The ending of centuries of Benedictine predominance on European religious life in the late eleventh century happened just as the pace of social change and growth within Western civilisation was quickening. Here was a fertile ground for not one new formulation of religious life, but two. One was to be more strict a life than the Benedictine norm of the day, and the other less strict. In the brief period between the years 1075 and 1125 these two new and distinct religious movements germinated and blossomed. Both have survived to the present day.
Firstly, the Cistercians "reformed" Benedictinism by undertaking a stricter observance of the Rule of Benedict. The Cistercians as much as suggested that many of the Benedictines in the eleventh century had effectively and comfortably relaxed, especially through the security, social status and accumulated wealth that was enjoyed particularly in the monasteries that were large and established for hundreds of years. The second new movement was the Canons Regular, i.e., canons following a Rule - usually the Rule of St Augustine. They are not to be confused with the Order of Saint Augustine of today, which was to begin as a completely distinct entity via papal edicts leading up to the Grand Union in 1256. As had been happening in Europe during previous centuries, in the middle of the eleventh century communities of priests formed around the monastic traditions of Augustine, who as a priest and as a bishop in Hippo have lived in an intentional community. As can be seen in the Rule of Augustine, the basis of his way of living in community was the ideal early Christian community as described in Chapters 2 and 4 of the Acts of the Apostles.
Pope Urban II, who was in office from 1088 to 1099, wrote of two forms of religious life: the monastic (like the Benedictines and Cistercians) and the canonical (like the Augustinian canons). He likened the monks to the role of Mary, and the canons to that of her sister, Martha. Here the contrast was plainly delineated. The monks sought to reflect supernatural order and stability within their monasteries, with excellent examples of worship, farming, medical care, librarianship, learning, etc. In contrast, the canons worked in the disorder of the towns and cities, where the worship, medicines, education and the skills of the enclosed Benedictines were not present to the growing numbers of urban dwellers.
By the year 1125 hundreds of communities of Canons had sprung up in Western Europe. Usually they were quite autonomous of one another, and varied in their ministries. Their flexibility, sudden appearance and sometimes also their sudden demise, stood them in high relief to the stability of the Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries.
The Augustinian canons described
According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, a canon regular is essentially a religious cleric. Aquinas explained, "The Order of Canons Regular is necessarily constituted by religious clerics, because they are essentially destined to those works which relate to the Divine mysteries, whereas it is not so with the monastic Orders." (II-II:189:8 ad 2um, and II-II:184:8). Here he defines what constitutes a canon regular and what distinguishes him from a monk. Priesthood is essential to the Order of Canons Regular, whereas it is only accidental to the monastic way of life (i.e., a monk can be a religious brother, and not a priest). Erasmus, who early in his life had been an Augustinian Canon Regular (and probably not a very satisfied one) declared that the canons regular were situated at a "point in between" monks and the secular (or diocesan) clergy.
In this moderation of life and in their priestly ministry, the canons regular followed the example of the saint from whom they took their inspiration, Saint Augustine of Hippo, of whom Possidius relates that his style of life, his furniture, his clothes were always respectable, neither too expensive nor too shabby. The advice of Augustine about community living was simple and direct. It therefore was easily adaptable to any particular circumstances. In his Letter 211 (P.L., 33, 958-968) he addressed the problem of religious women living together. His advice was brief and very unspecific: hold all property in common, pray together at set times each day, dress plainly and without being competitive, and obey the person designated to be in charge of the community. This suited the needs of the Augustinian Canons.
One obvious place where a group of priests was required was within a cathedral, where there were many Masses to celebrate and the Divine Office to be prayed together in community. Canons often came to be associated with cathedrals, but other groups of canons also established themselves in smaller centres. They were then supported by nearby residents in the town, who usually did not have the wealth to endow a Benedictine monastery in their vicinity. The inhabitants of the town were willing to sustain a small community of canons who would pray for them, and celebrate Masses for their intentions. In this way, the canons were funded by regular grants of money, akin to the Benedictines even if nowhere nearly as generously so. On the other hand, the mendicant friars to be formed in the following century initially lived without a regular source of money, and survived on whatever income came their way through their works of charity, from bequests or from literally begging for money. In societal terms, therefore, the canons were more "establishment" than the friars, and the friars more basic to the Gospel (evangelical).
By the thirteenth century, communities of Canons Regular numbered in the thousands and lasted in any one place as long as or as briefly as the local pastoral needs and their survival skills permitted. At that stage, the number of Augustinian Canons greatly exceeded the number of Augustinian friars - this remained the case until the Order of Saint Augustine had existed for a century, i.e., until about 1350. The Canons Regular were numerous in England; there they had more houses there than did either the Benedictines or the Order of Saint Augustine (who often are still called the "Austin Friars" in England). The first General Chapter of the Augustinian Canons in England, intended to regulate the affairs of the Order, took place in 1217. There were some fifteen convents of (female) Augustinian Canonesses in the medieval period in England, out of a total of two hundred foundations of (male) Augustinian Canons.
The early success of the Canons in England parallelled their growth in Europe generally. An impressive number of them became popes, bishops and famous teachers during the twelfth century, which was the century before the mendicant orders (including the Order of Saint Augustine) began. In case it is thought that any reference to female religious has been overlooked here, it can be noted that their presence especially in the Early Middle Ages was sparse. For example, there were only fifteen convents of Augustinian Canonesses during the central period of the Middle Ages in England, and close to two hundred houses of Canons. At that time, an unmarried woman was an exception in Europe, for marriages were arranged when a girl was aged thirteen or fourteen years, and remarriage happened soon after a husband died. Religious communities of women existed mainly for girls from families of substance who could not or would not marry, for widows and for daughters of wealthy people.
The flourishing presence of women's communities in the seventh and eighth centuries was forced to yield to a male domination of the Church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, until the spiritual daughters of orders such as the Cistercians and Franciscans enabled a revival.
LinkCanons Regular. They are priests living in community under the Rule (regula in Latin) of St Augustine, and sharing their property in common. Distinct from monks, who live a cloistered, contemplative life and sometimes engage in ministry to those from outside the monastery, the purpose of the life of a canon is to engage in public ministry of liturgy and sacraments for those who visit their churches (historically the monastic life was by its nature lay, whereas canonical life was essentially clerical). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canons_Regular