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Gilbertine Priory 1147-1538

Between 1147-53 St Gilbert founded Chicksands Priory. The Gilbertine houses were set up for the nuns and lay sisters and Canons brought into the order later. The Canons were there to administer to the nuns' religious needs, to celebrate the mass and to hear confessions, and were under the rule of the Abbess.

The Canons took the Augustinian Rule. They wore the same white habits as the Cistercians, with red boots and a white sheep skin cape, but they kept the Augustinian Rule. The men could take orders at the age of 20 after a lengthy postulancy of about five years.

The nuns took the Benedictine Rule at the age of 18 or older, and could enter at the age of 12 as a lay sister. They wore the Benedictine habit and scapular, with a white cowl and a black woollen head covering, rough cloth veil, woollen hat and black sheep skin cape without the hood (a shorter version of the men's but lined with sheep skin). In some books the robes are said to be black and others coarse white as they were known as a white robed order. The confusion maybe due to the fact that Benedictine nuns do wear a black habit, and the Gilbertines were under their vows. Some images have them dressed in white and some in black.

Both had indoor and outdoor shoes, mittens, underwear, fur lined hats and gaiters for winter and all were permitted extra woollen clothing if they felt the cold, but it was to be worn under the robes. They both worked and slept in their working robes, and changed into another set to attend worship.

The nuns were expected to study Latin, and to sing in the choir, but there was a stipulation for the scholastic nuns that they were not to talk to one another in Latin as this could create a notion of superiority and secrecy. Both the Canons and nuns could copy the texts and write letters, but were not to be too wordy or ornate in their writing concerning the scriptures.

The food was basic: bread, pottage, cheese, vegetables and beans with ale or water, and it is noted that the women were to receive the same as the Canons and nothing inferior.

The Canons bought in the produce and wrote up all correspondence but it all had to be agreed on by the Abbess and the women kept the accounts and receipts.

The lay sisters did the cooking and they or someone else would be hired to do the monthly washing of the robes, which the Canons would pass through a grilled hatch into the nuns area.

There was one unusual feature of the Gilbertine order of nuns and that was the election and office of the Abbess. It was democratic, they had a system of all the nuns voting in three nuns to take the position of Abbess and each ruled for a week in turn so that their administrative duties did not interfere with their religious practice.


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