This image from British Library, Harley 468, f. 4v shows the opening of one manuscript of the Life of Gilbert. It begins 'Oriens splendor iustitie', that is:
The glory of righteousness arises and lights every man who comes into this world and wishes him to come to knowledge of His name; at its setting it has cast rays of new brilliance upon the western lands of the western world. When its radiance had been cast into our midst from on high, there shone in the darkness of our night like a heavenly star brought among us a man of exemplary life called Gilbert. Chosen to be God’s servant in the land of England, he was born in a place called Sempringham of a distinguished family (something that usually and properly acts as an encouragement to virtue); but by the special nature of his life this man overcame both the world and his worldly origin. His father was called Jocelin; he was a worthy knight as well as a virtuous and wealthy man: a Norman, who owned many properties scattered throughout Lincolnshire. But his mother was English by birth, of parents who were faithful folk but came from an inferior rank.
Gilbert was born in the 1080s, and from the Sempringham entry in Domesday Book you can trace his father's substantial land-holdings in Lincolnshire. It's interesting to compare Gilbert's life with those of his close contemporaries Wulfric of Haselbury and Godric of Finchale, who also became venerated as saints; you could do an interesting kind of medieval 'Seven Up' series with these three men and their careers, and the results would be very illuminating about society in England in the twelfth century. With a wealthy Norman landowner as his father, Gilbert had more social advantages than the other two: St Wulfric was dependent on a Norman patron to support his desire for the religious life, and St Godric, who began his career as a pedlar, only fulfilled his long-held vocation after years working as a merchant. Wulfric and Godric were both born of English parents; Godric had no education, Wulfric only enough to become a rather worldly priest (so, not very much). Godric composed songs in English - some of the earliest surviving English songs - probably in part because he had not learned Latin or French, and although Wulfric did speak French, the story I mentioned in this post suggests it marked him apart from his English friends and aroused some resentment among them.
Gilbert had a very different start in life. His father had him educated in Normandy (the twelfth-century equivalent of an elite public school) and then placed in the household of the Bishop of Lincoln (the twelfth-century equivalent of Christ Church, Oxford, in opportunities for promotion and networking with other rich men's sons). He was noted there for his piety, says his hagiographer - which makes you wonder a little how pious the rest of the bishop's household were. His devotion to prayer is illustrated by these two instances, which took place while he was at Lincoln:
Several times he invited one of his fellow clerks to pray with him. They stood together before the altar-steps chanting the psalms of David; and whenever they came to the name of the Lord or of God or some similar reference in the psalm, upon mention of the word Gilbert knelt and prostrated himself upon the ground. Following his example, the clerk made the same obeisance; Gilbert did this for a long while until the clerk grew so weary that he swore he would never pray with Gilbert again.
Another time, another bishop accepted hospitality from his master. As he lay awake in the room belonging to the bishop where Gilbert usually slept, he saw on the wall facing the light from the lamp the shape of a man in shadow alternately rising and falling all night long. Not knowing what it was but thinking it an apparition, he was struck with amazement and horror. However, when he investigated this phenomenon more carefully, he discovered our man of God standing praying in front of his couch, and he observed him frequently raising his hands and kneeling down. When morning came the bishop related what had happened, and laughingly accused his host of keeping a dancer in his chamber, who had given him such a fright during the night.
While at Lincoln Gilbert refused to accept promotion to archdeacon, saying that was the 'road to perdition'; instead he returned to Sempringham, a parish he had been given by his father some years previously. (Again, the advantage of having a wealthy father!) He became rector of the parish, and his hagiographer notes that although he dressed as befitted his rank, in expensive clothes, he didn't wear fashionable clothes, but sought to dress modestly. His asceticism increased, and in the 1130s he became spiritual director to a community of women living in cells attached to the parish church of Sempringham. Another such group were put under his charge in 1139, and the community grew under his direction, though gradually; Gilbert did not set out to found an order, and early on tried to persuade the Cistercians to take over his communities (they declined). By the 1150s he had provided his community with a rule, and new houses were being founded of both women and male canons. Despite various scandals and troubles, including his dangerous support for Thomas Becket as the archbishop went into exile in 1164, the order survived and flourished: by Gilbert's death, his hagiographer says, it had 2200 members - 1500 women and 700 men - with most of the houses being in Lincolnshire.
The Life describes at great length Gilbert's piety, devotion to the poor, and his asceticism (he never ate meat, in Lent would not even eat fish, and set aside most of his food for the poor). I liked this detail of Gilbert's mnemonic practices:
To ensure that no external happening or inner train of thought distracted his attention from the savour and meaning of the divine word, as he expounded it or listened to it, he invented for himself signs upon his fingers, and, attributing to each joint individual words or prayers, by this device he impressed the memory of what was recited more firmly upon his mind.
"This is not an age of miracles", says the hagiographer, "and Gilbert himself paid more attention to honest conduct than to miraculous events"; nonetheless, a variety of miracles and cures were attributed to him during his lifetime and after his death. On one occasion he stayed with a childless couple and when they subsequently conceived a son they attributed it to Gilbert's holy presence; he was so pleased with this that he sent the boy a cow to support him.
On that Saturday which was 4 February 1189, as night was giving place to day and while the community was celebrating Lauds, he left the darkness of this age and worldly labours for the true light and everlasting rest; more than a hundred years old and full of days, he went to dwell in the house of the Lord and to praise God for ever.
Many miracles are recorded after his death, with the majority of pilgrims to his shrine at Sempringham coming from the immediate local area. (I can't help wondering if my own ancestors, Lincolnshire peasants who lived just down the road from Sempringham, prayed to St Gilbert for relief from their ailments). The last of the miracles described, after his death, is a sad but fascinating story, which illustrates the local nature of Gilbert's cult:
As she was washing her head one Saturday after the ninth hour, a woman from the town of [King's] Lynn suddenly lost her wits. For, snatching up an axe, she cut to shreds a pile of yarn which lay nearby ready for making into cloth; she said strange things, rolled on the ground, and foamed at the mouth like a madwoman. She remained in this condition for eleven weeks, eating and drinking little or nothing meanwhile.
So her two sons led her towards Crowland, to secure relief there through the merits of St Guthlac and his scourge, which is kept in that place and often cures such cases; but while they were travelling, by some obscure chance she went a different way from them and for some time disappeared from sight as she wandered about in inaccessible marshes. Their increased grief then forced her sons to search for their mother through the countryside and the villages which bordered the fenland, running hither and thither, one to the south and the other to the north. But when they could not find her, the younger, to make further inquiries, turned back along the road he had taken. As he slept in a village called Quadring, a venerable old man holding a staff appeared to him and addressed him with the words: ‘Are you asleep or awake?’ When he replied that he was quite unable to sleep for grief and worry, the old man went on: ‘Indeed you are very distressed at losing your mother, although your elder brother is even more distressed than you.’ When the son declared his despair he said: ‘Do not give way to sorrow, but rise and go towards Sempringham to my house and there your mother will be healed.’ The son said that he did not know where to find his mother. He replied: ‘Go to the village which is next to this one, and as you go along you will find her in a field of rye.’
He got up and set out, and as he looked about him he saw the field of rye straight away; and after a careful search he found his mother lying in a section of it, her clothes in tatters and her body emaciated. When he saw her, he offered her bread because he knew that she had not eaten for a long while; snatching it up she attacked it as a dog might do, spat it out and began to gnaw a stone which she threw at him. Then came some travellers in a cart who by using their whips drove her before them until they had crossed Bridgend Causeway; when they had completed their journey other men overtook them and forced her to run alongside her son right into the village called Horbling. Having received help in that place, he made her hurry before him to Sempringham. The inhabitants of the villages saw her running. The custodians of the shrine were amazed at her bursting in, and listened to her ravings. Both strangers and inmates – all who had come – noticed the extent and duration of her suffering, judging from the way she behaved and the swelling of her whole body.
The following night, which was the Sunday after St Peter’s Chains [1 August], after emitting terrible shouts and horrifying noises, after much rolling on the ground and frequent beating of her head and limbs upon the floor, she at last became silent and calm and went to sleep. Awakening after a dream in which the saint had appeared to her and promised her recovery, she sat up and made the sign of the cross upon herself, wondering where she was and how she had got there. All that night she offered worship and thanks to God and His saints. When morning came she sought confession and received holy communion; then, weeping copiously to find her son present and to recognize him, she took food and was comforted. And so after the third day she departed, rejoicing and in full control of her faculties, but also lamenting and comprehending for the first time both her breakdown and the afflictions which had before assailed her.