PREMONSTRATENSIANS (NORBERTINES, WHITE CANONS): The Founder. An order of regular canons, combining as their object personal holiness, preaching, and living according to the so-called rule of Augustine. Their founder was St. Norbert (b. at Xanten, 15 m. s.e. of Cleves, 1080-82; d. at Magdeburg June 6, 1134). Being the second son of Count Herbert of Lennep, according to contemporary custom in a noble family he was destined from birth for the spiritual career and obtained a canonry in the chapter of St. Victor, at Xanten. Being transferred to the archiepiscopal see of Cologne, he passed thence into the chancery of Emperor Henry V. to whom he was related on the paternal side. He accompanied the emperor on his expedition to Rome in 1111, and witnessed the arrest of Pope Paschal II. Having been struck by lightning near Wreden in Westphalia, he resolved to renounce worldly enjoyment and to apply himself to the earnest preaching of penance. After a brief sojourn in the cloister of Siegburg near Bonn he was ordained priest, in 1115, by Archbishop Frederick I. of Cologne. Utterly failing in his attempt to reform the canons of St. Victor, Norbert seems to have traveled about the vicinity of Xanten as a preacher of penance and was accused before the papal legate, Cuno of Praeneste, at the synod of Fritzlar, in July, 1118, of preaching without a commission and call. This hostility opened his eyes to the necessity of seeking another scene for his activity, and of securing papal sanction. He now cast himself in dependence upon the pope, laid down his benefices, and entered upon his mendicant journeys. In Nov., 1118, he met Pope Gelasius II. at St. Gilles in the diocese of Nîmes, who authorized him to preach. He now traversed France as a proc1aimer of penance, and arrived at Valenciennes in the spring of 1119, where he won his most faithful companion, Hugo de Fosses.
Founding of the Order. At the Synod of Reims, in 1119, Norbert had a conference with Pope Calixtus II., but the papal assent to his preaching was not renewed. He now conceived the idea of a model school for the training of clericals according to strict ascetic rule, which, in 1120, he founded in the forest of Coucy, in the diocese of Laon, department of Aisne, and called it Premonstratum ("foreshown"), for he believed that God had shown him the vision of a new monastery. In that year he and Hugo received the white habit from his friend the bishop, and soon after he gave his followers, increased to thirteen, the rule of Augustine and established them as regular canons. In Germany he induced Count Godfrey of Kappenberg, in 1122, to convert his opulent ancestral castle into a cloister of Norbertines. In 1124, Norbert was called to Antwerp, where, by founding a cloister, he was able to withdraw the people from the influence of the heretic Tanchelm (q.v.); and on Feb. 16, 1126, at Rome he obtained of Pope Honorius II. the confirmation of his order. In 1126 he was elected archbishop of Magdeburg. Barefoot, a preacher whom the multitude admired as a saint by reason of his austerity, Norbert made his entrance and was consecrated and enthroned on July 25, 1126. An ecclesiastical zealot and stern ascetic, he began to rule with strictness; and exerted himself with encroaching zeal to replace the former incumbents of the best foundations with Premonstratensians, arousing particular displeasure in the instance of the Church of St. Mary at Magdeburg in 1129. He was canonized by Gregory XIII. in 1582.
Organization and Character of the Order. The Congregation founded by Norbert was a closed order after the plan of organization of the Cistercians; but differing from them by following the rule of Augustine, together with statutes largely borrowed by Norbert from the articles of the Parisian Congregation of St. Victor. From these institutions of the Premonstratensians were later taken literally the provisions of the Dominican rule (see DOMINIC, SAINT, AND THE DOMINICAN ORDER). Its innovation consisted in the appointment of the regular canons to the preacher's office, the confessional and pastoral charges. The constitution of the order developed similarly to that of the Cistercians, since, in like contrast with the older orders, it, too, attained an international character. At the head of the whole order stood the abbot of Prémontré, as abbot-general upon whom the Premonstratensian constitution conferred a strict monarchical power. There is nothing distinctive in the liturgical regulations of the Premonstratensians. Flesh food for those in health is strictly forbidden; fasts occur frequently, and the scourge is used for mortification of the flesh as well as for chastisement. Penitential exercises are to be observed daily. Sins are classified as venial, intermediate, grave, graver, gravest; being subject to varieties of penance according to the class in question. The lightest penalties are to recite certain prayers and supplications in the convent, the severest involve lifelong incarceration and expulsion from the order.
Later Growth. The order spread very rapidly. The bull of ratification, in 1126, enumerated eight foundations. Both prior to the Cistercian order and collaterally the Premonstratensians especially spread through eastern Germany, and to it the district on the right bank of the Elbe owes its Christianization. Significant were the creation of model colonies among the new Dutch and Saxon settlers and the training of the Wends in agriculture, from Magdeburg as a center. Not until the firm grasp of Henry the Lion and Albert the Bear held the heathen in check did Premonstrant settlements flourish on Slavic soil, east of the Elbe. The cathedral chapters at Brandenburg, Havelberg, and Ratzeburg were supplied with Premonstrants; and as time passed, the episcopal sees in these bishoprics became occupied almost continually by them. The order spread among all countries of Roman Catholic Christendom: Hungary, Denmark, England, Sweden, Norway, Livonia, Portugal, Spain, Italy; likewise in the Holy Land. A century after its founding there were no less than 1,000 foundations of canons, 500 abbeys of Premonstrant nuns, 300 provostships, and 100 priories in thirty precincts. Their chief services were the training of native populations to make their land productive, missionary labors, reformation of the clergy, and the promotion of preaching, learning, and schools. As with the monastic orders generally, so here ensue in time certain mitigations of the original rule of reforms, and the creation of new congregations. After Innocent IV. had emphasized the prohibition of flesh food (1245), Nicholas IV. (1288) allowed the Premonstratensians the same when on journeys, and Pius II. (1460) made further concessions, limiting the prohibition of meat to Friday and Saturday, Advent, and Lent. Most of the foundations utilized this latitude, and the order became divided between foundations of "the major or common observance," and those of "the small and strict observance." The vast extent of the order was first reduced by the Reformation, which deprived it of its numerous foundations in the northern countries of Europe. Sundry Austrian foundations were abrogated by Joseph II.; the French abbeys were suspended by the French Revolution; and the foundations in Bavaria and Württemberg fell a sacrifice to secularization. Only a few establishments in Austria, Hungary, and Russian Poland are maintained on the older footing. Women were admitted within the order by Norbert. At the present time there are houses of Premonstratensian nuns in Austria, Russian Poland, Belgium, Holland, France, Spain, and Switzerland. The order embraces five districts, seventeen abbeys or canonries, and five priories, and also eight nunneries of the second and third orders, including 997 male and 258 female members; and it supplies, among other positions, 119 incorporated pastorates, five colleges, seven gymnasia, thirteen missions, and nine theological institutions. There are also tertiaries to whom Benedict XIV. accorded rich privileges in 1752; the adherents of this rank are especially represented in England and North America.