Canonici is a name applied to that portion of the clergy who occupy an intermediate position between the monks and the secular clerks. As living together under a rule of their own, they were often regarded popularly as a species of monks; while, inasmuch as their rule was less strict, and their seclusion from the world less complete, they were sometimes, from a monastic point of view, classed even with the laity, as distinguished from those who were "religious." The canonici did not fully assume this quasi-monastic character till the 8th century.
The canonici were at first the clergy and other officials attached to the church, and were so called either as bound by canons, or more probably as enrolled on the list of ecclesiastical officers.
Some bishops, even before the 5th century-for instance, Eusebius of Vercellse, Ambrose of Milan, the great Augustine, and Martin of Tours-set an example of monastic austerity to the clergy domiciled with them which became widely popular. Gelasius I, at the close of the 5th century, founded an establishment of" canonici regulares" at Rome, in the Lateran. References to such a practice occur in the canons of the second and third councils of-Toledo (16th century), and in the writings of Gregory of Tours. In the third Council of Orleans, A.D. 538, the canonici are forbidden secular business. The college in which the canons resided, or rather the church to which the college was attached, is styled "canonica" in a charter in 724.
But Chrodegang, in the latter part of the 8th century, was virtually the founder of the canonici. By enforcing strict obedience to the rule and the superior, he tightened the authority of the bishop over the clergy of the cathedral. His canonici were, like monks, to .reside in the cloister, to have a common dormitory and refectory, but were allowed a life interest in private property, which, however, reverted to the Church after their death. Thus the discipline of the cloister was rendered more palatable to the clergy; while a broad line of demarcation was drawn between them and monks. They were not to wear the monk's cowl. The essential difference between a cathedral with its canonici and an abbey-church with its monks has been well expressed thus: the canonici existed for the services of the cathedral, but the abbey-church for the spiritual wants of the recluses happening to settle there. Chrodegang's institution was eagerly adopted by Charlemagne in his reformation of ecclesiastical abuses; and it was evidently his intention to use these colleges of canons for educational purposes.
The rule of Chrodegang was short-lived, being too severe to be generally accepted by the clergy, especially in England. Even where it had been at first in vogue, the rule of Chrodegang was soon relaxed. The canonici became, first, a community dwelling together under the headship of the bishop, but not of necessity under the same roof with him; next, an "acephalous" community; and, gradually, instead of representing the clergy of the diocese, they developed into a 'distinct, and, sometimes, antagonistic body. As their wealth and influence increased, they claimed a share in the government of the diocese.