Academic journal article Magistra

Building the Chariot of Aminadab: The Institutional Development of the Gilbertine Order in Twelfth Century England and the Influence of Gender

Academic journal article Magistra

Building the Chariot of Aminadab: The Institutional Development of the Gilbertine Order in Twelfth Century England and the Influence of Gender

Article excerpt

The twelfth century saw a renewed interest in monastic life and the expansion of religious vocations. However, new models which emerged were principally intended to meet the aspirations of men, not women, whose options may have been limited to strict enclosure.1 At best, the new orders were ambivalent about the involvement of women. Nevertheless, between 1130 and 1150 a number of monasteries of women were established in England which professed the Cistercian life, under the authority of a cleric as master or prior, and under episcopal control. Most of these new foundations were established in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, areas of the north which until the 1130s had been practically devoid of monastic opportunities for women.4 It is in this context that Gilbert of Sempringham established a new institution. With its emphasis on communities of women religious, together with clerics and lay brothers, grouped around a magister, it was not unique in mid-twelfth-century England, but it was unusual.5 What was unique is that it was only Gilbert's communities that would develop into a new religious order, the only order created in England, one which would survive until the dissolution of monasteries in that country.6

A combination of events and internal and external factors would conspire to shape Gilbert's order,7 presenting both risks to its existence and opportunities for its development. This paper analyses the process of institutionalization of the order and, in doing so, attempts to identify the key issues at stake in its early history and process of institutionalization. The analysis will examine the origin of the order and its structure, initial institutional developments, the impact of two crises, the codification of the rules of the order, and development of the role of magister and preparations for succession. Finally, it explores the ways in which issues of gender influenced the development of the order.

While Janet Burton notes that the Gilbertines achieved a "mature" organizational arrangement by around 1150,8 the analysis here will focus on issues and developments beyond this date to include the crises referred to above, the handover of power to Gilbert's successor in the late 1170s, and up to Gilbert's death in 1189, which will be shown to be not only key events in the history of the order, but also having significant implications for the process of institutionalization.

The most recent commentator on debates concerning the development of the Gilbertine Order, Katherine Sykes, claims that Gilbert's own account of the early history of the order contrasts with a negative view of his leadership among historians such as Brian Golding, which emphasize that it was Gilbert's lack of enthusiasm for leadership and poor planning for the future which ultimately led to the marginalization of women in the order.9 Sykes argues that Gilbert's expressed initial preference to establish a community of men may go some way to explain his lack of enthusiasm to lead a community of women, his plan to hand responsibility for them to an established order, and preference for male leadership when he could not do so. She suggests that the fact that Gilbert went on to lead many female communities can be explained by the effect of pressure from patrons, and eventual recognition of the personal rewards of leading a community of women. For Sykes, this raises the possibility that, rather than the development of single sex houses for canons being a deviation from Gilbert's original vision, it may be that it was a means for him to realize his earlier desire for a male community.10

This study is not intended to speculate on what Gilbert's original vision may have been, or comment on the efficacy of his leadership. Rather, it shall tread a different path to attempt to interpret the early institutional development of the Gilbertines. It will argue that there were four threshold issues involved in the development of the order, and that gender was a defining factor in the resolution of each of these issues, but guided by an overarching desire to meet the spiritual needs and aspirations of the female members of the order. …

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