The last of the four great mendicant orders we need to know about, the Carmelites take their name from Mount Carmel in north western Israel. There, sometime around the year 1155, a group of former pilgrims and crusader knights gathered to live the life of a hermit. They chose Mount Carmel because the Well of Elijah, a revered Old Testament prophet seen as the first monk in history, was located there. As is usually the case, the hermits decided to observe a single rule for living, and so St Albert of Jerusalem wrote them one between 1206 and 1214.
When the tide turned against the European Crusader armies around 1240, conditions in the Holy Land became too dangerous even for hermits, and so the order moved to Europe. They revised their rule to suit life in the West under supervision from Dominicans, becoming mendicant friars. The new rule was faithful to the original vision of the hermits, making contemplation a central tenet of Carmelite life, but the definition of contemplation was changed from simply thinking about God to incorporate helping others in the lay community and begging for alms. The original vow of poverty was thus preserved, too.
The Carmelites’ active pastoral work made them appealing to devout young men, and by 1362 there were 12, 000 members of Carmelite houses in Europe. Another defining feature of the order was devotion to the Virgin Mary, which is reflected in their full name, the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Such devotional distinctions were important in the medieval period. Medieval Carmelites wore a brown tunic and white mantle. St Teresa of Avila founded the first Carmelite Convent for women in 1452, though women held minor roles in the order before then.