1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Canon

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CANON. The Greek word κανών means originally a straight rod or pole, and metaphorically what serves to keep a thing upright or straight, a rule. In the New Testament it occurs in Gal. vi. 16, and 2 Cor. x. 13, 15, 16, signifying in the former passage a measure, in the latter what is measured, a district. The general applications of the word fall mainly into two groups, in one of which the underlying meaning is that of rule, in the other that of a list or catalogue, i.e. of books containing the rule. Of the first, such uses as that of a standard or rule of conduct or taste, or of a particular form of musical composition (see below) may be mentioned, but the principal example is of the sum of the laws regulating the ecclesiastical body (see Canon Law). In the second group of uses that of the ecclesiastical dignitary (see below), that of the list of the names of those persons recognized as saints by the Church (see Canonization), and that of the authoritative body of Scriptures (see below) are examples.

Music.—A canon in part-music is the form taken by the earliest compositions in harmony, successive or consequent parts having the same melody, but each beginning at a stated period after its precursor or antecedent. In many early polyphonic compositions, one or more voices were imitated note for note by the others, so that the other parts did not need to be written out at all, but were deduced from the leaders by a rule or canon. Sir Frederick Bridge has pointed out that in this way the term “canon” came to supersede the old name of the art-form, Fuga ligata. (See also under Fugue, Contrapuntal Forms and Music.) When the first part completes its rhythmical sentence before the second enters, and then continues the melody as an accompaniment to the second, and so on for the third or fourth, this form of canon in England was styled a “round” or “catch”; the stricter canon being one in which the succession of parts did not depend on the ending of the phrase. But outside England catches and canons were undifferentiated. The “round” derived its name from the fact that the first part returned to the beginning while the others continued the melody; the “catch” meant that each later part caught up the tune. The problem of the canon, as an artistic composition, is to find one or more points in a melody at which one or more successive parts may start the same tune harmoniously. Catches were familiar in English folk music until after the Restoration; different trades having characteristic melodies of their own. In the time of Charles II they took a bacchanalian cast, and later became sentimental. Gradually the form went out as a type of folk music, and now survives mainly in its historical interest.  (H. Ch.) 

The Church Dignitary.—A canon is a person who possesses a prebend, or revenue allotted for the performance of divine service in a cathedral or collegiate church. Though the institute of canons as it at present exists does not go back beyond the 11th century it has a long history behind it. The name is derived from the list (matricula) of the clergy belonging to a church, κανών being thus used in the council of Nicaea (c. 16). In the synod of Laodicea the adjective κανονικός is found in this sense (c. 15); and during the 6th century the word canonicus occurs commonly in western Europe in relation to the clergy belonging to a cathedral or other church. Eusebius of Vercelli (d. 370) was the first to introduce the system whereby the cathedral clergy dwelt together, leading a semi-monastic life in common and according to rule; and St Augustine established a similar manner of life for the clergy of his cathedral at Hippo. The system spread widely over Africa, Spain and Gaul; a familiar instance is St Gregory’s injunction to St Augustine that at Canterbury the bishop and his clergy should live a common life together, similar to the monastic life in which he had been trained; that these “clerics” at Canterbury were not monks is shown by the fact that those of them in the lower clerical grades were free to marry and live at home, without forfeiting their position or emoluments as members of the body of cathedral clergy (Bede, Hist. Eccl. i. 27). This mode of life for the secular clergy, which became common in the west, seems never to have taken root in the east. It came to be called vita canonica, canonical life, and it was the object of various enactments of councils during the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries. The first serious attempt to legislate for it and reduce it to rule was made by Chrodegang, bishop of Metz (c. 750), who composed a rule for the clergy of his cathedral, which was in large measure an adaptation of the Benedictine Rule to the case of secular clergy living in common. Chrodegang’s Rule was adopted in many churches, both cathedral and collegiate (i.e. those served by a body of clergy). In 816 the synod of Aix-la-Chapelle (see Mon. Germ. Concil. ii. 307) made further regulations for the canonical life, which became the law in the Frankish empire for cathedral and collegiate churches. The Rule of Chrodegang was taken as the basis, but was supplemented and in some points mitigated and made less monastic in character. There was a common dormitory and common refectory for all, but each canon was allowed a dwelling room within the cloister; the use of flesh meat was permitted, and the clothing was of better quality than that of monks. Each canon retained the use of his private property and money, but the revenues of the cathedral or church were treated as a common fund for the maintenance of the whole establishment. The chief duty of the canons was the performance of the church services. Thus the canons were not monks, but secular clergy living in community, without taking the monastic vows or resigning their private means—a form of life somewhat resembling that of the fathers of the London or Birmingham Oratory in our day. The bishop was expected to lead the common life along with his clergy.

The canonical life as regulated by the synod of Aix, subsisted in the 9th and 10th centuries; but the maintenance of this intermediate form of life was of extreme difficulty. There was a constant tendency to relax the bonds of the common life, and attempts in various directions to restore it. In England, by the middle of the 10th century, the prescriptions of the canonical life seem to have fallen into desuetude, and in nine cathedrals the canons were replaced by communities of Benedictines. In the 11th century the Rule of Chrodegang was introduced into certain of the English cathedrals, and an Anglo-Saxon translation of it was made under Leofric for his church of Exeter. The turning point came in 1059, when a reforming synod, held at the Lateran, exhorted the clergy of all cathedral and collegiate churches to live in community, to hold all property and money in common, and to “lead the life of the Apostles” (cf. Acts ii. 44, 45). The clergy of numerous churches throughout Western Europe (that of the Lateran Basilica among them) set themselves to carry out these exhortations, and out of this movement grew the religious order of Canons Regular or Augustinian Canons (q.v.). The opposite tendency also ran its course and produced the institute of secular canons. The revenues of the cathedral were divided into two parts, that of the bishop and that of the clergy; this latter was again divided among the clergy themselves, so that each member received his own separate income, and the persons so sharing, whatever their clerical grade, were the canons of the cathedral church. Naturally all attempt at leading any kind of common life was frankly abandoned. In England the final establishment of this order of things was due to St Osmund (1090). The nature and functions of the institute of secular canons are described in the article Cathedral.

See Du Cange, Glossarium, under “Canonicus”; Amort, Vetus Disciplina Canonicorum (1747), to be used with caution for the earlier period; C. du Molinet, Réflexions historiques et curieuses sur les antiquités des chanoines tant séculiers que réguliers (1674); Herzog, Realencyklopädie (3rd ed.), art. “Kapitel”; Wetzer und Welte, Kirchenlexicon (2nd ed.), art. “Canonica vita” and “Canonikat.” The history of the canonical institute is succinctly told, and the best literature named, by Max Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen, 1896, i. § 55; also by Otto Zöckler, Askese und Mönchtum, 1897, pp. 422-425. On medieval secular canons a standard work is Chr. Wordsworth’s Statutes of Lincoln Cathedral (1892–1897); see also an article thereon by Edm. Bishop in Dublin Review, July 1898.  (E. C. B.) 

In the Church of England, the canons of cathedral or collegiate churches retain their traditional character and functions, though they are now, of course, permitted to marry. Their duties were defined by the Canons of 1603, and included that of residence at the cathedrals according to “their local customs and statutes,” and preaching in the cathedral and in the churches of the diocese, “especially those whence they or their church receive any yearly rent or profit.” A canonry not being legally a “cure of souls,” a canon may hold a benefice in addition to his prebend, in spite of the acts against pluralities. By the Canons of 1603 he was subject to discipline if he made his canonry an excuse for neglecting his cure. By the act of 1840 reforming cathedral chapters the number of canonries was greatly reduced, while some were made applicable to the endowment of archdeaconries and professorships. At the same time it was enacted that a canon must have been six years in priest’s orders, except in the case of canonries annexed to any professorship, headship or other office in any university. The obligatory period of residence, hitherto varying in different churches, was also fixed at a uniform period of three months. The right of presentation to canonries is now vested in some cases in the crown, in others in the lord chancellor, the archbishop or in the bishop of the diocese.

Honorary canons are properly canons who have no prebend or other emoluments from the common fund of the chapter. In the case of old cathedrals the title is bestowed upon deserving clergymen by the bishop as a mark of distinction. In new cathedrals, e.g. Manchester or Birmingham, where no endowment exists for a chapter, the bishop is empowered to appoint honorary canons, who carry out the ordinary functions of a cathedral body (see Cathedral).

Minor canons, more properly styled priest-vicars, are appointed by the dean and chapter. Their function is mainly to sing the service, and they are selected therefore mainly for their voices and musical qualifications. They may hold a benefice, if it lies within 6 m. of the cathedral.

In the Protestant churches of the continent canons as ecclesiastical officers have ceased to exist. In Prussia and Saxony, however, certain chapters, secularized at the Reformation, still exist. The canons (Domherren) are, however, laymen with no ecclesiastical character whatever, and their rich prebends are merely sources of endowment for the cadets of noble families.

See Phillimore, Eccles. Law, 2 vols. (London, 1895).  (W. A. P.) 

The Scriptures.—There are three opinions as to the origin of the application of the term “canon” to the writings used by the Christian Church. According to Semler, Baur and others, the word had originally the sense of list or catalogue—the books publicly read in Christian assemblies. Others, as Steiner, suppose that since the Alexandrian grammarians applied it to collections of old Greek authors as models of excellence or classics, it meant classical (canonical) writings. According to a third opinion, the term included from the first the idea of a regulating principle. This is the more probable, because the same idea lies in the New Testament use of the noun, and pervades its applications in the language of the early Fathers down to the time of Constantine, as Credner has shown.[1] The “κανών of the church” in the Clementine homilies,[2] the “ecclesiastical κανών[3] and the “κανών of the truth” in Clement and Irenaeus,[4] of the faith in Polycrates,[5] the regula fidei of Tertullian,[6] and the libri regulares of Origen[7] imply a normative principle. Credner’s view of κανών as an abbreviation of γραφαὶ κανόνος, equivalent to Scripturae legis in Diocletian’s Act,[8] is too artificial, and is unsanctioned by usage.

The earliest example of its application to a catalogue of the Old or New Testament books occurs in the Latin translation of Origen’s homily on Joshua, where the original seems to have been κανών. The word itself is certainly in Amphilochius,[9] as well as in Jerome[10] and Rufinus.[11] As the Latin translation of Origen has canonicus and canonizatus, we infer that he used κανονικός, opposed as it is to apocryphus or secretus. The first occurrence of κανονικός is in the 59th canon of the council of Laodicea, where it is contrasted with ἰδιωτικός and ἀκανόνιστος. Κανονιζόμενα, “canonized books,” is first used in Athanasius’s festal epistle.[12] The kind of rule which the earliest Fathers thought the Scriptures to be can only be conjectured; it is certain that they believed the Old Testament books to be a divine and infallible guide. But the New Testament was not so considered till towards the close of the 2nd century, when the conception of a Catholic Church was realized. The collection of writings was not called Scripture, or put on a par with the Old Testament as sacred and inspired, till the time of Theophilus of Antioch (about 180 a.d.). Hence Irenaeus applies the epithets divine and perfect to the Scriptures; and Clement of Alexandria calls them inspired.

When distinctions were made among the Biblical writings other words were employed, synonymous with κανονιζόμενα or κεκανονισμένα, such as ἐνδιάθηκα, ὡρισμένα. The canon was thus a catalogue of writings, forming a rule of truth, sacred, divine, revealed by God for the instruction of men. The rule was perfect for its purpose. (See Bible: section Canon.)

The term “canonical,” i.e. that which is approved or ordered by the “canon” or rule, is applied to ecclesiastical vestments, “canonicals,” and to those hours set apart by the Church for prayer and devotion, the “Canonical Hours” (see Breviary).  (S. D.) 

  1. Zur Geschichte des Kanons, pp. 3-68.
  2. Clement Hom., ap. Coteler. vol. i. p. 608.
  3. Stromata, vi. 15, p. 803, ed. Potter.
  4. Adv. Haeres. i. 95.
  5. Euseb. H.E. v. 24.
  6. De praescript. Haereticorum, chs. 12, 13.
  7. Comment. in Mat. iii. p. 916, ed. Delarue.
  8. Monumenta vetera ad Donatistarum historiam pertinentia, ed. Dupin, p. 168.
  9. At the end of the Iambi ad Seleucum, on the books of the New Testament, he adds, οὐτος ἀψευδέστατος κανών ἂν εἴη τῶν θεοπνεύστων γραφῶν.
  10. Prologus galeatus in ii. Reg.
  11. Expos. in Symb. Apost. 37, p. 374, ed. Migne.
  12. After the word is added καὶ παραδοθέντα, πιστευθέντα τὲ θεῖα είναι. Opp. vol. i. p. 961, ed. Benedict.