Humiliati [Lat.,=the humbled ones], Roman Catholic association of laymen formed in the 11th cent. in Lombardy. They wore plain clothes and lived under special vows, but mingled freely with the world. They were protected by the papacy in most of the 12th cent., and some of them were organized into an order or joined other orders. There were occasional defections from the Humiliati to the Waldensians, and some conversions in the other direction. The Humiliati were finally suppressed in the 16th cent. after their orthodoxy had long been questioned.
The Humiliati were an Italian religious order created probably in the 12th century.


Its origin is obscure. According to some chroniclers, certain noblemen of Lombardy, taken prisoner by the Emperor Henry V (1081–1125) following a rebellion, were taken as captives to Germany and after suffering the miseries of exile for some time, "humiliated" themselves before the emperor, assuming a penitential garb and mode of life which gained them their release.

It is said that at this time they were often called Berettini, from the shape of their head-dress. Their acquaintance with the German woollen manufactures enabled them to introduce improved methods into Italy, thus giving a great impetus to the industry, supplying the poor with employment and distributing their gains among those in want. The Humiliati, as they came to be called, are to be seen in the context of the complex movements of penitents in the Middle Ages which gave rise to groups later successfully institutionalized, such as Francis of Assisi's Order of Friars Minor, but others which formed non-Catholic sects.

Returning to their own country, the Humiliati had contact with St Bernard. On his advice, in 1134, many of them, with the consent of their wives, withdrew into a monastery founded at Milan. Despite Bernard's best attempts, at first the Humiliati had no fixed rule. Their name "Humiliati" is said to have arisen from their very simple clothes, which were all of one colour against the fashions of the day. The fraternity spread rapidly and gave rise to two new branches, a "second order" composed of women, and a "third order" composed of priests. The order of priests, once formed, claimed precedence over the other branches, and on the model of mendicant orders such as the Dominicans or the Franciscans, was styled the "first order". Their original ashen habit was replaced by a white one.


Some years later, on the advice of St John of Meda (d. 1159), they embraced the Rule of St Benedict, adapted by him to their needs. Details relating to this reform are ill authenticated, the Acta of John of Meda (Acta sanctorum, Sept., vii. 320) being almost entirely unsupported by contemporary evidence.

The "Chronicon anonymi Laudunensis Canonici" (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores, xxvi, 449), states that in 1178 a group of Lombards came to Rome with the intention of obtaining the pope's approval of the rule of life which they had spontaneously chosen; while continuing to live in their houses in the midst of their families, they wished to lead a more pious existence, abandon oaths and litigation, be content with modest dress and live in a spirit of piety. The pope approved their resolve to live in humility and purity, but forbade them to hold gatherings or preach in public; the chronicler adding that they disobeyed and thus were excommunicated. Another detail reported is that they received papal approbation from Pope Innocent III about 1201, and from many of his successors.

Pope Innocent III granted a rule to the lay branch as a "third order" that resembles the Regula de poenitentia of the Franciscan movement. There may also have been an attempt to use the Humiliati to draw back to Catholic sentiments the Waldensians. The Humiliati rule forbade vain oaths and the taking of God's name in vain; allowed voluntary poverty and marriage; regulated pious exercises; and approved the solidarity which already existed among the members of the association. Unusual was the authorization to meet on Sundays to hear the words of a brother "of proved faith and prudent piety", on condition that they not discuss among themselves either the articles of faith or the sacraments. Though some Waldensians were perhaps won back in Lombardy, others were not.

The "Chronicon Urspergense" (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores, xxiii, 376-377) mentions the Humiliati as one of the two Waldensian sects and a decretal promulgated in 1184 by Pope Lucius III at the council of Verona against all heretics condemns both the "Poor Men of Lyons" and "those who attribute to themselves falsely the name of Humiliati". Though orthodox, the Order of the Humiliati was always tainted by a certain suspicion.

The order grew rapidly, and a good number of its members were declared Saints and Blessed. It also formed trades associations among the people, and played an important part in the civic life of every community in which they were established. It has left some fine church buildings still in use today.

Decline and suppression

However, in the course of time the accumulation of material possessions and the limitations placed on the number of members admitted (for at one time there were only about 170 in the 94 monasteries) led to laxity and serious abuses. St Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, was commissioned by Pope Pius V to remedy the situation. The rigour with which he did this roused such opposition among a minority that a conspiracy was formed and one of the Humiliati, a certain Girolamo Donati, called Farina, attempted to murder Charles. This led to the execution of the chief conspirators by the civil authorities and the suppression of the order by a Bull of Pius V issued on February 8, 1571. Their houses and possessions were bestowed on other religious orders, including the Barnabites and Jesuits, or applied to charity.

Women's branch

The wives of the first Humiliati, who belonged to some of the principal families of Milan, also formed a community under Clara Blassoni, and were joined by so many others that it became necessary to open a second convent, the members of which devoted themselves to the care of the lepers in a neighbouring hospital, whence they were also known as Hospitallers of the Observance. The number of their monasteries increased rapidly, but the suppression of the male branch of the order, which had administered their temporal affairs, proved a heavy blow, involving in many cases the closing of monasteries, though the congregation itself was not affected by the Bull of suppression. The nuns recited the canonical Hours, fasted rigorously and engaged in other severe penitential practices, such as the "discipline" or self-inflicted whipping. Some retained the ancient Breviary of the order, while other houses adopted the Roman Breviary. The habit consisted of a robe and scapular of white over a tunic of ashen grey, the veils being usually white, though in some houses black. The lay sisters, who retained the name of Barettine, wore grey. In the early 1900's there were still in Italy five independent houses of Humiliati nuns.


  • Frances Andrews, The Early Humiliati, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Sally Mayall Brasher, Women of the Humiliati: Lay Religious Order in Medieval Civic Life, Routledge, 2003.
  • John B. Wickstrom, "The Humiliati: Liturgy and Identity", in Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum (1992:4) 1-32.
  • Julia I. Miller & Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, "The Ognissanti Madonna and the Humiliati Order in Florence", in Anne Derbes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Giotto, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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