1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Augustinian Hermits
AUGUSTINIAN HERMITS, or Friars, a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes called (but improperly) Black Friars (see Friars). In the first half of the 13th century there were in central Italy various small congregations of hermits living according to different rules. The need of co-ordinating and organizing these hermits induced the popes towards 1250 to unite into one body a number of these congregations, so as to form a single religious order, living according to the Rule of St Augustine, and called the Order of Augustinian Hermits, or simply the Augustinian Order. Special constitutions were drawn up for its government, on the same lines as the Dominicans and other mendicants—a general elected by chapter, provincials to rule in the different countries, with assistants, definitors and visitors. For this reason, and because almost from the beginning the term “hermits” became a misnomer (for they abandoned the deserts and lived conventually in towns), they ranked among the friars, and became the fourth of the mendicant orders. The observance and manner of life was, relatively to those times, mild, meat being allowed four days in the week. The habit is black. The institute spread rapidly all over western Europe, so that it eventually came to have forty provinces and 2000 friaries with some 30,000 members. In England there were not more than about 30 houses (see Tables in F. A. Gasquet’s English Monastic Life). The reaction against the inevitable tendencies towards mitigation and relaxation led to a number of reforms that produced upwards of twenty different congregations within the order, each governed by a vicar-general, who was subject to the general of the order. Some of these congregations went in the matter of austerity beyond the original idea of the institute; and so in the 16th century there arose in Spain, Italy and France, Discalced or Barefooted Hermits of St Augustine, who provided in each province one house wherein a strictly eremitical life might be led by such as desired it.
About 1500 a great attempt at a reform of this kind was set on foot among the Augustinian Hermits of northern Germany, and they were formed into a separate congregation independent of the general. It was from this congregation that Luther went forth, and great numbers of the German Augustinian Hermits, among them Wenceslaus Link the provincial, followed him and embraced the Reformation, so that the congregation was dissolved in 1526.
The Reformation and later revolutions have destroyed most of the houses of Augustinian Hermits, so that now only about a hundred exist in various parts of Europe and America; in Ireland they are relatively numerous, having survived the penal times. The Augustinian school of theology (Noris, Berti) was formed among the Hermits. There have been many convents of Augustinian Hermitesses, chiefly in the Barefooted congregations; such convents exist still in Europe and North America, devoted to education and hospital work. There have also been numerous congregations of Augustinian Tertiaries, both men and women, connected with the order and engaged on charitable works of every kind (see Tertiaries).