1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gilbert of Sempringham, St
GILBERT OF SEMPRINGHAM, ST, founder of the Gilbertines, the only religious order of English origin, was born at Sempringham in Lincolnshire, c. 1083-1089. He was educated in France, and ordained in 1123, being presented by his father to the living of Sempringham. About 1135 he established there a convent for nuns; and to perform the heavy work and cultivate the fields he formed a number of labourers into a society of lay brothers attached to the convent. Similar establishments were founded elsewhere, and in 1147 Gilbert tried to get them incorporated in the Cistercian order. Failing in this, he proceeded to form communities of priests and clerics to perform the spiritual ministrations needed by the nuns. The women lived according to the Benedictine rule as interpreted by the Cistercians; the men according to the rule of St Augustine, and were canons regular. The special constitutions of the order were largely taken from those of the Premonstratensian canons and of the Cistercians. Like Fontevrault (q.v.) it was a double order, the communities of men and women living side by side; but, though the property all belonged to the nuns, the superior of the canons was the head of the whole establishment, and the general superior was a canon, called “Master of Sempringham.” The general chapter was a mixed assembly composed of two canons and two nuns from each house; the nuns had to travel to the chapter in closed carts. The office was celebrated together in the church, a high stone screen separating the two choirs of canons and nuns. The order received papal approbation in 1148. By Gilbert’s death (1189) there were nine double monasteries and four of canons only, containing about 700 canons and 1000 nuns in all. At the dissolution there were some 25 monasteries, whereof 4 ranked among the greater monasteries (see list in F. A. Gasquet’s English Monastic Life). The order never spread beyond England. The habit of the Gilbertines was black, with a white cloak.
See Bollandists’ Acta Sanctorum (4th of Feb.); William Dugdale, Monasticon (1846); Helyot, Hist. des ordres religieux (1714); ii. c. 29. The best modern account is St Gilbert of Sempringham, and the Gilbertines, by Rose Graham (1901). The art. in Dictionary of National Biography gives abundant information on St Gilbert, but is unsatisfactory on the order, as it might easily convey the impression that the canons and nuns lived together, whereas they were most carefully separated; and altogether undue prominence is given to a single scandal. Miss Graham declares that the reputation of the order was good until the end. (E. C. B.)