Monastic Orders – part 2: canons

german-school-(16)-portrait-of-an-augustinian-canon-wearing-a-black-almuceAugustinian Canons, or ‘Black Canons’ because of their black cloaks were all priests who followed the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo. They were similar to monks in that they lived in religious communities, shared property in common and took religious vows including poverty and obedience. They were required to take part in Divine Service just like the monks but the stipulations with regard to the number of services and amount of physical labour were slimmed down so that the canon could preach, teach and care for the needy.   Their order proved very popular during the twelfth century and many of their houses boast huge churches as they attracted very large congregations to hear them preach.

Thus the key differences between the Augustinians and monks of other orders was that they were all priests – you could not become an Augustinian canon unless you were a priest whereas you could be a monk without being a priest. Monks stayed in their houses whereas Augustinians went out into the community often being sent in ones or twos to minister to the parish churches that had been granted to them by their patrons.

In a sense because the religious Rule was a ‘light’ rule the Black Canons eventually gained a reputation for enjoying the comforts of life. They were certainly well-known for their hospitality.

7541_originalInevitably more zealous groups of priests sought to reform the rule. This happened in Premontre in France in 1123 when a wandering preacher called Norbert (he was later sainted) arrived on the scene. The reformed rule followed the Cistercians more closely than the Benedictines – poverty and austerity were the order of the day.   The Premonstratensians distinguished themselves from their Augustinian brethren with a white habit. They arrived in England in 1147 at Alnwick. The Premonstratensians are also sometimes called Norbertines which is at least easier to spell.


Both the Black and the White canons had separate priories for canonesses who were nuns, some communities lived an enclosed life but others were of service to their wider communities e.g. caring for the sick.

Another similarity shared by the two groups of canons was that they were known as ‘regular’ canon. Regular comes from regulus which is Latin for rule: they were priests who followed the rule.

Regular canon can be distinguished from secular canon not because of their beliefs but because of where and how they lived. Regular canon lived like monks for the most part whereas secular canon served in large churches, often in shared accommodation, but they were simply priests rather than having taken any additional monastic vows. Thomas Becket is a patron saint of secular canon.

A final group of canons need also be mentioned. The Gilbertines were the only English monastic order. Gilbert of Sempringham founded a small convent in 1131 for seven women who wanted to follow a religious life. In time the convent expanded to become a double house with women on one side and men on the other – strictly separated of course. The nuns did not go out into the world – so there needed to be a community of lay sisters to do the work. Because Gilbert felt unworthy to lead the growing numbers of nuns, he incorporated regular canons into the set up – their role was pastoral care.

My previous post was about monks and my next post, part three, will be about friars.