John of Salisbury
John of Salisbury c. 1115-20-1180
(Also known as Johannes Saresberiensis and Johannes Parvus) English philosopher, historian, and poet.
One of the most acclaimed medieval English scholars and political theorists, John is famous for two works written in Latin: the Policraticus: De Nugis Curialium et Vestigiis Philosophorum (1159; The Statesman's Book: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers) and the Metalogicon (1159; Metalogicon). The Policraticus, a work of political theory, includes sections on the respective roles of the church and the king and is notorious for proposing that, under certain circumstances, the proper way to deal with a tyrant is to kill him. Scholars consider John, with nearly twelve years of education under the finest teachers of the time and an encyclopedic mind, as perhaps the finest example of a twelfth-century man of letters. The Metalogicon, a treatise on pedagogy, is largely responsible for John's reputation as a humanist and is regarded as a quintessential document of the twelfth century. Much of John's career involved disputes and acts of failed diplomacy between the church and King Henry II, most notably as secretary and counselor to Thomas Becket. For his strong advocacy of the church's prerogatives against the monarchy, John was forced to live in exile in France for several years.
John was born in Old Salisbury in southern England. As a boy he was apprenticed for a short time to a necromancer. He began his formal education in Paris, where he lived from 1136 until 1138, followed by the Chartres school, which he attended from 1138 to 1140. His studies encompassed the seven liberal arts that comprised the curriculum at medieval universities: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Among John's instructors were several of the most distinguished scholastic figures of the period: Peter Abelard, Alberic of Rheims, and Robert of Melun in Paris; Theodoric of Chartres, William of Conches, and Richard l'Eveque at Chartres. In 1141 John returned to Paris, where he studied under Gilbert de la Porrée, Robert Pullus, and Simon of Poissy. Several years of service to the papal court followed, including a few years in the early 1150s as clerk for Pope Eugenius III. In 1154 he became secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, for whom he engaged in ecclesiastical diplomacy, traveling throughout western Europe. In 1159, defending the rights of the church, he fell out of favor with King Henry II and went into forced retirement at Rheims. There, John wrote the Policraticus and the Metalogicon, dedicated them to Thomas Becket, and sent them to Theobald. John became secretary to Thomas when the latter succeeded Theobald as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. He became embroiled in the disputes of religious doctrine between Thomas and King Henry II and tried unsuccessfully to mediate a peace between them. John's vigorous defense of Thomas's positions led to another exile in France, where he stayed in Rheims from 1163 to 1170, likely in the employ of Peter of Celle, abbot of Saint-Remi. Scholars surmise that it was during this period that John wrote his history of the Church, the Historia Pontificalis (circa 1169; History of the Papal Court.) Thomas and John returned from exile in 1170, hoping their problems with Henry were resolved, but Thomas was slain by four knights loyal to the King, the murder witnessed by John. In 1172 John became a canon at the Augustinian priory in Morton, Surrey; in 1174 he was appointed Bishop of Chartres. In 1179 John took part in the Third Lateran Council. He died the following year.
In describing his life, John divided it into two parts. The first part consisted of his years of study that culminated in the Metalogicon; the second part, his years of court service that formed the background for his Policraticus. The Metalogicon displays John's knowledge of and reverence for Roman literature and discusses scholastic issues related to higher education. The Policraticus is a varied work that includes warnings against pride, envy, and flattery; advice on how to attain happiness; and reflections on how the state should be governed, including a discussion about the roles of churchmen, judges, and armies, as well as the controversial proposal of tyrannicide. The Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum (circa 1154-55) consists of 926 rhyming couplets devoted primarily to praising God and lamenting the decline of grammar. Another work, also called Entheticus, serves as the introduction to the Policraticus. John's only major historical work is the Historia Pontificalis, which covers the history of the papacy from the years 1148 to 1152. More than three hundred of John's letters are extant and provide rich source material for scholars on numerous important contemporaries and on religious and political matters, including the infamous Becket episode.
While his Latin has been described as elegant and possibly the finest of the twelfth century, John is generally criticized for the rambling and disjointed structure of his works. This lack of organization has not deterred scholars' interest in his works, however. Dominating the body of scholarship on John of Salisbury are critical analyses of the Policraticus, a work that has been described by Clement C. J. Webb (see Further Reading) as the “fullest expression of John's mind.” In his analysis of the Policraticus, E. F. Jacob discusses what he considers John's three main contributions to political theory: the doctrine that the prince is subject to the priesthood, the distinction between the legitimate ruler and the tyrant, and the assignment of proper roles and functions to each member of the body politic. John Dickinson explains the work's twofold historical importance as “the only important political treatise written before western thought had once more become familiar with the Politics of Aristotle” and as a work that came “just before the important turning-point in institutional development at the end of the twelfth and at the beginning of the thirteenth century, when legal precision began to be stamped on a great number of previously indefinite relationships, and when feudal independence tended to become consolidated into definite organs of political control.” Dickinson is one of many scholars who studies John's views on the proper response to tyranny. Richard H. and Mary A. Rouse examine the finer points of John's doctrine of tyrannicide, as does Kate Langdon Forhan, who praises him for his “extraordinary insight.” This insight extended into other areas: Brian Hendley examines John's observations on the nature of universals, which Hendley calls one of “the most vexing philosophical problems in the Middle Ages,” and J. J. McGurk focuses on John's humanism. John's letters are of great use to scholars: John McLoughlin (see Further Reading) uses them to trace his involvement with Thomas, while Cary J. Nederman uses them to determine the extent of Aristotle's influence. Roger Lloyd and W. Ullmann are among several scholars who find that John's importance lies less with his originality as a thinker than in his incorporation of others' ideas into his work, wherein he coordinated various perspectives into a lucid and comprehensive whole. Hector J. Massey (see Further Reading) credits John as “a highly influential bridge between medieval and humanist thought,” while Daniel D. McGarry, using the Metalogicon as his source, discusses John's views on education and curriculum.
Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum (poetry) c. 1154-55
Metalogicon [The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium] (nonfiction) 1159
Policraticus: De Nugis Curialium et Vestigiis Philosophorum [The Statesman's Book: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers] (nonfiction) 1159
Historia Pontificalis [History of the Papal Court] (history) c. 1169
Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers (translated by Joseph D. Pike) 1938
The Metalogicon (translated by Daniel D. McGarry) 1955
Memoirs of the Papal Court (translated by Marjorie Chibnall) 1956
The Statesman's Book of John of Salisbury (translated by John Dickinson) 1963
The Letters of John of Salisbury. 2 vols. (translated by W. J. Millor and H. C. Butler; revised by C. N. L. Brooke) 1979
The Historia Pontificalis of John of Salisbury (trnaslated by Marjorie Chibnall) 1986
Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum (translated by Jan van Laarhoven) 1987
Policraticus: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footproints of Philosphers (translated by Cary J. Nederman) 1990
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SOURCE: Webb, Clement C. J. “The Policraticus of John of Salisbury.” Church Quarterly Review 71, no. 142 (January 1911): 312-45.
[In the following essay, Webb presents an overview of each of the books of the Policraticus.]
The appearance of a new edition of the Policraticus of John of Salisbury [Ioannis Saresberiensis Episcopi Carnotensis Policratici sive de Nugis Curialium et Vestigiis Philosophorum Libri VIII., edited by Clemens C. I. Webb, 1909] may serve as the occasion of putting before readers of the Church Quarterly Review some account of the principal work of a great Englishman, ‘the central figure of English learning’ in his time, as Bishop Stubbs has called him. Though the principal, the Policraticus is not in itself the most interesting of its author's writings. It has not the importance for the history of European culture of its sequel the Metalogicon, whence we may learn what were the methods and results of the philosophical teaching from the point of view of the most eminent representative of the short-lived humanistic movement, whose nursery was the school beside the cathedral church of Chartres of which John, who had studied there as a boy, was to die as the bishop. Nor has it the historical interest of the fragmentary Historia Pontificalis in which the hand of a contemporary especially well informed, endowed with a remarkably...
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SOURCE: Jacob, E. F. “John of Salisbury and the Policraticus.” In The Social and Political Ideas of Some Great Mediaeval Thinkers: A Series of Lectures Delivered at King's College University of London, edited by F. J. C. Hearnshaw, pp. 53-84. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
[In the following essay, first delivered as a lecture in 1923, Jacob summarizes John's political ideas in the Policraticus and details his use of metaphor in comparing the state to the body.]
It is an interesting fact, not always fully realised, that one of the most characteristic expressions of mediæval political theory came from an Englishman. His countrymen, while interested and often attracted by his life and personality, on the whole have not concerned themselves much with his philosophy, partly, perhaps, from lack of really good and accurate editions of his work, partly, one fears, from that attitude of mind which regards the work of any ‘schoolman’ as unliterary and indigestible. But after the appearance of Professor Webb's text of the Policraticus, with its admirable notes and glossaries, there has been little excuse for their aloofness; and when the same editor gives us the Metalogicus there will be less excuse still. Dr Poole in his various studies has laid the foundation; and work is urgently needed to supplement the critical contributions of Prantl in his History of Logic in the...
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SOURCE: Dickinson, John. “The Mediaeval Conception of Kingship and Some of Its Limitations, as Developed in the Policraticus of John of Salisbury.” Speculum 1, no. 3 (July 1926): 308-37.
[In the following essay, Dickinson explores the sometimes contradictory ideas which constitute John's concept of the monarch.]
The Policraticus of John of Salisbury1 is the earliest elaborate mediaeval treatise on politics.2 Completed in 1159, the date of its composition makes it a landmark in the history of political speculation for two reasons. It is the only important political treatise written before western thought had once more become familiar with the Politics of Aristotle. It thus represents the purely mediaeval tradition unaffected by ideas newly borrowed from classical antiquity. It is the culmination, in their maturest form, of a body of doctrines which had developed in unbroken sequence from patristic literature in contact with the institutions of the earlier Middle Ages. In the second place it comes just before the important turning-point in institutional development at the end of the twelfth and at the beginning of the thirteenth century, when legal precision began to be stamped on a great number of previously indefinite relationships, and when feudal independence tended to become consolidated into definite organs of political control. It therefore speaks from...
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SOURCE: Lloyd, Roger. “John of Salisbury.” Church Quarterly Review 108 (April-July 1929): 19-38.
[In the following essay, Lloyd presents an overview of John's life and career.]
No student of twelfth century history can long remain unaware of John of Salisbury. The books abound in references to him, and when almost any of the great scholars cross their pages, one may be sure that John is not far away. When the writers are dealing with Church Councils, with the Popes and the Curia, with the diplomacy of kings, or political theory, John is still lurking round the corner. He touched the life of his time at so many points, and he travelled so widely, that in retrospect he seems to be ubiquitous. His whole life was passed in the company of great men, and he was present at most of the exciting and important scenes of his day. Yet it cannot be said that he exercised an influence over his friends so deep that it is noticeable after seven hundred years, or that his share in shaping great events was in any sense epoch-making.
So it is that the books of our time are fuller of references to him than of descriptions of him or estimates of the precise nature of his historic importance. His evidence is called to settle a knotty point in connection with, say, the trial of Guibert de la Porée; or his letters to S. Thomas of Canterbury are quoted. Not John, however, but...
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SOURCE: Ullmann, W. “The Influence of John of Salisbury on Medieval Italian Jurists.” English Historical Review 59, no. 235 (September 1944): 384-92.
[In the following essay, Ullmann discusses the influence of the Policraticus on fourteenth-century Neapolitan jurisprudence.]
The fastidious elegance of John of Salisbury's style, the comprehensiveness and logical consistency of the thoughts expressed in the Policraticus, his dispassionate approach to vexatious problems, the straightforward character of the solutions he proposed, the high moral sense which pervades them, and the preponderance of the ‘positive ethical element’1—all these explain John's appeal to a very wide circle of readers. In recent times John's book has rightly been acclaimed as ‘probably the most perfect and the most complete summation of the political speculations of the past centuries’.2 Yet the extraordinary influence which John of Salisbury exercised through his Policraticus on continental scholarship in the later middle ages has so far entirely escaped notice. One reference to the Policraticus made by Dante's commentator, Benvenuto da Imola,3 can no longer be considered extraordinary,4 when the literary tendencies gaining ground in the fourteenth century are taken into account. For as soon as the humanistic light dawned on the minds of scholars...
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SOURCE: McGarry, Daniel D. “Educational Theory in the Metalogicon of John of Salisbury.” Speculum 23, no. 4 (October 1948): 659-73.
[In the following essay, McGarry discusses John's philosophy of education and how it translates practically into curricula and teaching methods.]
Periods of quickened intellectual activity in occidental history have stimulated the pulse of speculation concerning education. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Greeks gave birth to the educational philosophies of Plato and Aristotle; that of their intellectual tyros, the Romans, to the pedagogical theories of Cicero and Quintilian; while the Renaissance produced Vittorino and Erasmus. The twelfth century was no exception. A contemporary, John of Salisbury, could remark, not without a touch of irony, that ‘everyone is priding himself on being a logician,’1 and ‘all are lecturing on and discussing the arts.’2 Notable among treatises on education in that day were the Didascalion3 of Hugh of St Victor the Eptateuchon4 of Thierry of Chartres, and Conrad of Hirschau's Dialogue on the authors or Didascalion,5 in addition to John's own Metalogicon.6
Twelfth-century interest in education hence gave birth, not merely to an unprecedented concourse of students to lecture rooms, but also to spirited discussions relative to...
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SOURCE: Rouse, Richard H., and Mary A. Rouse. “John of Salisbury and the Doctrine of Tyrannicide.” Speculum 42, no. 4 (October 1967): 693-709.
[In the following essay, the Rouses explore the context and details of John's views on political assassination.]
The doctrine of tyrannicide is a well-known element of John of Salisbury's Policraticus.1 Although John was not the first Western thinker to propose the legitimacy of tyrannicide, the fact that he was the first to expound the idea fully and explicitly entitles him to be called the “author” of the doctrine insofar as concerns twelfth-century Europe.2 At various times from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century John is cited as authority by actual and would-be tyrannicides, and is condemned as such by their opponents.3
The fact, then, that John of Salisbury defended tyrannicide is undeniably true; however, it is not the whole truth. John's exposition of tyrannicide contains many reservations, qualifications, and outright contradictions, including his reiteration of the traditional view that a Christian owes submission to the powers that be. Unfortunately most of the writers on this subject, whether students of John in particular or of mediaeval political theory in general, ignore the contradictions and regard John as an unequivocal advocate of tyrannicide. This assessment appears in studies...
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SOURCE: Hendley, Brian. “John of Salisbury and the Problem of Universals.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 8, no. 3 (July 1970): 289-302.
[In the following essay, Hendley assesses John's contribution to solving the problem of universals and notes that his solution has much in common with that proposed by John Locke five centuries later.]
One of the most persistent and vexing philosophical problems in the Middle Ages was that of the nature of universals. Beginning with Boethius' second commentary on the Isagoge of Porphyry, the dispute centered on the question of the existence of genera and species. Are they mere concepts of the mind or can they also be said to subsist? If they subsist, are they corporeal or incorporeal? If incorporeal, do they subsist separated from sensible things or in union with them? Porphyry himself refused to answer these questions because his work was intended for beginners in logic; Boethius spells out the Aristotelian solution but does so primarily because the work he is commenting on is an introduction to Aristotle's Categories.1
Having been introduced to the problem, medieval thinkers tried to solve it in a variety of ways. Some claimed to be following Plato or Aristotle; others saw their solutions as original and final. By the twelfth century, John of Salisbury was moved to observe that more time had been spent on the problem...
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SOURCE: McGurk, J. J. N. “John of Salisbury.” History Today 25, no. 1 (January 1975): 40-47.
[In the following essay, McGurk offers a portrait of John's life and works, focusing on his humanism.]
In the 1140s an Englishman from Salisbury arrived at the Papal Court of Pope Eugenius III to seek employment and advancement. John of Salisbury, or Johannes Parvus, as he was known to the Middle Ages, did not merely become an ordinary Papal chancery clerk but the outstanding scholar of his age, memorable in his elegant writings for the light he threw on so many of the more important figures in church and state of the second half of the twelfth century. Popes, prelates and kings stand out the more distinctly from the praises and criticism of this articulate yet unmalicious observer of their characters and actions. But he was not simply a good journalist of his times; for, in the range and readiness of his classical learning he became the most representative English figure of the twelfth-century renaissance. Throughout his work there is a noteworthy commonsense, a subtle humour, a deep regard for human values, a tenacious loyalty to his friends and a clear conviction of the supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal ends of mankind. Besides a huge official correspondence, happily preserved, John of Salisbury wrote treatises on studies, on the art of government, a brief history of the papacy from 1148...
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SOURCE: Nederman, Cary J. “Aristotelian Ethics and John of Salisbury's Letters.” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 18 (1987): 161-73.
[In the following essay, Nederman traces the influence of Aristotle's ideas in John's letters and suggests that their presence indicates a consistency in principle, in both practical and philosophical application.]
To philosophers and political theorists, John of Salisbury represents the pinnacle of twelfth-century learning, his Policraticus and Metalogicon reflecting the breadth and depth of medieval intellectual accomplishment.1 To political and ecclesiastical historians, John is primarily valuable for the observations about great events and important men reported in his extant correspondence and chronicles.2 Of course, this somewhat schizophrenic image of John's work is overshadowed by his more general reputation as the Latin humanist and man of letters preeminent in his age—equally comfortable as administrator, secretary, legal advisor, politician, and schoolman.3 But it is nevertheless the case that little effort has been made among recent scholars to explore in detail John's multicompetent mind by examining the connections between his abstract philosophical speculations, on the one hand, and his more documentary activities as correspondent and chronicler, on the other. In particular, we seldom hear asked...
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SOURCE: Forhan, Kate Langdon. “Salisburian Stakes: The Uses of ‘Tyranny’ in John of Salisbury's Policraticus.” History of Political Thought 11, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 397-407.
[In the following essay, Forhan explores John's views on the relationship between tyranny, flattery, and ambition.]
For students of political thought, the theory of tyrannicide is perhaps the most-often recognized aspect of John of Salisbury's monumental Policraticus, which was presented in 1159 to Chancellor Thomas Becket, during the reign of Henry II of England. Considered by many to be John's most significant contribution to the history of statecraft, the theory was essential to the defence of political violence in later political thought. It has a rich history of use in theory and practice, well into the twentieth century.1
Scholars have argued about John's ‘real’ views on tyrannicide equally as long. Does John state that tyrannicide is justifiable? Some parts of the work appear to concur; others state that a tyrant should be suffered in silence. This ambiguity is encapsulated in two lines. First, in Book III, the Policraticus states: ‘For it is lawful to flatter him whom it is lawful to slay.’2 Later, in Book VIII, John writes that those who are oppressed should ‘take refuge humbly in the protection of God's mercy, and … pray...
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SOURCE: Nederman, Cary J., and Arlene Feldwick. “To the Court and back again: The Origins and Dating of the Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum of John of Salisbury.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 21, no. 1 (spring 1991): 129-45.
[In the following essay, Nederman and Feldwick examine the circumstances of the creation of the Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum and propose a new date for its composition.]
John of Salisbury's 1852-line satirical and philosophical poem, the Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum (or Entheticus Maior) must surely rank among the most closely studied texts in recent scholarship on the twelfth century. No fewer than six critical editions of this work were produced in the period from 1954 to 1987, the latest and definitive version consisting of three volumes of text, critical apparatus, commentary, and translation.1 One might assume that such careful attention would have generated a great amount of knowledge about the nature of the poem and the circumstances of its composition. Yet in many ways we are still as uncertain about these aspects of the Entheticus Maior as we have ever been.
The persisting problems posed by the Entheticus Maior are of two sorts. First, there has been little effort to delineate the purpose for which the poem was composed. The question raised...
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SOURCE: Nederman, Cary J., and Catherine Campbell. “Priests, Kings, and Tyrants: Spiritual and Temporal Power in John of Salisbury's Policraticus.” Speculum 66, no. 3 (July 1991): 572-90.
[In the following essay, Nederman and Campbell examine John's views on the relationship between church and temporal government, focusing on why scholars have differed considerably in their readings of his position.]
As one might expect of an author of the complexity of John of Salisbury, there is little scholarly agreement regarding the proper interpretation of the major features of his social and political thought. The twelfth-century churchman has always been a controversial figure. Since the late Middle Ages, the ideas contained in his main contribution to political theory, the Policraticus (completed in 1159), have been widely analyzed and interpreted.1 In more recent years, controversy has raged about the nature and significance of many of his main doctrines (such as tyrannicide and the organic analogy),2 his source materials, and his attitudes towards contemporary events and people.3
In view of such continuing debate about the character of John's central teachings, it is all the more surprising that so little has been said of late about John's conception of the relation between the church and temporal government. At one time, scholars generally held...
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SOURCE: Scanlon, Larry. “The Public Exemplum.” In Narrative, Authority, and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition, pp. 81-134. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Scanlon examines John's use of classical authorities—real and fictitious—to disagree with and instruct members of the royal court.]
There is no more telling instance than the Policraticus of the importance to medieval political thinking of rhetoric in general and the exemplum in particular. The most influential Fürstenspiegel of the later Middle Ages, it was also one of the period's most widely circulated exemplum collections. The exemplum provides its characteristic mode of exposition, and as I shall argue, the narrative logic that underlies the work's larger political stance. The analysis that follows will concentrate on John's characterization of the form's political parameters, and his use of exemplarity as a larger narrative logic.1
The Policraticus, subtitled De nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum is dedicated to Thomas Becket. It was finished in 1159, while Becket was still Henry's chancellor, and John was personal secretary to Theobald, Becket's predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury.2 The dedication takes the form of a verse epistle entitled Entheticus, which opens the work. It presents...
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Barlow, Frank. “John of Salisbury and His Brothers.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 46, no. 1 (January 1995): 95-109.
Study of John, his brother, and his half-brothers and the points at which their careers intersected.
Constable, Giles. “The Alleged Disgrace of John of Salisbury in 1159.” English Historical Review 69, no. 270 (January 1954): 67-76.
Argues that John fell out of grace with King Henry II in 1156, not 1159.
Quain, Edwin A. “John of Salisbury—Medieval Humanist.” The Classical Bulletin 21 (1944/1945): 37-9.
Summarizes John's life and career.
Barzillay, Phyllis. “The Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum of John of Salisbury.” Medievalia et Humanistica 16 (1964): 11-29.
Analyzes John's long poem and includes an appendix on its manuscripts.
Brooke, C. N. L. Introduction to The Letters of John of Salisbury, Volume One: The Early Letters (1153-1161), edited by W. J. Millor and H. E. Butler; revised by C. N. L. Brooke, pp. ix-lvi. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1955.
Explores John's relationship with Archbishop Theobald and discusses John as a humanist.
———. Introduction to The Letters of John of...
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