The very first Carmelites were hermits living on Mount Carmel from sometime around the year 1200. When the hermits left Mount Carmel from the 1230s onwards, they settled in hermitage communities in western Europe.
However, the hermits quickly realised that their way of life - depending on the land and the alms-giving of passers-by - was less sustainable than it had been in Israel-Palestine. They also perceived in the growing towns and cities of Europe a desperate spiritual and social need to be of service, particularly among the poor.
Thus, in 1247 at Aylesford Priory in England, a General Chapter (meeting) of the Order was held. The brothers asked permission from the Pope to modify aspects of the 'Way of Life' document given to them by Saint Albert of Jerusalem. They adopted the three 'Evangelical Counsels' of poverty, chastity and obedience, common to religious orders. Gradually they adapted into the way of life of the mendicant (begging) orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans.
Carmelite friars at Aylesford Priory in 2011
The Carmelite hermits thus became begging brothers ('friar' is derived from the Latin for brother). They ministered to the spiritual and physical needs of God's people, particularly those on the margins of Church and Society. They depended on the charitable support of the people they served. Because of their white cloaks worn over their brown habits, the Carmelite brothers became known as the Whitefriars.
Although sometimes referred to as monks, the medieval Carmelites were friars. Their lifestyle was mendicant, rather than monastic. In other words, whereas monks lived in a largely enclosed monastery often in remote places, friars were more at liberty to engage with society and were usually located in towns (their communities are known as 'priories', 'friaries' or 'convents'). The notion of being 'in the midst of the people' is still very important for the friar way of life. Friars also have a distinctive model of authority and leadership. Whereas monks live under obedience to an abbot (a word which means 'father'), friars live under obedience to a prior (which means 'first', as in 'the first among equals') who is to exercise leadership in the spirit of service. The material support of friars is also different from that of monks, who historically live off their own farm produce or from renting out land, whereas friars depend on the providence of God in the form of charitable support from society.
In the Middle Ages the friars became increasingly clericalised, that is, more and more brothers were ordained as priests. This happened particularly after the friars decided to develop as a 'student order', promoting higher learning amongst its ranks so as to be of greater usefulness to the Church. Today most, though not all, friars are ordained, but the identity as 'brother' remains the most fundamental aspect of a Carmelite friar's vocation, as is reflected in the official title of the Order: "The Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel".