Monastic Wales.

Who were the Regular Canons?

Dr Karen Stöber

Who were the Regular Canons?

The regular canons were ordained priests, living a quasi-monastic, regular life (i.e. life according to a rule) in a community. At the heart of their existence lay the ideas of apostolic poverty and evangelisation and part of their [Iraison d’être] was the carrying out of pastoral work. They were intent on imitating the vita apostolica, the life of the Apostles, according to the Acts of the Apostles, ii, 41-5, which describe Christ’s followers as the first monks: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men as every man had need”. Several attempts were made at translating this idea into practice, not all of them were successful: as early as the ninth century St Chrodegang of Metz wrote a Rule for canons which was followed by the canons of his cathedral chapter, but which fell out of use by the end of the tenth century. Things were to change a century later under the great reforming pope Gregory VII and his far-reaching programme of church reforms known as the Gregorian Reform Movement. Among many other things, this rekindled an interest in the communal life for canons and recognised the need for a new rule, which would cater for the needs of those communities of priests who lived together and had all things in common, but who were also deeply involved with the world outside the cloister.
Initially lacking a common rule or structure, these communities sprang up across western Christendom from the mid-eleventh century, first in northern Italy and the southern regions of Germany and France, later increasingly further afield; all were driven by a common desire for reform. These first groups of priests were not generally referred to as regular canons. This came later in their histories, when the term canonicus can increasingly be found in documents, which bear evidence to ‘canons living according to the Rule of St Augustine’. But even then their status was not always entirely clear and C.H. Lawrence, in his Medieval Monasticism is among the scholars expressing this lack of clarity by referring to them as ‘really a hybrid order of clerical monks’.
Unlike the Benedictines, Cluniacs or Cistercians, the regular canons did not follow the Rule of St Benedict. Instead, in their search for a suitable rule along the lines of which to organise their own lives, and that suited their own purposes, they came to settle on what was not strictly speaking a ‘rule’, but rather a series of short letters or treatises written by Augustine of Hippo (d.430). These documents are now commonly referred to as the ‘Rule of St Augustine’. Rather than providing a detailed, practical handbook of the communal life, such as the Rule of St Benedict, the Rule of St Augustine contained spiritual guidance for the life in the community, and was therefore adaptable for groups with differing needs. Before long the first communities of female followers of this way of life emerged, and while never as numerous as their male counterparts, the canonesses, too, became an important feature on the Christian monastic map.
There are several branches of religious orders which belong to the group of regular canons. The first, and the most sizable of the bunch, are the Augustinian canons, so-called on account of their adherence to St Augustine’s ‘Rule’ and also known as ‘black canons’ after the colour of their habits. Augustinian regular canons can be found in England as early as the turn of the twelfth century and in Wales just a few years later, with their first house at Llanthony in the Black Mountains. The second most important and numerous of the groups of regular canons, the ‘white canons’ or Premonstratensian canons, take their name from the first house of the order, the abbey of Prémontré, near Laon, in France. The Premonstratensians, sometimes called Norbertines, share many characteristics with the Cistercian monks and while they follow Augustinian practice in terms of their Rule, their structure is closer to that of the white monks, incorporating the element of lay brothers. Both Augustinian and Premonstratensian communities included houses for female religious. Another order of regular canons, the Gilbertines (also known as the order of Sempringham), was the only religious order native to England and never established any houses elsewhere. The origin of the order lay in the founder’s desire to provide for women in the religious life. The early Gilbertine houses were double houses for canons and nuns, but following a scandal involving a nun and lay brother or cleric of the house later foundations were for canons only. A further group of regular canons who were not represented in Wales were the Arrouaisians.
The regular canons took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They lived according to a monastic horarium, much as monks did. Unlike monks, however, their routine included a range of extra-claustral activities, such as the servicing of parish churches (they were, after all, ordained priests), the staffing and maintenance of pilgrims’ hostels and hospitals, and other, similar duties, which brought them into close contact with the lay community. In most other ways their lifestyle was hard to distinguish from that of the orders of monks, especially by the later Middle Ages when the boundaries are often blurred. The regular canons were the numerically strongest religious group in the medieval British Isles, though in Wales they were outnumbered by the Cistercians.

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