is the creation of the evil principle, and therefore essentially evil, and the greatest of all sins is sexual intercourse, even in marriage; sinful also is the possession of material goods, and the eating of flesh meat, and many other things. So great was the abhorrence of matter that some even thought it an act of religion to commit suicide by voluntary starvation, or to starve children to death. Such tenets were destructive not only of Catholicism but of Christianity of any kind and of civil society itself; and for this reason so unecclesiastical a person as the emperor Frederick II. tried to suppress the kindred sects in Italy. In 1208, after the murder of a papal legate, Innocent III. called on the Christian princes to suppress the Albigensian heresy by force of arms, and for seven years the south of France was devastated by one of the most bloodthirsty wars in history, the Albigenses being slaughtered by thousands and their property confiscated wholesale.

During this time, it is the judgment of the most recent Protestant writer on Saint Dominic that, though keeping on good terms with Simon de Montfort, the leader, and praying for the success of the crusaders’ arms during the battle of Muret, “yet, so far as can be seen from the sources, Dominic took no part in the crusade, but endeavoured to carry his spiritual activity on the same lines as before. The oldest trustworthy sources know nothing of his having exercised the office of Inquisitor during the Albigensian war” (Grützmacher). This verdict of a fair-minded and highly competent Protestant church historian on the most controverted point of Dominic’s career is of great value. His method was to travel over the country on foot and barefooted, in extreme poverty, simplicity and austerity, preaching and instructing in highways and villages and towns, and in the castles of the nobility, controverting and discussing with the heretics. He used often to organize formal disputations with Albigensian leaders, lasting a number of days. Many times plots were laid against his life. Though in his ten years of preaching a large number of converts were made, it has to be said that the results were not such as had been hoped for, and after it all, and after the crusade, the population still remained at heart Albigensian. A sense of failure appears in Dominic’s last sermon in Languedoc: “For many years I have exhorted you in vain, with gentleness, preaching, praying and weeping. But according to the proverb of my country, ‘where blessing can accomplish nothing, blows may avail.’ We shall rouse against you princes and prelates, who, alas, will arm nations and kingdoms against this land … and thus blows will avail where blessings and gentleness have been powerless.” The threat that seems to be conveyed in these words, of trying to promote a new crusade, was never carried out; the remaining years of Dominic’s life were wholly given up to the founding of his order.

The Order of Dominicans grew out of the little band of volunteers that had joined Dominic in his mission among the Albigenses. He had become possessed with the idea of addressing wider circles and of forming an order whose vocation should be to preach and missionize throughout the whole world. By 1214 the nucleus of such an institute was formed round Dominic and was known as the “Holy Preaching.” In 1215 the bishop of Toulouse, Dominic’s great friend, established them in a church and house of the city, and Dominic went to Rome to obtain the permission of Innocent III. to found his order of preachers. The course of events is traced in the article Dominicans. After three years, in 1218, the full permission he desired was given by Honorius III. These last years of his life were spent in journeying backwards and forwards between Toulouse and Rome, where his abode was at the basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine, given to him by the pope; and then in extended journeys all over Italy, and to Paris, and into Spain, establishing friaries and organizing the order wherever he went. It propagated and spread with extraordinary rapidity, so that by Dominic’s death in 1221, only five or six years after the first practical steps towards the execution of the idea, there were over 500 friars and 60 friaries, divided into 8 provinces embracing the whole of western Europe. Thus Dominic was at his death able to contemplate his great creation solidly established, and well launched on its career to preach to the whole world.

It appears that at the end of his life Dominic had the idea of going himself to preach to the heathen Kuman Tatars on the Dnieper and the Volga. But this was not to be; he was worn out by the incessant toils and fatigues and austerities of his laborious life, and he died at his monastery at Bologna, on the 6th of August 1221. He was canonized in 1234 by Gregory IX, who, as Cardinal Ugolino, had been the great friend and supporter both of Dominic and of Francis of Assisi. As Saint Dominic’s character and work do not receive the same general recognition as do Saint Francis of Assisi’s, it will be worth while to quote from the appreciation by Prof. Grützmacher of Heidelberg: “It is certain that Dominic was a noble personality of genuine and true piety…. Only by the preaching of pure doctrine would he overcome heretics…. He was by nature soft-hearted, so that he often shed tears through warm sympathy…. In the purity of his intention and the earnestness with which he strove to carry out his ideal, he was not inferior to Francis.”

MLA Citation

  • Edward Cuthbert Butler. “Saint Dominic”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. Saints.SQPN.com. 10 March 2013. Web. 18 September 2014. <>