Canons Regular of St. Augustine

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One of the largest monastic families of the medieval Church; called also Austin Canons.

Origin. Unlike that of so many other religious orders, the origin of the Austin canons was not closely tied to the work of a single saint or the work of a single house, but was the result of a complex process. After his conversion St. augustine displayed an immense attachment to the full common life, and when bishop of Hippo he insisted that the clergy living at his cathedral should live under a common rule and hold no private property. The disordered condition of the times prevented his example having considerable immediate effect, but records of his deep interest in the religious life were preserved for posterity in his writings and in his biography written by possidius.

The continuous existence of the regular canons as an organized body is now known to date from the middle decades of the 11th century and to have begun with the adoption of what was in effect a monastic regime by certain communities, largely communities of clergy, in Italy and southern France. To the often neglected obligation of celibacy, and the equally neglected life with a common dormitory and refectory, both of which ancient canons had demanded of clergy living in collegiate or cathedral churches, there was now added acceptance of an obligation to hold no private possessions, i.e., to follow apostolic precedent and "be of one heart and mind and have all things in common." Inevitably this radical form of life struck some clerics as both novel and questionable, and its legitimacy was hotly challenged. The matter was brought up at the Lateran Synod of 1059 by no less a person than Hildebrand, the future Pope gregory vii, who, like so many leaders of the gregorian reform, saw the value of the movement in an age of considerable ecclesiastical corruption. The synod gave this form of clerical life full approval, though it was not made in any way compulsory; this decision was confirmed in almost identical wording at the Lateran Synod of 1063. Surviving evidence does not give a complete and precise list of the houses that first followed the form of life thus approved, but it is certain that it was early adopted at Rome and in Tuscany, where Lucca seems to have soon become a major center of the new way of life. Other houses were to be found in certain parts of northern Italy and southern France, the former owing something to the influence of the camaldolese and vallombrosans. Especially important in these early stages were the houses of San Frediano at Lucca, San Lorenzo of Ulcio near Turin, and Saint-Ruf near Avignon. peter damian gave the order vigorous and valuable support at this time.

Early Expansion. In the last decades of the 11th century and in the early 12th century, the new order made very considerable progress in western Europe, the chief areas of expansion being Lombardy, Tuscany, Burgundy, Aquitaine, and northeastern France, where the Province of Reims was a major center. Important foundations of this period included Santa Croce, Mortara; Santa Maria in Porto (Ravenna); great saint bernard; Rottenbuch, reichersberg; Toulouse Cathedral; saint-quentin in Beauvais; and Mont-Saint-Elois. altmann, Bishop of Passau (1091), had been an early pioneer and a keen reformer in southern Germany and Austria, but major progress came only in the early 12th century, notably with the support of Abp. Conrad of Salsburg (d. 1147). The effective spread of the order in England began under King Henry I (110035) and proceeded rapidly, as it did also in Ireland but on a smaller scale somewhat later. In Scotland little progress was made for local reasons; expansion in the Spanish peninsula and Scandinavia was also limited. But by the mid-13th century the total number of houses of regular canons in Europe was certainly very considerable. It cannot be precisely estimated, and in any case houses of the order varied so greatly in size that any such figure by itself would be misleading. But in England alone about 206 houses had been founded by the late 13th century.

The Adoption of the Rule of St. Augustine. In the early years of the regular canons it was not regarded as necessary for any monastic order to adopt a specific rule, but experience quickly showed the value of this practice. At first regular canons appealed to the "apostolic life," but for legal and other reasons and by an obscure and piecemeal evolution they fairly quickly came to adopt the so-called Rule of St. augustine. The first major signs of this adoption are to be found mostly in France, about the time of Pope urban ii (108899); by the second quarter of the 12th century the rule seems to have been almost universally adopted by the order. The Rule of St. Augustine itself has a very complex history, which has not yet been fully revealed despite much modern research. Most of the document is a masculine version of a number of precepts given by St. Augustine c. 423 to a community of nuns of which his sister was superior, but to these precepts was prefixed a short list of injunctions of a very practical nature generally known as the Ordo monasterii. The date and authorship of the latter and that of the adaptation of Augustine's Letter 211 are in dispute, but not a few authorities regard both as having been drawn up by a follower of Augustine shortly after, or possibly just before, the saint's death (430). The early regular canons found much of the Ordo monasterii archaic, and it is clear that from the early 12th century they abbreviated the text of the Rule in the interests of practicality.

The Observances of the Order. The early regular canons found no ready-made corpus of observances completely suitable for their purpose but gradually built up their own from a variety of sources. The Rule of St. Augustine was very brief and largely concerned with spiritual precepts. It was to some extent augmented by the Institutio canonicorum drawn up in 816817 for houses of canons throughout the Carolingian Empire, though these latter were seculars not regulars and so their rules were not completely suitable. The customs of the benedictines, built up over the centuries, proved a valuable quarry for the new order; a section of the order drew also on the observances of the new contemporary orders, notably the cistercians. For a long time there was no very close uniformity of observance within the order, individual houses picking and choosing fairly freely, subject only to the approval of the local ordinary. But the leading houses of the order soon compiled observances that were widely adopted, the more influential customs being those of Saint-Quentin at Beauvais, Saint-Ruf, saint-victor of Paris, and marbach. As time went on, attempts were made to secure a greater uniformity of detail. Thus, in the late 13th century the General Chapters of the English Austin Canons, after much effort, produced a uniform code of observances for their members, the Statutes of Healaugh Park (Statuta de Parco ), though their adoption was slow and partial. Furthermore, at an early date individual congregations of canons had developed their own particular customs, which in certain cases were much more severe than those followed by the rest of the order, principally owing to the influence of the Cistercians. Then in 1339 Pope benedict xii promulgated a code of observances for the order in the bull Ad decorem.

Basically, however, most of the regular canons had adopted from early times observances whose temper, they claimed, was a via media between that of the clergy and the monks. In effect they did not differ greatly from many Benedictine observances, though they were somewhat less exacting over silence, fasting, and the length of Matins.

Organization. The regular canons were clerical in origin and always generally retained this quality of personnel, lay brethren forming only a minor element in the order. Their houses were normally subject to visitation by the ordinary, only a small minority aquiring the privilege of exemption from episcopal inspection. On the Continent a fair sprinkling of houses ranked as abbeys, but in England almost all were priories. The Cistercians having early demonstrated the utility of general chapters, these were instituted for all orders not already possessing them by lateran council iv (1215). Those of the regular canons were subsequently organized on a regional basis normally meeting every three years.

An important if not large minority of medieval regular canons early belonged to independent congregations that had their own customs and an independent machinery of government. One of the first of these, the Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, begun by 1114, gave extensive powers to the motherhouse, in imitation of the venerable Order of cluny, but later congregations usually adopted a system of general chapters of their own on Cistercian lines. Most of these formal orders of regular canons were small, with some widely scattered houses that tended to drift away as time went on. The various independent orders were mostly in their heyday in the 12th century. The Order of Arrouaise, originating c. 1090, followed a severe, contemplative regime; that of Saint-Victor of Paris, whose motherhouse was founded in 1108 by Abelard's teacher william of champeaux, was closely connected with the rise of the University of paris and produced an important group of writers that included hugh of saint-victor and richard of saint-victor. The premonstratensians, whose motherhouse of prÉmontrÉ near Laon was founded in 1120 by norbert of xanten, showed great vitality from the first; some of its houses were contemplative, others were early involved in missionary work, notably in eastern Germany. The Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, which owed its existence to the crusading movement, declined when this collapsed. In the Spanish peninsula the Order of santa cruz (coimbra), begun in 1132, was of some importance and owed much in its origin to the Order of Saint-Ruf near Avignon, whose own reputation was considerable. The Order of Sempringham (the gilbertines), the only medieval order of English origin, was not of more than local importance, and had double monasteries. Its mother-house was founded in 1131, but the Augustinian Rule was not followed for some years.

Houses of Austin Canons in the Middle Ages and long after varied greatly in size. Few of them rivaled the largest Benedictine houses, but many were of moderate size. For largely unavoidable reasons, the order was early saddled with a sizable minority of very small houses, whose lack of resources and personnel rendered their life liable to considerable strains and were a cause of anxiety to those in authority. As time went on a number of these were either suppressed or made cells of larger houses. A number of houses, especially in early times, were founded in parochial or collegiate churches, but later it was often found preferable to establish them either just outside residential areas or more rarely in "places remote from human habitation," like Cistercian houses. A notable feature of the order was its connection with hospitals, including those of the Great Saint Bernard, and of St. Bartholomew's and St. Thomas' in London.

Recent research strongly suggests that the earliest regular canons seldom tried to carry out pastoral work in the modern sense: such activity would have interfered greatly with the complex liturgical regime they early adopted. Occasionally one of the brethren might serve a parish in, or near, the conventual church, and a house was usually authorized to put a canon in charge of souls at any of its churches provided he were living in community with other brethren. But generally speaking, regular canons in charge of souls in the Middle Ages were not numerous, though their number seems to have increased somewhat after the plague epidemics of 134750. Like the Benedictines, the medieval regular canons gradually established some contacts with medieval universities, but these were not, on the whole, very vigorously exploited.

Recent History. By the end of the Middle Ages the regular canons were reduced in number and influence, though signs of continued vitality were not lacking, notably the foundation of the Congregation of windesheim in Holland, whose motherhouse was founded in 1386 under the influence of the mystic Gerard groote and which flourished in Germanic lands. Its most famous member was thomas À kempis, the probable author of the imitation of christ. Rather later came the Congregation of the Lateran, begun at Fregionaia, near Lucca, under bartholomew of rome. Confirmed by the pope in 1421, its brethren were given charge of the Lateran Basilica by Pope eugene iv but were replaced there by seculars in 1471.

The religious changes of the 16th century led to considerable numbers of houses of the order being suppressed, and the secularizations of the 18th and 19th centuries caused much further damage. As time went on old machinery was modified; e.g., the French houses of the order were regrouped to form a French congregation. Austria and Switzerland were the only major areas where the order's life went on without interruption: in 1907 the surviving houses in Austria were formed into the Austrian Congregation of Canons Regular; in Switzerland the venerable house of SS. Nicholas and Bernard, the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, despite much adversity, continues as the head of a congregation, as does the other leading Swiss house of the order, saint-maurice. Also maintaining continuity with the medieval world are the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, originally founded in Belgium c. 1210, and the Military Order of the Red Star Crucifers, which long worked extensively in eastern Europe (see brethren of the cross). The largest of the medieval orders today, however, is that of the Premonstratensians. The Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception, founded by Dom Adrien Gréa in 1871, now have their chief house in Rome. The modern regular canons are engaged in a very wide range of pastoral, educational, and social activities. Recently the smaller congregations have been considering coordinating their common activities.

Bibliography: e. amort, Vetus disciplina canonicorum regularium et saecularium, 2 v. (Venice 1747), old but valuable. j. c. dickinson, The Origins of the Austin Canons and Their Introduction into England (London 1950). p. frank, Canonicorum regularium sodalitates (Vorau, Austria 1954). c. dereine, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillat et al. (Paris 1912) 12:353405; "Coutumiers et ordinaires de chanoines réguliers," Scriptorium 5 (1951) 107113; 13 (1960) 244246. La vita commune del clero nei secoli XI e XII, 2 v. (Milan 1962).

[j. c. dickinson/eds.]