Chapter Five:
The Premonstratensian Order in Europe
and the United Kingdom

The story of monasticism in Western Europe over the centuries is one of wave after wave of reformers attempting to restore simplicity of lifestyle. Norbert was one of these: a native of Xanten on the Lower Rhine, he was converted when he was thrown from his horse during a thunderstorm, and brought up in the household of the Archbishop of Köln. He was ordained deacon and priest on the same day. He went to Rome with the expedition of Emperor Henry V but normally lived in the Benedictine Abbey of Siegburg, emerging in 1115 fired with the desire to reform his fellow canons. He returned to Xanten where his new austerity and evangelism offended everyone.  

At the Council of Fritzlar he was accused of ‘usurping the office of preaching, abandoning the rich clothes which were the privilege of his rank and of assuming the religious habit without having taken monastic vows.’ He therefore resigned his office, sold all his possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor. He obtained the necessary papal protection from Gelasius II and his successor Calixtus II (Gelasius died in January 1119 while Norbert was on an evangelistic expedition in which three of his companions died as a result of the extreme rigour of their life).  

He went to live at St Martin, Laon in the department of Aisne, where he failed again, then to live near a deserted chapel in the forest of Coucy. He had a dream of a chapel with a procession of white-clad figures singing psalms and carrying lights and crosses. Bartholomew the bishop of Laon offered him sites and he chose Prémontré nine miles west of Laon, the place ‘pointed out’ in his dream. He founded the Premonstratensian Order as a reformed branch of the Canons Regular of St Augustine, in the 1120s, in spite of being pressurized to join the Cistercians. The first statutes were written between 1131 and 1134 and largely borrowed from the Cistercians (due to Norbert’s friendship with Bernard of Clairvaux) with influence from the customs of Cluny and Berge near Magdeburg. Some authorities also detect influence from the Canons Regular of St Victor of Paris, and of the Canons Regular of St Augustine.

Norbert was made bishop of Magdeburg in 1126 and was canonised in 1582.