An order called also Norbertines, Canons Regular of Prémontré, and (in England) White Canons, the Premonstratensians (O. Praem.) were founded by St. norbert of xanten at Prémontré, France, in 1120. This religious community was intended by its founder to blend the contemplative with the active religious life; it was one of the canonical orders of the 12th century that provided a link between the strictly contemplative life of the preceding period and the life of the mendicant orders of the 13th century.
Foundation and Growth. At the outset Norbert's associates, attracted to him by his preaching and exemplary life, did not deem it necessary to form a new order or adopt a special rule; they considered the counsels and example of their director sufficient for their spiritual needs. When Norbert convinced them of the need for a definite rule of life, the Rule of st. augustine was a natural choice. Many of the members of the original Prémontré community were canons, and some reformed houses of canons had already adopted Augustine's rule. The canons of Prémontré then assumed the white habit customarily worn by the canons regular of that day. The first community, numbering about 40, made their profession of vows on Christmas 1121.
Following the example of other communities of canons, Norbert did not contemplate a centralized order. However, Bl. hugh of fosse, Norbert's successor at Prémontré and the first abbot of the original foundation, perfected the organization of the new religious institute with the adoption of practices and rules that were for the most part Cistercian in origin. Hugh persuaded the other Premonstratensian abbots of the need for some kind of federation of their otherwise autonomous houses.
With the help of papal bulls, culminating in that of Alexander III in 1177, the Order grew into a well-defined organization with an abbot general (the abbot of Prémontré), an annual general chapter of the heads of the various houses, the system of filiation of houses, and a method of visitation, all adopted largely from the system at cÎteaux with accommodations according to the peculiar needs of canons. The houses of Saxony, the chief of which was Magdeburg, resisted this attempt at centralization by appealing to the views and policies of Norbert. Traditionally, the Magdeburg-oriented houses also emphasized the active apostolate more than did the western European abbeys, where Cistercian influence was more pronounced.
In the 12th century the order spread rapidly over practically all of Europe and, with the Crusades, even to Palestine, where three Premonstratensian foundations had been made by 1145. The famous Abbey of floreffe (Belgium) was founded as early as 1122, and St. Martin of Laon (France) became a Norbertine house when the church there was accepted by the Order in 1124. In the same year the Abbey of St. Michael was established in Antwerp, largely as the result of the successful preaching of Norbert's canons against the heresy of tanchelm, who denied the Real Presence. It is because of his victory over this heresy that Norbert is often portrayed with a monstrance in his hands and with a figure representing Tanchelm under his feet.
Many of the abbeys that were founded during Norbert's time or shortly thereafter have either survived the turmoil of the centuries or have been refounded and still flourish today. In Belgium, the abbeys of Averbode, Tongerlo, Grimbergen, Park, and Postel are among the great Premonstratensian houses of the 20th century. Berne abbey in the Netherlands is the oldest continuously existing abbey in that country. It was founded as a house of Premonstratensian canons in 1134, the year that Norbert died. Henry Zdik, Bishop of Olmutz (d. 1150) was responsible for the erection of the great Abbey of Mount Sion at strahov, Prague, in 1140. This abbey, along with several other Premonstratensian houses in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, were suppressed by the Communist government in 1950. Since the fall of Communism in those countries, these abbeys have been reopened and religious life has been restored.
By the middle of the 13th century, according to a conservative estimate, there were at least 500 abbeys or priories located in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Spain, Greece, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, the British Isles, and the Scandinavian countries. Many of these were founded as double monasteries by colonies from established houses; others were existing communities, especially of canons regular, which were incorporated into the order. Foundations and donations were received from bishops and nobles who were interested in Church reform. In 1122, for example, St. Godfrey, Count of Cappenberg (1097–1127) ceded his vast properties to the order and received the habit himself. In 1139 Ven. Louis of Arnstein founded a magnificent monastery in his feudal palace. Some bishops invited Premonstratensians to take the place of their cathedral canons. At Laon and Magdeburg secular canons were replaced by canons of Prémontré. In some instances, as in the case of St. Alexis (Rome) and of St. James (Mainz), communities of monks were replaced by these reformed canons.
During this period of great fervor and growth, the Premonstratensians were particularly noted for their xenodochia (hospices), where the poor and the sick were assisted and pilgrims housed and fed. In this work the canons had the assistance of Premonstratensian nuns, whose communities were attached to most of the abbeys in the early period. While Norbert himself always remained an active preacher, the foundations that he made before Magdeburg were essentially contemplative and frequently located in isolated places. The original statutes provided that the Premonstratensians were not to serve parish churches except those attached to the abbeys. The numerous requests from ordinaries and the need for priests in churches located in the vicinity of Norbertine foundations led to a relaxation of this regulation concerning parochial ministry. In 1188 Clement III formally approved parish administration by the Premonstratensian canons. The abbeys soon became training centers for clerics, secular as well as regular, and eventually schools of humanities were established.
The Order's first century and a half witnessed not only great expansion, but also a rich harvest in spiritual and intellectual life. Among the saintly figures, in addition to those previously mentioned, were: Bl. Ricvera of Clastre, who aided Norbert in organizing the nuns of the order; St. gilbert, who in 1150 founded the monastery of Neuffontaines (France) and became its first abbot; Bl. Hroznata, martyr (d. 1217), a member of the Bohemian nobility who gave himself and his possessions to the order, thus founding the Abbey of Teplá (Czech Republic); St. Evermode (d. 1178), a companion of Norbert who became provost of Magdeburg and later bishop of Ratzeburg; and St. Herman Joseph, canon of Steinfeld,(d. c. 1241), one of the earliest promoters of devotion to the Sacred Heart, who later became the patron of youth in his native section of Germany. Noteworthy among those who made important contributions to the intellectual tradition of the Premonstratensians were Gervase of Chichester (fl. 1170), Adam Scotus (Dryburgh), and philip of harvengt. Gervase was one of the more notable abbots general in the order's long history. During his lifetime he acquired a reputation for zeal and learning, and in 1215 he was called to Rome by Innocent III to assist at the Fourth Lateran Council. Gervase was eventually named bishop of Sées (Normandy) in 1220. Through the influence of such learned men, the Order of Prémontré contributed significantly to the medieval renaissance.
Decline and Recovery. By the late 13th century the first symptoms of decline in religious fervor appeared in the order. The wealth of some of the houses and the practice of peculium (funds for private use) were factors in this deterioration, and no doubt the increasing pastoral activity beyond the walls of the monasteries cooled the claustral spirit. The large land holdings of many abbeys led to the abuses of commendatory abbots, many of whom had no interest in the material or spiritual welfare of the communities whose properties they administered. Then, too, on some occasions plagues depopulated entire communities.
During the Reformation every Norbertine foundation in England was lost as well as the houses in Ireland and Scotland. A similar fate befell abbeys in northern Germany, Frisia, Hungary, and the Scandinavian countries. In the 16th century, as the Catholic reform spread throughout Spain, France, and the rest of Catholic Europe, the Premonstratensian Order also experienced a revival. The Norbertine Nicolas pseaume, Bishop of Verdun, was one of the influential figures of the Council of Trent. Especially noteworthy within the order was the reform of Lorraine, fostered by Servais de Lairuels (1560–1631), which spread through the monasteries of Lorraine and France. Eventually, by pontifical decree, the Congregation of Ancient Observance of Prémontré was withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the general chapter and authorized to govern itself by a separate chapter at which the abbot general or his personal delegate always presided. In 1630 new statutes based on decrees of the Council of Trent were adopted for houses of the common observance. So fruitful were these reforms that the 17th century might well be called the renaissance of the Order. Not only was there a rebirth of religious fervor in existing Premonstratensian houses, but some monasteries that had gone out of existence were reestablished, especially in Hungary. This was the period also when houses of study were established near the great European universities in order to provide for the higher education of the canons. The ancient privileges pertaining to the apostolate, previously granted by earlier pontiffs, were reconfirmed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1750.
The French Revolution and its aftermath, as well as the monarchical reforms in Austria, almost completely demolished the order. After 1791 not a single abbey remained of the 94 that had existed in France. The invasion of Belgium and the Rhenish lands by the revolutionary armies brought destruction or suppression. Some years previously, Joseph II of Austria sequestered Premonstratensian abbeys when the canons refused to conform to his decrees regulating the training and activities of religious within his realm. By 1820 the only Premonstratensian houses remaining in all Christendom were those in Spain, and a small number that had survived in Austria-Hungary. The Spanish monasteries were suppressed after the revolution there of 1833.
Modern Development. Revival in the 19th century was extremely slow. In the 1830s, after the separation of Belgium from Holland and the granting of religious freedom in the former colony, the surviving Premonstratensians reconstituted the houses of Averbode, Grimbergen, Park, Postel, and tongerloo. In France, the Abbey of frigolet was founded in 1858, and the Abbey of Mondaye was restored in 1859 by canons from Grimbergen. Similarly, in 1857 there was a reestablishment of common life at Heeswijk, Holland, of Berne Abbey, which was the house destined to undertake the first permanent foundation in North America. General growth, however, was hampered by the lack of unity.
After the Abbey of Prémontré was suppressed in 1790, Jean-Baptiste L'Ecuy, the last abbot, was unable to function as abbot general until his death in 1834. After 1834 there was no abbot-general until a general chapter was convened in 1869 and Jerome Zeidler, the abbot of Strahov, was elected. He died before his confirmation by the Holy See. In 1883 a general chapter, convened in Vienna, again selected the abbot of Strahov, Sigismund Stary. To facilitate the handling of business before the Holy See, it was decided to have the procurator general reside in Rome. The election of Gummarus Crets of Averbode as abbot general in 1922 was evidence of the success of the revival in the Low Countries, where the abbeys are the largest in the order and have been most active in the missionary field and the liturgical apostolate. In 1937 the procurator general, Hubert A. Noots, a canon of Tongerloo Abbey, was elected to succeed Crets as abbot general. He separated the generalate from the administration of a particular abbey by taking up his residence in Rome.
In 2001 the order consisted of six circaries (provinces) organized along language lines. Within these six circaries there were thirty-six independent houses or canonries located on six continents in twenty-three countries. In addition to these houses there were several houses of sisters, under the jurisdiction of local bishops. There were also missions and dependent priories in various countries around the world.
The first permanent Premonstratensian foundation in North America resulted from an invitation in 1893 from the Bishop of Green Bay, Wis., Sebastian G. Messmer. He asked the canons of Berne Abbey to send missionaries to his diocese to combat the heresy of Joseph René Villatte among the Belgian settlers in northeastern Wisconsin. Bernard Henry Pennings was chosen to lead the first missionary group of three; the small community was later augmented by eight other religious. By February of 1898 the heresy was a dead issue, and Pennings turned his attention to the establishment of a Norbertine foundation in De Pere, Wis. Eventually, there were four independent Norbertine houses in the United States: St. Norbert Abbey (De Pere, Wis.), Daylesford Abbey (Paoli, Pa.), Immaculate Conception Priory (Claymont, Del.), and St. Michael's Abbey (Orange, Cal.).
Government, Spirit, and Apostolate. Supreme authority rests with the general chapter composed of the abbots and delegates from each autonomous Premonstratensian house. The general chapter regularly convenes every six years, and in the intervening period the enforcement of the will of the chapter is entrusted to the abbot general, who is elected for life, and his council (Definitory). The abbot general is represented in each circary by a vicar general. In a non-centralized order such as the Premonstratensian, the individual abbots enjoy considerable autonomous power in the administration of the spiritual and temporal affairs of their own houses. While the order had already received many papal privileges in the 12th century, it was in 1409 that Alexander V formally granted exemption from episcopal jurisdiction.
The Premonstratensian order is composed of priests, clerics, lay brothers, canonesses and lay sisters. The canonesses live a cloistered life. In the 19th and 20th centuries communities of third-order sisters were established in some countries of Europe to do work that did not involve a strictly cloistered life. While the order has for many centuries had lay third-order members, more recently there has been a move toward accepting oblate members and associate members who are more closely involved with the life and work of the order.
Norbertine life is intensely liturgical, with a strong paschal character most evident in the celebration of postbaptismal Easter Vespers and its proper chants in Eastertide. The so-called Premonstratensian Rite rooted in the medieval liturgical practice of Franco-Rhenish collegiate churches has largely been replaced since Vatican II with the renewed Roman Rite according to the calendar proper to the order. The order's earlier commitment to splendor cultus in the canonical tradition has been superseded by a commitment to ecclesial prayer in medio populi.
The Norbertine apostolate has varied throughout its history. Norbert at first envisioned preaching as the chief ministry of his disciples, but a diversification set in even in his lifetime, since it became customary for the order to assume work arising from the needs of the area in which the houses were located. The Norbertines of Belgium and France emphasize missionary activity and specialized apostolates, such as retreats, teaching, and the liturgical apostolate. In Austria and Germany the traditional parochial ministry prevails. Many members of the restored Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak houses are engaged in parochial ministry. In the U.S. the Premonstratensians until the mid-1970s were mostly active in the field of education, as well as in parochial ministry. Since then there has been a shift to view the abbeys as spiritual and liturgical centers. While teaching is still part of the work of some abbeys, activity in others has centered on retreats, spiritual direction and opportunities for prayer.
Bibliography: f. petit, The Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, tr. and rev. b. t. mackin (De Pere, Wis. 1961). h. m. colvin, The White Canons in England (Oxford 1951). f. petit, La Spiritualité des Prémontrés aux XIIe et XIIe siècles (Paris 1947). n. backmund, Geschichte des Prämonstratenserordens (Grafenau 1986). n. backmund, Monasticon Praemonstratense, 3 v. (Straubing 1949–56). b. ardura, Prémontré: Histoire et Spiritualité (Publications de l'Université de Saint-Etienne 1995). d.-m. dauzet, La voie canoniale dans l'Église aujourd'hui (Namur 1994).
[r. j cornell/
t. j. antry]