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.
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.