CARMELITES, in England called White Friars (from the white mantle over a brown habit), one of the four mendicant orders. The stories concerning the origin of this order, seriously put forward and believed in the 17th and 18th centuries, are one of the curiosities of history. It was asserted that Elias established a community of hermits on Mount Carmel, and that this community existed without break until the Christian era and was nothing else than a Jewish Carmelite order, to which belonged the Sons of the Prophets and the Essenes. Members of it were present at St Peter’s first sermon on Pentecost and were converted, and built a chapel on Mount Carmel in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well as the apostles, enrolled herself in the order. In 1668 the Bollandist Daniel Papenbroek (1628–1714), in the March volumes of the Acta Sanctorum, rejected these stories as fables. A controversy arose and the Carmelites had recourse to the Inquisition. In Spain they succeeded in getting the offending volumes of the Acta censured, but in Rome they were less successful, and so hot did the controversy become that in 1698 a decree was issued imposing silence upon both parties, until a formal decision should be promulgated—which has not yet been done.
The historical origin of the Carmelites must be placed at the middle of the 12th century, when a crusader from Calabria, named Berthold, and ten companions established themselves as hermits near the cave of Elias on Mount Carmel. A Greek monk, Phocas, who visited the Holy Land in 1185, gives an account of them, and says that the ruins of an ancient building existed on Mount Carmel; but though it is likely enough that there had previously been Christian monks and hermits on the spot, it is impossible to place the beginning of the Carmelite institute before Berthold. About 1210 the hermits on Carmel received from Albert, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, a rule comprising sixteen articles. This was the primitive Carmelite rule. The life prescribed was strictly eremitical: the monks were to live in separate cells or huts, devoted to prayer and work; they met only in the oratory for the liturgical services, and were to live a life of great silence, seclusion, abstinence and austerity. This rule received papal approbation in 1226. Soon, however, the losses of the Christian arms in Palestine made Carmel an unsafe place of residence for western hermits, and so, c. 1240, they migrated first to Cyprus and thence to Sicily, France and England. In England the first establishment was at Alnwick and the second at Aylesford, where the first general chapter of the order was held in 1247, and St Simon Stock, an English anchorite who had joined the order, was elected general. During his generalate the institute was adapted to the conditions of the western lands to which it had been transplanted, and for this purpose the original rule had to be in many ways altered: the austerities were mitigated, and the life was turned from eremitical into cenobitical, but on the mendicant rather than the monastic model. The polity and government were also organized on the same lines, and the Carmelites were turned into mendicants and became one of the four great orders of Mendicant Friars, in England distinguished as the “White Friars” from the white mantle worn over the dark brown habit. This change was made and the new rule approved in 1247, and under this form the Carmelites spread all over western Europe and became exceedingly popular, as an order closely analogous to the Dominicans and Franciscans. In the course of time, further relaxations of the rule were introduced, and during the Great Schism the Carmelites were divided between the two papal obediences, rival generals being elected,—a state of things that caused still further relaxations. To cope with existing evils Eugenius IV. approved in 1431 of a rule notably milder than that of 1247, but many houses clung to the earlier rule; thus arose among the Carmelites the same division into “observants” and “conventuals” that wrought such mischief among the Franciscans. During the 15th and 16th centuries various attempts at reform arose, as among other orders, and resulted in the formation of semi-independent congregations owing a titular obedience to the general of the order. The Carmelite friars seem to have flourished especially in England, where at the dissolution of the monasteries there were some 40 friaries. (See F. A. Gasquet, English Monastic Life, table and maps; Catholic Dictionary, art. “Carmelites.”) There were no Carmelite nunneries in England, and indeed until the middle of the 15th century there were no nuns at all anywhere in the order.
Of all movements in the Carmelite order by far the most important and far-reaching in its results has been the reform initiated by St Teresa. After nearly thirty years passed in a Carmelite convent in Avila under the mitigated rule of 1431, she founded in the same city a small convent wherein a rule stricter than that of 1247 was to be observed. This was in 1562. In spite of opposition and difficulties of all kinds, she succeeded in establishing a number, not only of nunneries, but (with the co-operation of St John of the Cross, q.v.) also of friaries of the strict observance; so that at her death in 1582 there were of the reform 15 monasteries of men and 17 of women, all in Spain. The interesting and dramatic story of the movement should be sought for in the biographies of the two protagonists; as also an account of the school of mystical theology founded by them, without doubt the chief contribution made by the Carmelites to religion (see Mysticism). Here it must suffice to say that the idea of the reform was to go behind the settlement of 1247 and to restore and emphasize the purely contemplative character of primitive Carmelite life: indeed provision was made for the reproduction, for such as desired it, of the eremitical life led by Berthold and his companions. St Teresa’s additions to the rule of 1247 made the life one of extreme bodily austerity and of prolonged prayer for all, two hours of private prayer daily, in addition to the choral canonical office, being enjoined. From the fact that those of the reform wore sandals in place of shoes and stockings, they have come to be called the Discalced, or bare-footed, Carmelites, also Teresians, in distinction to the Calced or older branch of the order. In 1580 the reformed monasteries were made a separate province under the general of the order, and in 1593 this province was made by papal act an independent order with its own general and government, so that there are now two distinct orders of Carmelites. The Discalced Carmelites spread rapidly all over Catholic Europe, and then to Spanish America and the East, especially India and Persia, in which lands they have carried on to this day extensive missionary undertakings. Both observances suffered severely from the various revolutions, but they both still exist, the Discalced being by far the most numerous and thriving. There are in all some 2000 Carmelite friars, and the nuns are much more numerous. In England and Ireland there are houses, both of men and of women, belonging to each observance.
Authorities.—A full account is given by Helyot, Hist, des ordres religieux (1792), i. cc. 40-52; shorter accounts, continued to the end of the 19th century and giving references to all literature old and new, may be found in Max Heimbucher, Orden u. Kongregationen (1897), ii. §§ 92-96; Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchenlexicon (ed. 2), art. “Carmelitenorden”; Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (ed. 3), art. “Karmeliter.” The story of St Teresa’s reform will be found in lives of St Teresa and in her writings, especially the Foundations. Special reference may be made to the works of Zimmerman, a Carmelite friar, Carmel in England (1899), and Monumenta historica Carmelitana, i. (1905 foll.). (E. C. B.)