John of Salisbury (c. 1115–1180)

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(c. 11151180)

John of Salisbury, the scholar, humanist, and bishop, was born at Old Sarum (Wiltshire), England. After primary instruction from a rural priest he went to France to study in 1136. He read dialectic first under Peter Abelard, during the latter's last period at Paris, then under Alberic and Robert of Melun. In 1138 he began the study of grammar under Richard of Arranches, probably at Chartres, where he also studied under William of Conches; at Chartres too he studied rhetoric and part of the quadrivium. In 1141 he took up theology at Paris under Gilbert of Poitiers and Robert Pullen and made the acquaintance of other masters. He was then probably secretary for a short time to Abbot Peter of Celle (11471148). He was a member of the Roman Curia, and in 1148 attended the Council of Rheims, where he knew well both Bernard of Clairvaux and Gilbert of Poitiers. That year he was introduced by St. Bernard to Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he spent a short time. Between 1149 and 1153 John was a member of the Roman Curia in Apulia and elsewhere and was on terms of intimacy with Pope Adrian IV (Nicholas Breakspear). From 1153/1154 to 1161 he was the trusted secretary of Archbishop Theobald and was one of a distinguished household that included Thomas Becket, Roger of Pont l'Évêque, later archbishop of York, and the Italian lawyer Vacarius. He advised and represented the archbishop and wrote his letters, many of which dealt with business of the Curia.

After Theobald's death, John entered the service of Thomas Becket, to whom he remained a loyal, although not blind, supporter during Thomas's later controversy with King Henry. Accused by King Henry II of encouraging appeals to Rome, John preceded his patron into exile in 1163 and spent some years in Rheims living with Peter of Celle, then abbot of St. Rémy, and working in Thomas's interest with King Louis VII of France. He rejoined Thomas shortly before the latter's return to England in December 1170 and preceded him to Canterbury. John was at dinner with the archbishop when the knights arrived and was present, although perhaps in concealment, at Thomas's murder in the cathedral. He subsequently worked for Thomas's canonization and, in return, was invited by King Louis in July 1176 to become bishop of Chartres. He attended the third Lateran Council in 1179 and died the following year at Chartres, where he was buried.

John was author of a multitude of letters as well as short lives of Anselm and Thomas Becket, the latter a jejune work that is doubly disappointing in view of the writer's literary skill and intimate knowledge of his subject. His Historia Pontificalis is a continuation of the Chronicle of Sigebert of Gembloux and covers the years 11481152. As a scholar he composed the versified Entheticus de Dog-mate Philosophorum (1155), a rehearsal of his knowledge of ancient philosophy, as well as the two works on which his medieval reputation rested: the Policraticus (The statesman) and Metalogicon.

The Policraticus, subtitled De Nugis Curialium et Vestigiis Philosophorum (Concerning the vain purposes of courtiers and the traditions of philosophers), is a disorderly, rambling work without detailed plan. Dealing in part with such faults and follies of the great as hunting, gaming, dreams, and astrology and with witchcraft, it contains a variety of anecdotes and personal experiences. Books 610 deal with the character and duties of a prince, and the work has consequently been calledsomewhat misleadinglythe first medieval treatise on political thought. It is, in fact, a sociological study, but it contains a well-known passage on the ministerial function of the prince, who holds the sword in order to perform duties beneath the dignity of the priesthood, which John always considers the superior power, even when emphasizing the virtue of patriotism. The passage shows no clear indication of acquaintance with the almost contemporary teaching of St. Bernard on the possession of two swords by the papacy. In the last book John proclaims the right and duty of citizens to kill a tyrant. The passage has often been quoted in later centuries as authoritative, but it is probably merely an echo of Roman republican rhetoric without any practical application to the world of the twelfth century.

The Metalogicon (11591160) was written at almost the same time as the Policraticus. It is an apologia for true logic, or rather for philosophical training as an introduction to a civilized way of life, contrasted with the technical logic of the schools, which was fit only for sciolists or such careerists as Cornificius, whose name recurs as an unidentified opponent of humane learning. John recounts his own educational experiences (Metalogicon II, 10), with a tribute to Bernard of Chartres and a sketch of his methods, and sets out several current opinions on the nature of universals (ibid., II, 1720). There are the pure nominalists, such as Roscelin, who held universals to be mere words (voces ), and Abelard (as John understoodor misunderstoodhim), who substituted the term sermones. There are those who, like Bernard of Chartres, regarded universals as the Ideas of Plato, and with these may be reckoned Gilbert of Poitiers with his "original forms" (nativae formae ), while others regarded them merely as a group (collectio ). John himself adopts an Aristotelian position: Universals are not independent realities, but mental images (figmenta rationis ) of real kinds (genera, species ) into which things can be grouped and from which the intellect can abstract those qualities that resemble those of other members of the group. John wrote no systematic philosophical work and declared himself a tolerant skeptic of the Academy, or of what is now known as Late Platonism. Nevertheless, he had great admiration for Aristotle, whom he called "the Philosopher" par excellence; without his New Logic, John maintained, and especially without the Topics, dialectic is doomed to be a hit-or-miss affair (sine eo non disputatur arte sed casu ). Both these considerable works, the Policraticus and the Metalogicon, and probably also the Entheticus, were dedicated to Thomas Becket.

The Historia Pontificalis, written over a period of years and finally revised in 1164, is not professedly concerned with thought, although the controversy between St. Bernard and Gilbert of Poitiers is the most important episode contained in it. John gives the theological position of the bishop of Poitiers at considerable length, although he does not clarify the real point at issue.

John was neither a theologian nor an original thinker. He was rather, in the words of Bishop William Stubbs, "the central figure of English learning," or, perhaps more accurately, the writer of the twelfth century who came nearest to the modern critical attitude toward men and their ideas. His celebrated comparison of St. Bernard and Gilbert is the keenest analysis of character and style to appear between the days of Augustine and those of Petrarch, and this is not the only section of his writing that attains such a high level. Moreover, he is the only writer of the twelfth century to pass in review the schools of the day. He read widely, and his style was perhaps the most classical and idiomatic of all medieval attempts to write in imitation of classical models. He lacks the virtuosity and the emotional appeal of Bernard, and his vocabulary and constructions are at times difficult. He is unable to plan or to discard. But his cool judgment and unemphatic language always satisfy the reader. Similarly, his letters, especially those written during the denouement of the Becket affair, display a caustic wit that does not appear in his longer works. He knew on terms of equality almost all the distinguished men of his day. This width of acquaintance he shared with St. Bernard, but whereas the abbot of Clairvaux saw them as figures in black and white, the objects of his emotion and rhetoric, John saw them with a detached, slightly cynical eye that could observe their foibles as well as their gifts. He has won his reward: We speak of his age and society as the age of John of Salisbury.

See also Abelard, Peter; Anselm, St.; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Bernard of Chartres; Bernard of Clairvaux, St.; Gilbert of Poitiers; Greek Academy; Medieval Philosophy; Petrarch; Plato; Political Philosophy, History of; Roscelin; William of Conches.


The collected works of John of Salisbury were published in Latin as Joannis Saresberiensis Opera Omnia, 5 vols., edited by J. A. Giles (Oxford, 1848). A reprint, edited by J. P. Migne, appears in Patrologia Latina, Vol. CXCIX. Individual works include the Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum, edited by C. Petersen (Hamburg, 1843); Policraticus sive de Nugis Curialium, 2 vols., edited by C. C. J. Webb (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909); Metalogicon, edited by C. C. J. Webb (Oxford, 1929); and Historia Pontificalis, edited by R. L. Poole (Oxford, 1927).

An English translation of Books 14 and parts of Books 7 and 8 of the Policraticus may be found in J. B. Pike, Frivolities of Courtiers and Footprints of Philosophers (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938); a translation of Books 46 and parts of Books 7 and 8 appears in J. Dickinson, The Statesman's Book (New York: Knopf, 1927). Other translations are the Metalogicon, translated by D. D. McGarry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955); and the Historia Pontificalis, excellently translated and annotated by M. Chibnall from the Poole edition (Edinburgh and London: T. Nelson, 1956).

For works on John of Salisbury, see C. S. Schaarschmidt, Johannes Saresberiensis (Leipzig: Teubner, 1862); and R. W. Carlyle and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval Humanism in the Life and Writings of John of Salisbury (London, 1950). A valuable introduction appears in W. J. Miller, H. E. Butler, and C. N. L. Brooke, The Letters of John of Salisbury, Vol. I (11531161) (Edinburgh and London: T. Nelson, 1955).

David Knowles (1967)