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The Gilbertine Order of Canons Regular was founded around 1130 by Saint Gilbert in Sempringham, Lincolnshire, where Gilbert was the parish priest. It was the only completely English religious order and came to an end in the 16th century at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
St Gilbert of Sempringham originally wished to found a men's order, but found that to be impracticable. Instead, he accepted seven women whom he had taught in the village school and in 1131 founded an order of nuns based on the Cistercian Rule.
Eventually Gilbert added lay sisters to do the daily chores of his religious house, so that the nuns could attend to their duties, and lay brothers to work in the fields. In 1139 the small order opened its first new foundation on the island of Haverholm, a gift from Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln. Over the years, more and more new foundations were established, and Gilbert became overwhelmed. In 1147 he left England for Continental Europe to seek assistance, and approached the Cistercian Order at its major house in Cîteaux to take on the running of his foundations. The Cistercians declined, apparently because they felt unable to administer houses for both men and women, but Pope Eugenius III, himself a Cistercian, intervened to ask the abbot, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, to assist Gilbert in drawing up Institutes for a new Order. Pope Eugenius then appointed Gilbert as the first Master of the Order of Sempringham or Gilbertines.
The Gilbertines wore a habit comprising a black cassock, with a white hood and scapular, so that when viewed from God's perspective they would appear as a white cross on a black background. The Crosier Canons, who are still extant, wear the reverse of this habit, black over white.
Each Gilbertine priory had one church, divided inequally by a wall. The nuns had the larger part, and the canons the smaller. The latter would join the nuns only to give mass. From the church, the nunnery normally stood to the north and the canons' lodgings to the south.
One source of perpetual pain for Gilbert were the lay brothers. These were chosen from lower class peasant families, because they needed to spend their days labouring in the fields. The problem was that they did not take well to discipline and needed a firm hand to guide them. There seem to have been many instances of insubordination and of scandalous behavior from them.
In the mid-twelfth century, a girl was brought to the Priory of Watton as a child, but had no real religious vocation. This Nun of Watton became pregnant by a lay brother, who fled, but he was brought back for punishment. The other nuns then forced the girl to castrate the man. They forced the removed parts down the pregnant nun's throat and chained her up, whereupon she mysteriously lost her baby. According to one account Henry Murdac, Archbishop of York, the man who had brought her to the priory, appeared with two heavenly women who cleansed the girl's body of her sin and of her pregnancy, and her chains fell off. Saint Aelred of Rievaulx was called in to investigate and declared the event to be a miracle. However, he was also intensely critical of the nun's fellow sisters and of Gilbert of Sempringham himself for their lack of pastoral care.
Towards the end of Gilbert's life, when he was around ninety years old, some of the lay brothers at Sempringham rose up against him, complaining of too much work and too little food. The rebels, led by two skilled craftsmen, received money from both religious and secular supporters and took their case to Rome. Pope Alexander III ruled in Gilbert's favour, but the living conditions of the lay brothers were improved thereafter.
The Gilbertine order was always popular in England and Wales. Its houses were the final homes of the last members of the Welsh royal family, young daughters, after the rest had been defeated and killed in the 1280s. Principal among these was Princess Gwenllian who was sent to Sempringham and a monument commemorating this was placed near the Priory site in the 1990s. Many English kings gave the order generous charters, and yet it always had financial problems. By the end of the 15th century, the Order was greatly impoverished, and King Henry VI exempted all of its houses from paying taxes and from any other sort of payment. He could not and did not force his successors to do the same.
By the time of the Dissolution, there were twenty-six houses of Gilbertines, but only four of these were ranked as "greater houses", having annual incomes above £200. Following the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act of 1536, these houses gave in to King Henry VIII in 1538 without a fight, surrendering "of their own free will". Each nun and canon then received a pension for the rest of their lives. The last Gilbertine prior, Robert Holgate, Bishop of Llandaff, was translated to become Archbishop of York in 1545. The Gilbertines were the one truly English order, so the Dissolution marked their permanent end.
The Gilbertine legacy is fairly small; only fifteen extant manuscripts are associated with the Order, originating from only five of the Gilbertine houses. Four additional works ascribed to Gilbertines, but not surviving in Gilbertine copies, include the Vita of Gilbert of Sempringham, the Gilbertine Rule, the so-called 'Sempringham Continuation' to Le Livere de Reis Engleterre, and the works of Robert Mannyng.
The remains of one Gilbertine monastery, Malton Priory, have been incorporated into the parish church at Malton in North Yorkshire. The original monastery was established around 1150, and, though it has suffered considerable abuse, the surviving fragment remains impressive. Although the Priory at Sempringham was destroyed the adjacent and contemporary Church of St. Andrew remained and some evidence of mediaeval decoration is still to be found. It is now a parish church of the Church of England, Diocese of Lincoln.
In 1983, following celebrations of the nine hundredth anniversary of Gilbert's birth, a number of lay people in the East Midlands of England undertook to sustain the memory and work of Gilbert and the Gilbertine Order by establishing a new secular Order. The Oblates of St Gilbert exist to promote the Gilbertine contemplative spirit and to foster interest in the study of Gilbert and his Order. They are supported by the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England.
In about 1998 a priest of the Diocese of Sao Paulo in Brazil, Fr. Carlos Apericido Marchesani, visited the Gilbertine Oblates as he had heard about their activities and wished to visit Sempringham, having had a devotion to Saint Gilbert since a seminarian in the United States. He later obtained permission from his bishop to found a small religious community, ad experimentem, which was set up near Sao Paulo. The experiment was brought to an end in 2012.