Norbert (whose feast-day is June 6th) was born into an aristocratic family c. 1080 at Xanten on the bank of the Rhine. Ordained a subdeacon, he was summoned to the imperial court, and seemed destined for a glittering ecclesiastical career. His refusal of the bishopric of Cambrai was due not to unworldliness but to the fact that he was even more committed to luxury and pleasure than he was to easy preferment, and it seemed that his weakness of character was set to prevent him not only from being a holy priest but even from being a successful worldly priest.
While Norbert was riding to the village of Vreden (near Xanten) one day, he found himself caught in a ferocious storm, and a particularly violent thunderbolt caused his horse to throw him, as a result of which he nearly died. This experience jolted him into a re-examination of his priorities, and, renouncing his appointment at the imperial court, he embraced the life of a penitent.
Aged 35 he drew on his personal wealth to found the Abbey of Fürstenberg (whose Abbot had given him spiritual guidance), and was ordained to the priesthood by the Bishop of Cologne. His first Mass did not go well – his sermon on the transitory nature of the world’s pleasures (a subject on which he was an expert) elicited boos and catcalls (and even spitting) from some of his fellow clerics.
In 1119 he resigned his ecclesiastical preferments, and obtained permission from Pope Gelasius to live the life of an itinerant preacher, giving all his money to the poor and resolving henceforth to travel barefoot and begging for his food. Pope Calixtus II helped persuade Norbert to found a religious order in the diocese of Laon, and Norbert selected Prémontré, a cruciform valley in the forest of Coucy, as the appropriate location.
The original ramshackle collection of wooden huts soon developed into a proper monastery and church. A preaching tour conducted by Norbert in Germany meant that the fledgling religious order soon began to attract large number of recruits (male and female), and German nobles started donating land and buildings for the purpose of establishing monasteries. In order to accommodate those who wished to share in the Norbertine charism while remaining in the world, he instituted the first “third order”.
Although his energies were now focused on building up his order of Premonastratensian Canons, Norbert remained an assiduous and enthusiastic preacher – a work which he not infrequently confirmed with miracles – and found himself called upon to combat heretical teachings on the Eucharist (hence the fact that one of his symbols in art is a monstrance).
Having relucantly agreed to accept the Bishopric of Magdeburg in Germany, he became involved in ecclesistical reform, and, more particularly, in the task of recalling to a true understanding of their priesthood those clergy who were living scandalous lives (in return for which he received numerous death-threats). On the political front, he was active in opposing a rival claimant to the papacy (Anacletus), and in persuading the Emperor and German bishops and princes to support the authentic successor of Peter.
Norbert died in Magdeburg in 1134, and was laid to rest in the Norbertine Abbey of St Mary, where numerous miracles were associated with his tomb. After the Lutheran Reformation, Magdeburg became a Protestant city, and, in 1627, his body was transferred to the Abbey of Strahov in the Bohemian city of Prague (in the modern Czech Republic).