Saint Dominic is one of the most important Saints of the late medieval era.
The medieval era, or “middle ages”, lasted roughly from the 600’s through the 1200’s, followed by “the” Renaissance beginning in the 1300’s. I write “the” renaissance because many regions underwent various renewals of learning, literature, literacy, arts, culture, and religious fervor throughout the Middle Ages, finally culminating in a widespread movement across Europe formally known as The Renaissance. In a sense, then, the renaissance era is not particularly distinct from the medieval era, but is the culmination and logical result of the other. Popular imagination classes the medieval period as a “dark age,” which is itself the judgment of darkened minds unaware of the great movements and progress in medieval history. The renaissance was not a long-overdue escape from medievalism, but the final product of the medieval period.
Medieval church history, specifically, has quite an ebb and flow of focus from one area of church life and learning to another. A specific example, which is common to all periods of church history, is the swinging of attention between “technical” theological matters and “practical” spiritual matters.
Saint Dominic comes into this story somewhere in between the pendulum shifts. Born in 1170 and joining a monastic order in 1194, Dominic was a contemporary of Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and a couple generations before Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Francis is well known for founding the Franciscan Order, who take on a monastic rule of life but, instead of living in a community, live primarily in urban areas to serve the poor. Francis is often considered the epitome of practical ministry. Thomas Aquinas, born shortly after Dominic and Francis died, was perhaps the epitome of academic theology, his Summa Theologica standing as a giant of scholarly theology to this very day.
In between them stood Dominic. Like Francis, he saw a need for new ways to serve the needs of the people, especially in the growing urban centers of southern Europe. Like Thomas Aquinas, he saw a need for clearer teaching and preaching. So Dominic, in 1215, began a community of men who lived under the Rule of Saint Benedict but instead of living in a cloister would focus on preaching throughout the cities and towns of the region, with the permission of the local bishops. A couple years later Pope Honorius III authorized him to charter the Order of Preachers, which to this day is one of the largest religious orders in Western Christianity. After their founder, members of the Order of Preachers are often called Dominicans.
Apart from his passion for preaching Christ, Dominic also had a profound veneration for Christ’s mother, Mary. There is a story that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Dominic in a vision and gave him a rosary, encouraging him regarding its power as a form of prayer and devotion. The rosary, of course, has gone on to be perhaps the most popular and well-known staple of Roman Catholic devotion, to the extent where even Lutheran and Anglican versions of it exist today. In their late medieval context, Marian devotion was a theological emphasis on the humanity of Christ, helping people realize a greater closeness to their Lord and King through meditation on his mother – a much more relatable and homely concept than simply thinking of Jesus as like a feudal lord! Although there are plenty of what we would now consider to be excesses in medieval Marian piety, its origin was devout and orthodox. (Today’s church culture, perhaps, has gone to the opposite extreme, emphasizing too much the closeness and familiarity of Jesus at the expense of his power and lordship.)
Saint Dominic died at the age of 51 on August 6th, in 1221, after a full adulthood of traveling and preaching. His Order still has over 6,000 members today, his Rosary is prayed regularly by millions of Catholics the world over, and his zeal for preaching was taken up by the Reformers, remaining a major feature of Anglican and Protestant ministry and worship to this day. His feast day is August 8th.