Katharine Sykes, Inventing Sempringham: Gilbert of Sempringham and the origins of the role of the Master, Preface by Brian Golding, Berlin:Lit, London: Global Distributor, 2012.

Katharine Sykes, Inventing Sempringham: Gilbert of Sempringham and the origins of the role of the Master, Preface by Brian Golding, Berlin:Lit, London: Global Distributor, 2012, £29.95, ISBN 978-3-643-90122-4 (paperback), pp.v + 265


Reviewed by:  Judith A. Frost, Department of History, University of York, UK, August 2012

Gilbert of Sempringham (d. 1189) began as the patron and teacher of seven female recluses enclosed in his parish church in Sempringham, Lincolnshire c.1130.  As the number of women increased he provided them with guidelines for their worship, with serving sisters to care for their needs and with lay-brothers to manage their secular estates. Eventually regular canons were added not only to teach and preach to the nuns but as equal members of the monastic community. Gilbert of Sempringham’s legacy was the only monastic order created in England in the Middle Ages and is known variously as the Order of Sempringham or the Gilbertine Order.  The Institutes of the Order established the governance by an independent peripatetic Master who ruled the double houses (men and women) and male-only houses with incontestable authority. The Institutes were re-written as the Order evolved.  Gilbert of Sempringham was canonized in 1202, his Vita commissioned by his successor Roger.

There have been only a handful of historians of the Gilbertine Order and Katherine Sykes’ Inventing Sempringham is a welcome addition to the small but growing corpus.[1] In a revision of her 2007 doctoral thesis for Oxford University, Sykes’ assesses the role of the Master of the Order of Sempringham with conclusions that diverge from the accepted narratives. Arguing against what she suggests was the telescopic and simplistic foundation narratives of earlier scholars – her methodology is to unpack the evolution of the Order by a meticulous examination of charters and other documents. She recovers the evolution of the role of the founder Gilbert and the role of the Master of the Order between foundation in c1130 and the 1230s. She then turns her attention to the by-products of the Vita of St Gilbert and the re-writing of the Institutes in the 1220s. It is a complex journey but worth the trip. Her conclusions remind us that monastic foundations were not instantaneous and that monastic scholarship benefits from careful consideration of the sources, even mundane charters. She provides monastic historians with a template for the evolution from religious community to religious order.

Sykes overturns a number of traditional assumptions about the Order of Sempringham and Gilbert himself.  Sykes contends that the role of the Master of the Order of Sempringham was not the codification of the personal role that Gilbert of Sempringham held during his lifetime. Rather the role of Master of the Order was the result of a century-long series of complex negotiations with internal members and external patrons and critics which can be carefully teased out from the surviving documents. Nor did the constitutional structure occur at one writing. Gilbert reworked the constitution to incorporate regular canons not only to manage and support the nuns after the scandal at Watton but also to free himself from the daily care of the nuns so that as Master he could care for the entire Order.  In this context and in disagreement with other historians Sykes’ describes Gilbert as a strong and authoritative leader – proactive not reactive. The revolt of the lay-brothers in the 1160s was because they felt marginalized after the institution of the regular canons – not because the Order was disreputable. Gilbert’s reworked Institutes survived papal scrutiny and with the support of royal and ecclesiastical authorities he proved that the Order provided an orthodox environment for all of its members. In fact, such was his authority and stature that his successors were faced with a difficult task when establishing their own authority. The re-writing of the Institutes in the 1220s/1230s was necessary to make possible a role for the Master of the Order post-Gilbert.

Equally she contends that Gilbert never perceived the nuns as central to the Order, his ideal was always a community of men.  Thus in her opinion any comparison of the Gilbertine Order to the female centrality of the Order of Fontevraud is mis-placed. This also suggests the increasing number of male-only houses was not a perversion of Gilbert’s ideal as suggested in other modern historical narratives.   Nor does she agree that Gilbert was strictly a ‘charismatic leader’ although his sanctity created a difficult transition for his successors: how does one fill the sandals of a saint?  In fact she contends that the reworking of the Institutes in the 1220s was necessary for Gilbert’s successors’ to define and assert their own authority. In this light she suggests that Gilbert’s Vita had the secondary, and intended, affect of establishing the best attributes of the ‘Master of the Order’ not as ‘saintly exemplar’ but as a disciplinarian and a leader, something that could be replicated. In her reading of the Vita she suggests a sub-text that relates to the gradual and incremental handover of power before Gilbert’s death from the holy Gilbert to Roger his successor.

Her three appendices provide useful list of documents addressing Gilbert or his successor Roger by name or by title as well as those addressing the ‘Magister of the Order’.  The fourth appendix of terminology used in the Institutes will probably be of more use when a new edition of the Institutes is published.

If any fault is to be found in this book it is only that it is best digested if one has already consumed either Golding or Graham’s work on the early years of the Gilbertine Order.  Often her argument is in response to their conclusions and whilst she capably explains and summarizes their work in an objective and reasonable manner some background knowledge of the Gilbertine Order is helpful.  Secondly she has set herself a challenge in the use of cartulary copies of charters to substantiate her interpretation of the changes in the titles ‘magister’, prior etc. Since copies of charters can be rephrased or abbreviated when transcribed into cartularies her argument can be risky.  But her corpus of charters augmented by other documents and her careful interpretation is as good as one can get in these dangerous waters.  Her work shines as an exemplar for any study of early monastic foundations. Her meticulous attention to documents shows just how much information can be gleaned from these sources and their careful consideration.  And of course she reminds monastic historians that nothing, not Rome nor the Order of Sempringham, was invented in a day.

[1] The most well known are:  Brian Golding, Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order, c. 1130 – c. 1300 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) and Rose Graham, S. Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertines:  A History of the Only English Monastic Order (London: Elliot Stock, 1901).