John of Salisbury Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Clement C. J. Webb (essay date January 1911)

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...

(The entire section is 12922 words.)

E. F. Jacob (lecture date 1923)

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...

(The entire section is 10449 words.)

John Dickinson (essay date July 1926)

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...

(The entire section is 12260 words.)

Roger Lloyd (essay date April-July 1929)

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...

(The entire section is 7080 words.)

W. Ullmann (essay date September 1944)

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...

(The entire section is 3824 words.)

Daniel D. McGarry (essay date October 1948)

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...

(The entire section is 8354 words.)

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse (essay date October 1967)

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...

(The entire section is 9820 words.)

Brian Hendley (essay date July 1970)

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...

(The entire section is 7746 words.)

J. J. N. McGurk (essay date January 1975)

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,...

(The entire section is 4195 words.)

Cary J. Nederman (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 7613 words.)

Kate Langdon Forhan (essay date autumn 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5503 words.)

Cary J. Nederman and Arlene Feldwick (essay date spring 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6285 words.)

Cary J. Nederman and Catherine Campbell (essay date July 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 9698 words.)

Larry Scanlon (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 7794 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 784 words.)