John of Salisbury Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.