A multitude of authorities agree that no communities of clerics existed in the first three centuries of the Church and such communities did not arise until the fourth century. St Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli, who was exiled in 355 for refusing to subscribe to the condemnation of St Athanasius, established, before his exile, the first of these communities. He gathered up all the ecclesiastics in the town of Vercelli into a single house where he lived with them following the practices and observances of monastic life and made his church into a monastery, as St Ambrose says. But since St. Eusebius made his clergy take up the habit, the profession, the state, and the name of monk, it appears that it is to St Augustine that one must attribute the glory of having first established ecclesiastical communities. Indeed, he left his clergy in the same state and added nothing to clerical life and piety but a common life and poverty. This holy Doctor of the Church, after the death of his mother St. Monica, and after he had returned from his wayward paths, sold all the goods he inherited from his parents, distributed the money amongst the poor, and retired to live with his companions in a solitary place near the town of Thagaste. He lived there for three years in nighttime watches and continual prayer, leading with his companions a life similar to that of the monks of Egypt. Valerius, bishop of Hippo, who ordained him a priest despite his tears and resistance, allowed him to build a monastery in Hippo similar to that of Thagaste, where he dwelled with his religious after his promotion to the priesthood; but when he was vested with the episcopal dignity, he thought that his obligation to receive those who visited him might trouble the tranquillity of the cloister and harm religious observance there; wherefore he made his episcopal palace into a community of clerics who served his church: unto which he prescribed the common life that the Apostles and first Christians had practiced. No one had any private possessions; everything was held in common. Those who entered bound themselves to that, and he did not ordain any cleric that did not agree to live with him under that condition, so that if someone abandoned that way of life, St Augustine removed him from the clerical state and degraded him as a deserter of the holy society he had embraced and of the profession he had vowed.
Thus all his ecclesiastics were poor with him, and awaited the mercy of God through the charity of the Church, and by the offerings of the faithful, which were distributed to each according to his need. If any of those that presented themselves for admission possessed anything, they were obliged to put it at the community’s disposal, or get rid of it what way soever they might choose. But those who had not contributed anything were in no way distinguished from those who had contributed something.
When they were sick or convalescent and needed to eat something before dinnertime, they were sent what was necessary: but normally they took their repast together in community. The expenditures of the table and the habits were communal. No woman was ever afforded entry into the house, and St Augustine even refused to admit his sister, who was a widow and superioress of a great number of virgins.
Although this holy Doctor is considered the father and first institutor of ecclesiastical communities, he nevertheless did not set up a particular rule for his clergy, contenting himself with the rule and example of the apostles, who had taught the practice of communal life and perfect poverty, just as after them the majority of bishops also made their clerics live in this way, and in exact observance of conciliar canons. They were dubbed “canons”, a name they have kept until to-day, and which became proper to them, as we have already said.
It certainly seems that the French clergy had forsaken these holy practices and fallen into great laxity when St Chrodegang assumed the episcopal see of Metz in 742. The communal life that he made the clergy of his diocese observe, for whom he wrote up a particular rule, gives him the title of founder and restorer of communal life amongst clerics. This rule was not only for the clerics of his cathedral and the others of his diocese, but served as the model for the reform of several churches in France, Germany, and Italy.
The canons of St Chrodegang lived in common in cloister similar to those of monasteries, and in order that priests might be relieved from secular affairs and that earthly things might be destined solely for God’s service, they were provided with everything that was necessary for their subsistence. St Chrodegang’s Rule contained thirty chapters, and was derived from holy canons, the works of the Fathers, and especially the Rule of St Benedict. The Canons were not bound to an absolute poverty, but when they entered the community, they made a solemn donation of all their goods to the Church, reserving for themselves its usufruct and the power to dispose of their personal property and of the alms they would be given for their Masses, for Confession, or for assisting the sick. They enjoyed the freedom to go out by day, but at nightfall they had to return to the church to sing Compline, after which it was prohibited to drink, to eat, and to speak; they had to observe silence until Prime. They all lodged in common dormitories, where each had his own bed. Entry into the cloister was also prohibited to any woman, and no secular could enter without permission either. They were obliged to rise during the night at 2 a.m. for the Nocturnes, like monks following the Rule of St Benedict, and placed an interval between the Nocturnes and Mattins or Lauds, during which sleeping was not permitted: they had to spend this time learning the psalms by heart, reading, or singing. After Prime, they all betook themselves to Chapter, where an article of the Rule, some homilies, or some other edifying book was read. The bishop then gave his orders and made corrections, and after leaving Chapter each one went to the work that had been appointed for him.
Anent food: from Easter until Pentecost, they had two meals, and could eat meat except on Friday. From Pentecost until the feast of St John before the Latin Gate, they also had two meals, but without eating meat. From the feast of St John until Martinmas, they abstained from meat on Wednesday and Friday. From Martinmas until Christmas they abstained from food until None. After Christmastide until Lent they fasted on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On the other days they had two meals. If a feast fell on one of these weekdays the Superior could allow meat. In Lent they fasted until Vespers, with a prohibition on eating outside of the cloister. There were seven tables in the refectory, the first for the bishop with his guests and strangers, the archdeacon, and those whom the bishop summoned; the second for the priests; the third for the deacons; the fourth for the subdeacons; the fifth for the other clerics; and sixths for abbots and those the Superior wished; and the seventh for the clerics of the town on feast days. The amount of food was not restricted, but drink was limited to three glasses for lunch, two for dinner, and three when there was only one meal. In the morning they were given by twos one mess of pottage and two portions of meat, and in the evening each one was given one. The canons prepared their meals by turns, with the exception of the archdeacon and other officers that might be more usefully occupied elsewhere.
With respect to clothing, older canons were given a new cape each year, and the old capes were handed down to the younger ones. Priests and deacons who continually served were each year given two tunics or the wool to make them, together with two shirts. For footwear, they were each year given cow leather and four pairs of slippers. They were given money to buy wood. Clerics who had benefices had to acquire their own clothes.
This Rule was received by many churches, and when Emperor Charlemagne sought to oblige canons to live in common, he proposed that they live according to the Rule of Chrodegang. The Council of Mayence ordained the same thing. Emperor Louis the Pious earnestly strived to organise and reform the clergy, and in order to make canonical life uniform, he made the deacon Amalarius compose a Rule which was approved by the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle assembled in 816 and which was more or less the same as that of St Chrodegang, bishop of Metz.
Thereafter, laxity was so great amongst canons that most cathedrals and collegiate churches abandoned common and regular life and became secularized. The churches that wished to preserve their purity were obliged to take up different reforms and to become united in congregations. St Peter Damian, swept up by the ardor of his zeal, vehemently exhorted Pope Nicholas II to remedy the disorders that had been introduced and to expunge property from canonical life, since this was the cause of the disorders but had apparently been allowed by the Rule of Aix-la-Chapelle. Therefore this holy pontiff assembled a council in Rome composed of 113 bishops in 1059. After having condemned simony and concubinage, the council ordered that clerics lodge and live together, and that they share what they received from the Church, exhorting them to imitate the common life of the apostles and to have no private property. The same thing was ordained in another council by Alexander II in 1063.
This change was supported by the authority of St Augustine, and two discourses by this saint on the habits of clerics were proposed as the rule that canons should follow in imitation of the community he established in Hippo. A short time afterwards many reforms and new congregations of canons arose, which formed the Order of St Augustine and lived according to his Rule, and which we shall describe in what follows, as well as the different habits they used.
From Histoire du clergé séculier et régulier, des congrégations de chanoines et de clercs, et des ordres religieux de l’un et de l’autre sexe, qui ont été établis jusques à présent, 1716