Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Augustinian canons

In my previous post I discussed cathedral chapters.  Here I discuss another group of priests, "canons regular" or Augustinian canons, who also served churches in a body--just not cathedral churches.

Canons were groups of priests who brought the liturgy and pastoral care to the broader world, as opposed to monks, where the group of religious men spent their days in isolated prayer and contemplation.  One could always of course have individual priests attached to a parish church, but canons by definition were priests who functioned in groups of other priests.

Cathedral priests/cathedral canons were of course attached to a cathedral and were called "secular canons" because they reached out to the secular world.  Many other churches acquired bodies of canons.  In some cases, an old monastery was too small and too poor to support the monastic life, so the monks were replaced by canons, who were able to live from payments for baptisms, burials, and the like, which monks (isolated from the world) did not receive.  (Officially of course one did not have to pay for the sacraments, but it would be extremely tacky not to.  Imagine getting married today and not bothering to pay the minister.  But if you don't pay him, he won't sue you.)

In the eleventh century, many bodies of secular canons (ones not attached to cathedrals) decided that the life they were living was not pure enough and thus decided to follow a semi-monastic rule.  The rule most often settled on was based on a letter Saint Augustine had written back in the fifth century, when he really hadn't had Augustinian canons in mind, but that was not a problem.  His holiness and antiquity worked just fine as a justification for them adopting his "rule."

These canons regular lived in common, sharing a dormitory, sharing their refectory (cafeteria), sharing all their possessions.  They followed a simple life of a vegetarian diet and a lack of comforts.  In this way they look a lot like monks.  However, they spent their days in parish activities.  Their elected head was called a dean, rather than an abbot.

By the early twelfth century in France, almost all urban churches were served by a body of Augustinian canons.  Wealthy urban families who might feel no connection to rural monasteries, generally supported by the aristocracy, made gifts to support these canons.  The people who lived nearby would consider a church of canons their church.  In one case, in what is now Belgium, the canons had been reading the history of early monasticism in Egypt and decided to head off to become desert fathers themselves.  They sneaked off during the night, but the distraught townspeople pursued them and brought them back and got the bishop to order them not to try that again.

Cathedral canons on the Continent never adopted any version of the Augustinian rule.  In some cathedrals in England, however, such as Canterbury, the cathedral canons did indeed seek to follow such a semi-monastic form of life.

The example of the different kinds of canons indicates the complexity of the medieval church, rarely reflected in historical fiction (including mine).

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

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