Numerous Augustinian religious groups - together classified as Augustinian Canons Regular - formed in Europe in the eleventh century. They then coexisted with today's Order of (Hermits of) Saint Augustine that formally began with the Grand Union of the year 1256.
The Augustinian Canons Regular and the Order of (Hermits of) Saint Augustine have both existed right to the present day as totally separate Augustinian religious congregations. The term "canon" initially referred to a diocesan priest who lived in a community of priests in a cathedral or collegiate church. Once groups of these canons (see next paragraph) opted to live by a religious Rule (i.e., to become "Regular"), they became known by the term, Canons Regular.
In an era when the long dominance of the Benedictine Order upon Church life in Europe was decreasing, the canons regular grew out of the earlier institutes of canonical life, in consequence of the strong encouragement of Lateran Synod (Rome) in the year 1059. The clergy of some cathedrals in England (e.g., Carlisle), and of a great number of collegiate churches all over Western Europe, responded to the appeal. When searching for a rule of life suited to the new regime, the canons almost universally accepted the relatively brief Rule of Augustine. Some groups of canons, however, did not choose the Rule of Augustine.
The canons regular also began to bind themselves by the usual three vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. In the twelfth century this discipline became universal among them, and so began various groups of canons regular as a religious order in the strict sense of the word. They resembled the monks in so far they lived in community and took religious vows; but their state of life remained essentially clerical, all of them being priests (unlike communities of monks, where many members might not be priests).
As clerics (priests) the ministry of the canons regular was pastoral care at the parish churches in their patronage. Unlike monks, their ministry was external to the dwelling place of the community; but, like monks, their prayer life was bound to the celebration of the Divine Office. In its general tenor their spiritual life differed little from that of the monks.
Monks had a regulation of enclosure, and stayed within the territory of the monastery, whereas the canons regular like diocesan priests went out to parishes, towns and villages and ministered wherever people worshipped, worked or lived. (When the mendicant friars came into existence in the thirteenth century, the canons regular possibly had helped to make the new mendicant style of living easier to accept, as the mendicants could validly be proposed as being yet another adaptation of the communal and ministerial way of life that had been pioneered by the canons.)
The numerous houses of the canons regular were at first completely autonomous from one another, but they gradually joined into national or regional groups with corporate organisation and codes of constitutions supplementary to a rule of life (most frequently the Rule of Augustine). The popes encouraged these centralising tendencies; and in the year 1339 Pope Benedict XII organised the Augustinian canons on the same general lines as those laid down for the Benedictines, a system of provincial chapters and official visits to each community ("inspections").
Some thirty general groupings (or "congregations") of Canons Regular of Saint Augustine ensued. The most important were:
(I) the Lateran Canons, formed soon after the synod of 1059, by the clergy of the Lateran Basilica in Rome; by the eighteenth century the Lateran Canons numbered forty-five abbeys and seventy-nine other houses in Italy, beside many affiliated convents of canonesses, monasteries, and colleges of canons regular outside of Italy.
(2) the Congregation of Saint Victor in Paris in the year 1100, remarkable for the theological and mystical school of Hugh, Richard and Adam of Saint Victor.
(3) the Gilbertines started in England, and did not spread beyond England and Scotland. They were very austere like the Cistercians in the way they lived, but worked in the community like the Augustinians. Their mother house was at Sempringham, Lincolnshire, England. See Catholic Encyclopaedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06556b.htm
(4) the Windesheim Congregation in the year 1400, in the Netherlands and in northern and central Germany. To this group belonged Thomas a Kempis, whose small book of devotional meditations, Imitation of Christ, has been popular for centuries.
(5) the Canons of Saint Genevieve in Paris. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Genevieve
During the later Middle Ages the houses of these various congregations of canons regular spread all over Europe and became very numerous. They underwent the natural and inevitable vicissitudes of all orders, having their periods of suppression and degeneracy, and again of revival and reform. The Protestant Reformation, the European wars of religion and the French Revolution and the subsequent Bonaparte invasions swept away nearly all of the canons regular, although some of their houses in Austria still exist in their medieval beauty.
In England there were as many as two hundred houses of Augustinian canons, and sixty of them were among the greater monasteries suppressed between the years 1538 and 1540 by King Henry VIII. In the estimation of Abbot Gasquet, a total of ninety-one houses belonging to the canons regular were suppressed, with one thousand and eighty three inmates -- namely, Austin Canons, fifty-nine houses and seven hundred and seventy-three canons; Premonstratensians, nineteen houses and one hundred and fifty-one religious. Most of the congregations of Augustinian canons had convents of nuns, called canonesses; many such exist to this day.
Throughout history, the various congregations of the Augustinian Canons Regular and the Order of (Hermits of) Saint Augustine have had communities in the same towns, and fraternal respect has prevailed almost without fail. One notable site of tension, however, took place in Pavia, Italy, over the matter of the custody of the tomb of Saint Augustine (see the next page).
In recent decades, on significant occasions or of anniversaries in Augustine's life, a joint letter or booklet has been issued and co-signed variously by the leaders of the Order of Saint Augustine, the Augustinian Recollects, the Augustinians of the Assumption (Assumptionists) and the Augustinian Canons Regular.
The Primatial Council of the Confederation Canons Regular of Saint Augustine issued this declaration on the Canonical Life in 1969. The purpose of the declaration is simple: to make the Canonical Life better known. http://www.augustiniancanons.org/documents/Intro%20to%20the%20Canons.htm
Canons Regular. For a much more detailed coverage, go to the Catholic Encyclopaedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03288a.htm