15.08.20, Sykes, Inventing Sempringham

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Janet Sorrentino

The Medieval Review 15.08.20

Sykes, Katharine. Inventing Sempringham: Gilbert of Sempringham and the Origins of the Role of the Master. Vita regularis - Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter, Abhandlungen 46. Münster: LIT Verlag, 2011. pp. v, 265. ISBN: 978-3-643-90122-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Janet Sorrentino
Washington College

Katherine Sykes seeks in this study to understand leadership as it developed within new religious communities which formed in such great numbers during the eleventh and twelfth century. The monograph, a revision of Sykes' dissertation, investigates in particular the development of the role and title of Master in the Order of Sempringham. To do so, Sykes traces leadership vocabulary used in the Order's documents from its early days in the 1130s under the founder Gilbert of Sempringham until his death in 1189. Her study continues from 1189 through 1230s to trace the ways the leadership vocabulary changed--together with the institutional organization--under St Gilbert's first two successors: Roger and Gilbert II.

Sykes set out, among other tasks, to "address the extent to which the role of the Master as outlined in the Institutes of the Order represents a codification of the personal role of Gilbert, the founder of the order." (209-10) She examined Gilbertine charters, the Vita of St Gilbert, the Institutes of the Order, and other key documents, to create a philological snapshot for the vocabulary of leadership in the Order of Sempringham. She found subtle shifts in the placement of the terms sub custodia Gilberti, magister, sacerdos, summus prior, and prior omnium. Those shifts coincided with critical periods of change in the development of the order and its leadership: the early cloistering of seven nuns, St Gilbert's attempt to hand over leadership to the Cistercians, the creation of early formative documents 1148-1150s, the revolt of the lay brothers in the 1160s, the composition of St Gilbert's Vita, the process of his canonization in the first decade of the thirteenth century, and the revision of the Institutes in the 1220s.

Sykes takes as her starting point a meticulous gathering of data, locating key leadership terms (noted above) as they appear in the Gilbertine Institutes, Vita, charters and witness lists, letters, royal and papal privileges, and analyzes them relative to their chronology, in terms of calendar date and leadership regimes (St. Gilbert, Roger, and Gilbert II). On the basis of differential usage of the terms, she revised our understanding of the development of leadership in the Gilbertine community.

First, the term "magister Gilbert" in early witness lists and within the body of charters in the 1150s, seems to represent a reference to his academic credentials. He had not yet become a priest, nor yet taken orders within his own foundation, but had indeed taken on educational and pastoral responsibilities in his early ministry. Sykes then identified a gradual shift in the position of the term: from "magister Gilbert" to "Gilbert, magister," a shift that coincided with the period after the 1150s, when the introduction of Augustinian canons made a significant change in the community. Furthermore, this subtle shift in the use of the title magister coincided with the introduction of the term ordo; it also appeared with the designation of members of the community living subcustodia of Gilbert. Thereafter through the rest of his life, references to Gilbert in the sources remained constant and indicated his specific leadership prerogatives, not shared by anyone else: receiving new members, visitation of houses, and disciplining members for faults.

The next key period ran from 1188 until the canonization of St. Gilbert in 1204. Sykes noticed in documents of this period, usage of the term magister varied widely, making its meaning for the order ambiguous. This ambiguity coincided exactly at the time (just prior to Gilbert's death) when his successor Roger began to exercise the duties of leader. Before this time, Roger had been designated variously as prior omnium and prior ordinis. The ambiguity also derives from conflicting representations of Roger in two very different kinds of sources: the Vita prepared for St. Gilbert's canonization dossier and the charter evidence in the years between 1160s and 1204. In her reading of the Vita, Sykes found Roger represented there as having an extensive role throughout the entire narrative of Gilbert's life to the exclusion of others, such that he appears therein to be a natural successor to the founder. (104). By contrast, Sykes' analysis of the non-narrative sources written during the same period shows a significant number of witnesses other than Roger recognized within attesting documents, such as Ralph, chaplain, Hugh, canon of Sempringham, and Hugh, prior of St Katherine's, Lincoln, and so forth. (106-108) Based on her findings, Sykes takes to task much previous scholarship about the Order. In particular, she resists Brian Golding's and others' assessment of Roger as effectively the leader of the order from the 1170s. [1] Instead, Sykes concludes that Gilbert of Sempringham operated fully as the leader of the Sempringham Order until about a year before his death. She argues that although the Vita depicted Roger as a gifted administrator and natural successor, Roger commissioned the Vita, and it is likely Roger himself had a hand in creating that impression in order to shore up his position as Master after Gilbert's death. "It is only after Gilbert's successful promotion from magister Gilbert to sanctus Gilbert that the former title became available to his successor Roger." (210)

In her identification of key periods in Gilbertine history based on the presence of leadership vocabulary in the sources, the formative phase of the Order culminated in a revised version of the Institutes in the 1220s. (210) "A comparison between the content of individual chapters of the Institutes and documentary evidence relating to Gilbert II's activities as head of the order suggests a strong link between reforms carried out under his leadership in the 1210s and 1220s, and the stabilization of the title and the role of the head of the order in the Institutes." (189) In other words, the meaning of magister had changed over the course of a century of development.

The final articulation of the Institutes which contain the summary description of the Order, the rule, the role and title of the Master, and so forth, itself underwent many changes and accretions. In order to correctly identify the use of the leadership terms as they appear in the Institutes, Sykes carefully straightens the many threads offered by the manuscript itself, Oxford, Bodleian Douce 136, a volume with several constituent parts deriving from different periods in Gilbertine history. The evolution of the manuscript as artifact, then, supports her argument for the development of leadership in the Gilbertine Order in the presence (or absence) of key terminology (magister, (summus prior, etc.) as well as in the shift in meaning for those same terms in that document and non-narrative sources. She concluded the term magister evolved to mean a type of leadership represented by a single central director over a group of houses comprising a community with four populations (canons, nuns, lay brothers, lay sisters); the evolution matched also a transition of the community into an ordo as a unified community of religious with centralized leadership under a single head, to whom all constituent members owed obedience, and whose vision should direct the whole, a meaning quite different from the title as originally applied to the founder Gilbert in the early days. (209-211)

The volume provides documentation in four appendices which chart references in the sources (with dates and bibliographic data) to Gilbert (the founder), Roger, Gilbert II, respectively, and lastly a chart which tabulates the occurrence of leadership titles in the Institutes. A few editorial problems should be mentioned. The pagination in the Table of Contents does not correlate with the pages where key divisions appear, so "Developments in monastic government" begins on p. 2, not p. 6, and so on through much of the book. As a result, not all the terms in the index appear where they are supposed to. Also, the citations in the "Abbreviations" page are inconsistent; some give the full bibliographic data, while others list only an acronym and an abbreviated title, minor issues that needed more editorial assistance.

Sykes claims to offer "a substantially revised picture of the early history of the order." In her representation of previous scholarship, she contends that the widespread opinion among previous scholars represent St Gilbert as a "weak and ineffectual leader" (211). Instead, Sykes argues the fully-developed form of the order reflected his original vision for an order of male religious. What are usually treated as weaknesses of St Gilbert as a leader--the crises of the 1160s--were instead primarily the result of "tensions generated by a greater institutionalization of roles within the order and the 'routinization' of Gilbert's charismatic authority following the introduction of the canons and the revision (or perhaps the recording and revision) of the Institutes of the Order." (211) She argues the changes/developments which took place under Roger and later Gilbert II did not represent distortions of St Gilbert's vision, but rather an ultimate fulfillment of St Gilbert's original vision: to found a community of male religious.

In the context of institutionalization of charisma, Sykes raises the Weberian discourse about the role of charisma on social groups (99), and the difficulties posed when groups are faced with the death of the charismatic leader. All such groups face a challenge to translate the vision of the founder into a sustainable form which can continue beyond the life of the founder. In examining the phenomenon of St Gilbert's personal transition from lay aristocrat to academic master to custodian of religious women to ultimately master of an order with four populations, Sykes looks in the Gilbertine record for evidence of the personal force of Gilbert as the founding individual leader with a vision, but also one capable of transmitting that vision to others. It is an important historical question and Sykes' application of the discourse here is one of the most interesting aspects of her study. St Gilbert, she says, has been wrongly identified by previous scholars with founders of other religious orders whose initial visions for religious life evolved into something less personal and more bureaucratic. Instead, she argues that such a representation of St Gilbert does not fit the record. "The core of the Vita's narrative, that Gilbert was an effective leader, responsible for the transformation of the communities that he had founded into an ordo with a constitution, a foundation history, considerable endowments, and decent national reputation, matches up with the fractured narrative presented in more fragmented form in the charters, privileges, acta, and legal records. This core narrative of the Vita has also been neglected by previous historians, who have been too quick to pigeonhole Gilbert as a 'charismatic leader', and too quick to discount elements of the Vita which jar with this model of ideal-type."(212) Indeed, her characterizations of previous scholarship as based on "simplistic assumptions" and "looking through the wrong end of the telescope" (209) can feel jarring and seem unnecessary; they speak more to a desire to carve a place in the scholarship for her study than to real weakness in previous scholarship. Sykes' contribution is substantial on its own merits in both method and conclusion.

By analyzing the development of leadership through the differential use of vocabulary leadership, Sykes offers a valuable model for investigation, and one which, in the case of the Gilbertines, also provided new insight into the development and evolution of the religious community itself from its early formative period to an articulated institution. Her close reading of the sources is admirable, and so too the ingenuity of her approach to the questions she addresses. Still, much depends on nuances in the meanings of words, which in turn derive their significance from their placement within the Gilbertine documents in historical chronology. Her point of reference is almost entirely Gilbertine documents, yet, as she rightly points out on a number of occasions, St. Gilbert (and his successors) belonged to a large social and religious context; the study is a beginning of a philology for leadership in high medieval religious houses; it is to be hoped similar studies based on other communities will make the conclusions more universally definitive.

Most importantly, in my opinion, her revised account of Gilbertine structure and leadership brings important closure to a vexing aspect of the Gilbertine narrative: the tensions created in the 1150s with the introduction of the Augustinian canons. The presence of the canons, initially introduced to share pastoral responsibility for the other three populations in the Order, created an imbalance between the four groups--canons, nuns, lay brothers, and lay sisters--a situation which destabilized the community and ultimately led to the revolt of the lay brothers in the 1160s. [2] With the final development of the role and title of Master in the Order over all other members, Sykes posits "The move towards greater supervision of the canons brought all four groups under central control, and helped to restore the direct relationship between the nuns, lay brothers and lay sisters and the head of the order which had been distorted and weakened by the introduction of an intermediary layer of government represented by the canons. Instead, all four groups looked to the centre, to the Master, for leadership." (206) In fact, her focus on leadership—its development and practice as determined by careful study of the terminology in narrative and non-narrative sources for the new monastic orders of the high Middle Ages--will, I believe, spur reassessments of other religious communities and have a lasting impact on them.



1. Brian Golding, Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order c. 1130-c.1300 (Oxford, 1995), 58, 69.

2. I argued this point relative to the profession of lay brothers and their understanding of their original profession. J. Sorrentino, “Rebellion and Perseverance: The Profession of the Gilbertine Lay Brothers and a Votive Mass for the Conversi,” in The Study of Medieval Manuscripts in England: Festschrift in Honor of Richard W. Pfaff. George H. Brown and Linda E. Voigts, eds. (Turnhouts: Brepols Publishers, 2010), 1-40.

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