It arose about the year 1520, when Matteo di Bassi, an "Observant" Franciscan, became possessed of the idea that the habit worn by the Franciscans was not the one that St Francis had worn; accordingly he made himself a pointed or pyramidal hood and also allowed his beard to grow and went about barefooted.
His superiors tried to suppress these innovations, but in 1528 he obtained the sanction of Clement VII and also the permission to live as a hermit and to go about everywhere preaching to the poor; and these permissions were not only for himself, but for all such as might join. him in the attempt to restore the most literal observance possible of St Francis's rule. Matteo was soon joined by others. The Observants opposed the movement, but the Conventuals supported it, and so Matteo and his companions were formed into a congregation, called the Hermit Friars Minor, as a branch of the Conventual Franciscans, but with a vicar of their own, subject to the jurisdiction of the general of the Conventuals. From their hood (capucize) they received the popular name of Capuchins.
In 1529 they had four houses and held their first general chapter, at which their special rules were drawn up. The eremitical idea was abandoned, but the life was to be one of extreme austerity, simplicity and poverty—in all things as near an approach to St Francis's idea as was practicable. Neither the monasteries nor the congregation should possess anything, nor were any devices to be resorted to for evading this law; no large provision against temporal wants should be made, and the supplies in the house should never exceed what was necessary for a few days. Everything was to be obtained by begging, and the friars were not allowed even to touch money. The communities were to be small, eight being fixed as the normal number and twelve as the limit. In furniture and clothing extreme simplicity was enjoined and the friars were to go bare-footed without even sandals.
Besides the choral canonical office, a portion of which was recited at midnight, there were two hours of private prayer daily. The fasts and disciplines were rigorous and frequent. The great external work was preaching and spiritual ministrations among the poor. In theology the Capuchins abandoned the later Franciscan school of Scotus, and returned to the earlier school of Bonaventura. The new congregation at the outset of its history underwent a series of severe blows. The two founders left it, Matteo di Bassi to return to the Observants, while his first companion, on being superseded in the office of vicar, became so insubordinate that he had to be expelled. The case of the third vicar, Bernardino Ochino, who became a Calvinist, 1543, and married, was even more disastrous.
This mishap brought the whole congregation under the suspicion of heretical tendencies and the pope resolved to suppress it; he was with difficulty induced to allow it to continue, but the Capuchins were forbidden to preach. In a couple of years the authorities were satisfied as to the soundness of the general body of Capuchin friars, and the permission to preach was restored. The congregation at once began to multiply with extraordinary rapidity, and by the end of the 16th century the Capuchins had spread all over the Catholic parts of Europe, so that in 1619 they were freed from their dependence on the Conventual Franciscans and became an independent order, with a general of their own. They are said to have had at that time 1500 houses divided into fifty provinces. They were one of the chief factors in the Catholic Counter-reformation, working assiduously among the poor, preaching, catechizing, confessing in all parts, and impressing the minds of the common people by the great poverty and austerity of their life.
By these means they were also extraordinarily successful in making converts from Protestantism to Catholicism. Nor were the activities of the Capuchins confined to Europe. From an early date they undertook missions to the heathen in America, Asia and Africa, and was founded in Rome for the purpose of preparing their subjects for foreign missions. A large number of Capuchins have suffered martyrdom for the Gospel. This activity in Europe and elsewhere continued until the close of the 18th century, when the number of Capuchin friars was estimated at 31,000.
Like all other orders, the Capuchins suffered severely from the secularizations and revolutions of the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th; but they survived the strain, and during the latter part of the 19th century rapidly recovered ground. At the beginning of the present century there were fifty provinces with some 500 monasteries and 300 hospices or lesser houses; and the number of Capuchin friars, including lay-brothers, was reckoned at 9500. In England there are ten or twelve Capuchin monasteries, and in Ireland three. The Capuchins now possess the church of the Portiuncula at Assisi. The Capuchins still keep up their missionary work and have some 200 missionary stations in all parts of the world—notably India, Abyssinia and the Turkish empire. Though "the poorest of all orders," it has attracted into its ranks an extraordinary number of the highest nobility and even of royalty. The celebrated Father Mathew, the apostle of Temperance in Ireland, was a Capuchin friar. Like the Franciscans the Capuchins wear a brown habit.
The Capuchines are Capuchin nuns. They were founded in 1538 in Naples. They lived according to the rules and regulations of the Capuchin friars, and so austere was the life that they were called "Sisters of Suffering." The order spread to France and Spain, and a few convents still exist.
In order fully to grasp the meaning of the Capuchin reform, it is necessary to know the outlines of Franciscan history. There does not appear to be any modern general history of the Capuchin order as a whole, though there are histories of various provinces and of the foreign missions. The references to all this literature will be found in the article "Kapuzinerorden" in Wetzer und Welte, Kirchenlexicon (2nd ed.), which is the best ‘general sketch on the subject. Shorter sketches, with the needful references, are given in Max Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (1896), i. § 4j~ and in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopedie (3rd ed.), art. "Kapuziner." Helyot's Hist. des ordres religieux (1792), vii. c. 24 and c. 27, gives an account of the Capuchins up to the end of the 17th century.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.