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St Dominic |
Born of the battle they lost

St Dominic is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 192, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Dominic’s Order of Preachers failed to convert by preaching the Cathar heretics, but the letters OP would follow the names of distinguished Christians to this day

St Dominic - Born of the battle they lost

St Dominic - Born of the battle they lost
Pope Honorius III approving the rule of the Dominican order in 1216, as envisioned by Leandro Bassano in the sixteenth century. These men, whose name later became a pun–Domini canes, or “God’s dogs”–would be used widely by the popes to fight heresy. Though skilled in logic and debate, their forte lay in their eloquence, and therefore they still carry the designation OP, for Ordo Praedicatorum (Order of Preachers), behind their names.

With a sparkling academic record, disciplined habits, a stubborn but generous nature, a strong faith, and a proven ability to resolve intractable problems, Dominic de Guzman Garces had every reason to be confident about his mission in the south of France in 1206. Yet nothing, it seems, could have adequately prepared this accomplished and dedicated man for what he would find there. For the first time in his life, he would suffer a major defeat.

He was sent to Toulouse to thwart the seemingly irresistible advance of the Cathar heresy. The challenge was not to persecute the Cathari but to restore them to the Christian fold. A contingent of Cistercian teachers sent by Pope Innocent III to do so was failing miserably and wanted to leave. The regular clergy of Toulouse, accustomed to soft living and unable to match the zeal and magnetism of their chief heretical adversary, the abstemious and energetic Cathars, could make no gains either. “Our watchdogs,” Innocent bitterly commented, “have lost their bark.”

Dominic soon concluded that the Cathars could only be reached intellectually. They specialized in what they advanced as reasoned theology. In argument they could triumphantly make fools of any Christian adversaries they encountered. This, along with their austere and outwardly holy lives, was winning them converts everywhere. What was needed, Dominic reasoned, was a team of men grounded theologically, convincing rhetorically, and sharp in argument but living lives every bit as abstemious as those of the Cathars.

So he went among them, not as a well-fed missionary from the affluent church, nor as a polished academic from one of the respected universities, but as a beggar. The scorn they poured on the clergy couldn’t be applied to him. He had nothing. But neither, he found, could he convince them. For two years he tried, and but for a few converts he failed. His failure was wholly underlined in 1209 when the pope declared a holy crusade against the Cathars (see sidebar, pages 230—233).

However, in one other respect he succeeded magnificently. Perhaps even to his own astonishment, others began joining him, most of them men of high intellectual capability. They agreed with and shared in his commitment to total poverty. They begged and they studied and they honed their skill with words, and they became known as the “Dominicans,” after Dominic de Guzman Garces.

The de Guzmans were an unusually devout family. Dominic’s mother, Juana, was said to have dreamed before his birth of a dog carrying a torch that set fire to the world.1 Juana would be beatified, as would Dominic’s elder brother, renowned as a saver of souls; another brother was much admired for his work among the poor. But it was Dominic himself, the youngest, who would leave the strongest imprint on Christian history, and this began when he was sent to Toulouse to contend with the Cathars.

Dominic had certainly heard about these people (variously known in France as the Albigensians, in Italy as the Patarini, and in eastern Europe as the Bogomils) and about their extreme dualistic beliefs and their penchant for suicide and, occasionally, murder or assassination. Still, nothing in his background had particularly fitted him to deal with them. The Cathars reveled in theological argument, for example, whereas Dominic had never considered himself a theologian, having dropped out of the University of Palencia for a time when famine struck that city. He could not stand idly by while famished parents watched their children starve, he protested; he sold all his possessions, even his precious book collection, to help them. “Would you have had me study off these dead skins,” he would demand, flipping through the parchment pages of a book, “when men are dying of hunger?”

Neither, for that matter, would his subsequent work at Osma, near Spain’s northeast corner, seem of much application. Before he was twenty-five Dominic had been summoned there by its bishop to reform the priests of the cathedral chapter, who had become corrupt, unproductive, and lazy, and he succeeded well enough to become superior of the chapter. But how would these experiences help him deal with the quick-tongued, sharp-witted Cathari? They were not starving, and, heaven knows, not lazy. In fact, they were bursting with energy. That, indeed, was part of the problem.

An insurmountable problem, as he and his Dominicans found, and they discovered something else. They found that they could not define the purpose of their growing community as one of refutation. They could not become specialists in disproof, denial, contravention, and contradiction. They could not build on negatives. They must focus on what’s true rather than what’s false. They had their own message to deliver. In short, they must advance the Gospel of Christ; they must preach the Word. They must become an order of preachers. And when in 1216 they took their case to be recognized as an order to Pope Honorius III, that is what he called them. They became Ordo Praedicatorum, the Order of Preachers.2 And who taught them to preach? Jesus Christ, they would say, Jesus Christ and the Cathars.

Over the ensuing centuries, tens of thousands of men all over the world would carry the letters OP after their names, signifying that they were Dominicans, successors in the work of Dominic de Guzman Garces. Pope Honorius offered them Rome’s Church of St. Sixtus as a home base, and before long preachers in the Dominican order, living as beggars and known as friars–as distinct from monks–had spread through western Europe, expounding the Gospel and establishing schools. The black robe they wore over their white habit made them known as the “Blackfriars,” the name of their college at Oxford.

They also began serving in senior ecclesiastical positions; within a century 450 Dominicans had been appointed to the high offices of the Church, a total that included two popes and some dozen cardinals. Furthermore, the two most brilliant medieval scholars–Thomas Aquinas and Albert Magnus (see foregoing chapter)–both carried the letters OP after their names, as did Meister Eckhart of Hochheim, known widely as the father of German mysticism.

Dominican literary output included theological treatises, biblical translation, poetry, and the largest medieval encyclopedia, while artistic Dominicans exerted a profound influence on late medieval painting and on the development of Gothic architecture. Finally, they also served the monarchies of Europe as confessors, advisers, and ambassadors, often negotiating treaties between hostile Christian nations.

Especially in view of their origins as combatants against heresy, they inevitably played a role in the medieval Inquisition. Indeed, Dominic’s later critics would accuse him of launching it, but Henry Charles Lea in his History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages asserts that this is not true. Though Dominic might “stand by the pyre” to see a stubborn heretic burned, it was not until more than ten years after his death in 1221 that such an institution as the papal Inquisition can be said to have existed. Even so, counters the Catholic Encyclopedia, there can be little doubt that inquisitors were disproportionately drawn from the Dominican order.

By the fifteenth century there was a world of Dominicans to draw from–Persian Dominicans, Dominicans in Africa, Dominicans on the Indian subcontinent. The friars would be somewhat eclipsed in the dazzling light of the Renaissance but would recover with the discovery of the New World; in the seventeenth century their numbers would peak and their missions reach from Japan to Cuba. The order would decline once again during the anti-Christian violence of the French Revolution, then revive to produce a nineteenth-century Dominican renaissance that would do much to restore Christianity in continental Europe.

In short, like all genuinely Christian initiatives, and indeed like Christianity itself, Dominican vigor rises and wanes. So, too, does their love-hate relationship with their nearest Christian cousins, the Franciscans, the other order of friars founded in the same era and likewise mendicant servants of Christ (see chapter 10). Though Francis and Dominic saw eye to eye, often their disciples have not, and their chronic feuds have been far from edifying. “Too many obvious grounds for jealousy” observes historian R. F. Bennett (The Early Dominicans). “Nothing could prevent petty irritation and minor feuds in the lower ranks.”

Still, the Dominicans continue their original mission as effective preachers who, in obedience to their rule, must “go forth and behave everywhere as men seeking their own salvation and that of their neighbors, in all perfection and with a truly religious spirit, as evangelical men, that is, men following in the footsteps of their Savior.”

1. The word “Dominicans” later became a Latin pun–Domini canes, “dogs of the Lord”–which also took into account the dream of Dominic’s mother. This metaphorical dog arguably did set his world on fire in a real sense.

2. More than a decade before Pope Honorius officially recognized the Order of Preachers, Dominic had already begun establishing the Dominican Sisters. The Monastery of Prouille, in the Diocese of Toulouse, was founded for the women whom he and the other missionaries converted from heresy. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Dominic used this establishment as “the center of union of his missions and of his apostolic works.” The ascetic life of the sisters is the same as that of the friars. They celebrated their eight hundredth anniversary in 2006.

This is the end of the St Dominic category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 192, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about St Dominic from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at