Domingo de Guzmán was born into a noble family around 1170 in Castile, in modern day Spain, near the city of Osma. He joined a religious community attached to the cathedral of Osma around 1196, and became assistant to the superior a few years later. In 1203 the Bishop of Osma took Dominic with him on a journey through the south of France. At this time the Albigensians were reviving the Manichaean heresy that spirit and matter were ruled by two supreme beings, Good and Evil. As a result, whatever concerns the body—such as eating, drinking, procreation, and the possession of worldly goods—was believed to be essentially evil. The “perfect” thus led a life of great austerity, while ordinary people were regarded as reprobates.
Pope Innocent III launched a mission to preach against this heresy. The papal missionaries refused Dominic’s request to preach to the pagans, and their mission failed. Dominic then argued that the heretics would be regained only by an austerity equal to their own: the preachers must tramp the roads barefoot and in poverty. Thus began Dominic’s “evangelical preaching”.
In 1215, Dominic founded a house in Toulouse in France with six followers. At the end of 1216 he was granted written authority for an order to be named “The Order of Preachers”, known as the Dominicans, or “hounds of the Lord”. He moved to Rome to further the growth of his order, and for a time his community lived at the convent of San Sisto Vecchio. Then, in 1219 Pope Honorius III gave Dominic and his companions a site at the ancient Roman basilica of Santa Sabina. Since the Dominicans have moved across the globe, becoming one of the greatest religious institutes in the Church, one of its most noted members being St Thomas Aquinas.
According to his early biographers, Dominic “abstained from meat … observed stated fasts and periods of silence … selected the worst accommodations and the meanest clothes and never allowed himself the luxury of a bed. As soon as Dominic left a town he took off his shoes and, however sharp the stones or thorns, he trudged on his way barefooted.”
He was described as “thin and of middle height. His face was handsome and somewhat fair. He had reddish hair and beard and beautiful eyes…. His hands were long and fine and his voice pleasingly resonant. He never got bald, though he wore the full tonsure, which was mingled with a few grey hairs.”
Dominic died in Bologna at the age of 51, after an exhausting journey when he was already sick with fever. It is said that he “made the monks lay him on some sacking stretched upon the ground” and that “the brief time that remained to him was spent in exhorting his followers to have charity, to guard their humility, and to make their treasure out of poverty”. He died at noon on 6 August 1221.