The noun "mendicant" means "beggar." It comes from the Latin verb mendicare, meaning "to beg." The mendicant orders of the Middle Ages were comprised of monks who had taken vows of poverty and had dedicated themselves to traveling, preaching the gospel, and assisting the sick and destitute. This approach was significant because it allowed the mendicant monks to have more direct access to the poor, who needed help the most. Some mendicants, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, also entered the university system and had great influence as teachers of theology.
One of the first and most famous of the mendicant orders was the Franciscans, founded by St. Francis of Assisi in the early tirteenth century. Francis intended his monks to live in simplicity and poverty without lands or hoarded wealth, but he had planned for his followers primarily to work for their livelihoods, not to beg. However, as communities of Franciscans grew and the need for spiritual ministrations increased, they had little time for working for money, and so begging became more common.
Another major mendicant order was the Dominicans, which was founded by St. Dominic a few years after Francis founded the Franciscans. The Dominicans emphasized study and education as a means of spreading the message of the church. They were greatly influential in the preserving and spreading of knowledge during the Middle Ages.
After these mendicant orders, others arose later in the thirteenth century. These included the Augustinian Hermits, the Carmelites, the Servites, and others. The mendicant orders were all founded with the utmost idealism and dedication to lifestyles of poverty and dependence upon offerings. However, as the orders grew in size, compromises inevitably had to be made, so that abject mendicant lifestyles had to be mitigated due to the circumstances of the times.