John of Salisbury (ca. 1115-1180)

John of Salisbury was born in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1115 (or, at the latest, 1120) in the ancient British town of Old Sarum, near present day Salisbury. His was a fascinating time, for, as one puts it, “he lived in a century at whose opening Anselm was already old and Abelard learning his elements”[1] Indeed, John’s time beheld such important events as the end of the Investiture Contest, the Anarchy of King Stephen and the subsequent rise of the Plantagenet dynasty, the martyrdom of John’s friend, St. Thomas Becket, the re-flowering of studies of Roman law throughout Europe, and the exploits of Richard the Lion-Hearted in the Third Crusade. Other famous figures of John’s day included St. Bernard of Clairvaux (who was one of John’s patrons), queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Pope Innocent III, the master jurist Gratian of Bologna, and the historian William of Malmesbury. Given that John of Salisbury wrote some scathing things about tyrannical kings, it is interesting to note that he died only 35 years before the barons forced the odious King John to sign the Magna Carta, one of the most important documents describing English liberty.

John of Salisbury’s England was a country whose political and cultural fortunes were on the rise. John’s birth came only 49 years after the Norman Conquest of England (1066), a traumatic upheaval that intertwined the Saxon and French cultures into the beginnings of a truly “English” culture. The shattered remnants of Saxon life had, through various intriguing means (such as the cults of King Edward the Confessor and Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester),[2] made peace with the Norman conquerors in such a way as to survive and once again prosper. Yet, at the same time, much turmoil remained. Relations between the papacy and the monarchy were dangerous, relations between the monarchy and the other barons of England were tenuous, and the attentions of the king himself precariously divided between the interests of his monarchy in England and his feudal obligations to the king of France.[3] For all the difficulties, however, intellectual and cultural ferment in England was at an all-time high.

Additionally, the climax of the Investiture Contest and a dramatic legal renaissance (noted above) helped spur great development of monarchies and their associated institutions. Under the terms of the Concordat of Worms (the agreement in 1122 which ended the Investiture Contest), the pope would nominate bishops and the king would approve them. The newly-consecrated bishop would then swear feudal loyalty to the king, and would take on, among other duties to his lord, military and fiscal responsibilities in the territory of his see. The effect was to establish the king as the political sovereign over the territory in which the ecclesiastical see resided–which in turn entailed that the pope and the king would compete to ensure that the bishopric went to the man most likely to support his own interests over the other.:”(See Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, “Popes, Kings, and Endogenous Institutions: The Concordat of Worms and the Origins of Sovereignty,” in International Studies Review Vol. 2, No. 2 [Summer, 2000], pg. 101-102.)”

This state of affairs would have far reaching effects in England, allowing kings and popes to bitterly fight for supremacy – often at the expense of the ordinary citizens. Kings, for instance, could delay approving papal nominations for the bishoprics, and thereby both stall the pope’s political wishes and accrue to themselves, as the most powerful barons in England, the tax and other revenues originating within vacant sees. Popes, for their parts, could wield the powerful tools of excommunication and interdict to wreak havoc on the king and his followers. Excommunication of the king (as seen vividly in the 11th century Investiture Contest between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV) could free the king’s followers from their feudal obligations to him, thus fomenting revolution. Interdict, on the other hand, suspended all sacramental functions, leaving the lay masses cut off from the Eucharist, from penance and absolution, from Church marriage, and from Church burials of the dead. Control of not just spiritual, but also normal, life became subject to a vicious political football game between popes and kings. As we will see below, some of the most notable events in the long struggle would occur in England during John of Salisbury’s life.

From his early youth John received an excellent education in what we would now call the “humanist” mode. At about the same time as King Stephen began reigning (the “Anarchy of Stephen”), John began his studies in Paris. At the feet of numerous masters, including Peter Abelard, he studied the classical trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), dialectic, theology, and philosophy. From 1136 through the 1140s he studied in Paris, Bologna, and Canterbury, at some point acquiring a basic understanding of canon law. These studies would serve him well in his succession of careers as scholar, ecclesiastical adminstrator, advocate in the Church courts, and bishop. Indeed, John was a true “renaissance man” in an age pregnant with possibility, an age which laid the foundations for the glorious noontide of Christendom. His century has been described by one scholar this way:

…The chivalrous, empty heroics of the later medieval period, the underlying brutishness of the earlier centuries, were absent; instead, men’s minds probed the practical applications of their new-found intellectual powers. More than any other century in western civilisation, this was the age of the mind; crude though the achievements may seem, both art and thought created in this time masterpieces of unsurpassed beauty, as in the great Romanesque churches and cathedrals and the epic romances, and also laid the seeds which yielded a rich harvest in future generations. It was a time of fervour and activity; and if it has bequeathed fewer great names to grace our records than later centuries, the unknown masters and artists paved the way for the soaring majesty of Gothic art; for the rise of the universities; for the rich flowering of medieval philosophy with Albert and Aquinas; for the new legal and scientific learning–all of which came to full splendour in the next century…[4]

John’s outlook on life may be described as cosmopolitan, thanks not only to his excellent education but to his extensive travels. As an advocate in the Church courts, John left his native soil quite frequently: “…Ten times I have crossed the chain of the Alps since I left England first; twice have I travelled through Apulia; I have done business often in the Roman court on behalf of my superiors and friends; and on a variety of counts I have traversed England, and France too, many times.”[5] These journeys exposed him to many different settings, and his ability easily to make friends combined with his keen observation skills make him an invaluable witness to the character of ecclesiastical life in the mid-to late twelfth century.

John’s career as a churchman began in the year of grace 1147, when he entered the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Between 1164 and 1170, John found himself exiled from England for his support of Thomas Becket in the latter’s controversy with King Henry II. Tensions between the two had been building for some time, with flashpoints occurring at Woodstock in July, 1163, Westminster in October, 1163, and at Clarendon in January of 1164. When Thomas fled the king in November of 1164, John, who was already abroad on business, experienced the king’s wrath as well in the form of having his property confiscated–a move designed to ensure John’s inability to support the Archbishop any further against the king. Throughout the period of his exile, John wrote around 24 letters per year (169 total), which have been summarized as containing and explaining two principles: “1) to accept nothing which infringed the claims of honesty and equity, 2) to try to find solutions in an atmosphere of peace and calm”–the application of which principles John and Thomas did not always agree.[6]

When at long last the king and his archbishop seemed to have reached an accord, John returned to England in July of 1170 to prepare the way for Thomas’ return. Thomas himself returned on December 2, but late in the month tensions had again reached a high point. On December 29th in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1170, John was present at the fateful meeting with the four knights of the king who had come to confront “the king’s enemy.” Having earlier warned his friend to take care, John was there when the knights attacked and murdered Thomas, but in the general confusion of the melee he fled with the other clerks.

From 1176 to 1180 John held the bishopric of Chartres. Few details of these closing years of his life exist. We know he excommunicated the Count of Vendome, witnessed the treaty of March 1179 between King Louis and King Henry II, and participated in the Third Lateran Council of 1179, where he argued for, among other things, evangelical reform.

John’s literary style, the product of his excellent humanist education, is marked by frequent irony and satire: “he enjoyed having the best of both worlds, cutting everyone down to size, while preserving a reasonable respect and sympathy for almost all the men he describes…”[7] Though it may seem curious to us with our rigorously scientific model of scholarship, John was not always concerned with strict factual accuracy in his writings. Being a master of rhetoric, he loved to “tease” his readers with imaginary accounts and faked quotations created to spice up recitations of important affairs.

One important example of invented citation is found in John’s angry denunciation of Frederick Barbarossa as the “ex-Augustus” who had been deposed by the pope. We must recall that the papacy had just emerged victorious from the Investiture Contest, in which, among other things, popes asserted their divine right to depose disobedient kings on the basis of the supremacy of the spiritual power over the lay power. Following the ideals of the classical mode of writing history,[8] John felt no hesitation in producing a dramatic example of this principle which would be relevant to his own times. Although the account of Frederick’s deposition by the pope which John gives is entirely fictitious, a very similar account was only a few years later entered into the records of the Lateran synod of 1167.[9]

According to some scholars, John “had an enduring weakness for shaping a good story to make a point.” Thus, “He was not very interested in ancient history for its own sake. He wanted to persuade men to improve their character, so he searched for and refashioned rhetorical exempla found in classical authorities.” Indeed, he was “an administrator, a moralist, and an entertainer.”[10] Yet, at the same time, his critical scholar’s mind also compelled him occasionally to correct errors in his manuscript sources, making for smoother translation possibilities.[11]

John’s political theory, expressed eloquently in his Policraticus (1159), came into the world at an opportune time. His was the age when the papacy, fresh from its victory in the wearisome Investiture Contest, began its transformation into the world-altering system of ecclesiopolitical government which we call the Papal Monarchy. In the Policraticus, John made important contributions to medieval political philosophy:

…Drawing on the thought of classical antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, he stressed the divine nature of kingship, but he also emphasized its responsibilities and limitations. The king drew his authority from God but was commissioned to rule for the good of his subjects rather than himself. He was bound to give his subjects peace and justice and to protect the Church. If he abused his commission and neglected his responsibilities, he lost his divine authority, ceased to be a king, and became a tyrant. As such, he forfeited his subjects’ allegiance and was no longer their lawful ruler. Under extreme circumstances, and if all else failed, John of Salisbury recommended tyrannicide. In his view, a good Christian subject, although obliged to obey his king, might kill a tyrant. Apart from the highly original doctrine of tyrannicide, the views expressed in the Policraticus mirror the general political attitudes of the twelfth century—responsible limited monarchy and government on behalf of the governed. These theories, in turn, were idealized reflections of the actual monarchies of the day whose powers were held in check by the nobility, the Church, and ancient custom.[12]

Yet, others argue that John “saw contemporary politics in a muddled way through Patristic and Biblical spectacles…John of Salisbury did not believe that this world was the real one; it was merely a stage on which men played. Reality for John lay elsewhere, and true understanding only comes through the study of philosophy.”[13] Additionally, there are questions about the shape of his doctrine of tyrannicide. Whereas in Book III (15) and Book VII (17-23) of the Policraticus John seems to say that tyrants should be slain (by their subjects), in Book VIII he seems to states that God will remove the tyrant. There is ambiguity here which exercises scholarly dispute even today.[14]

Much more could be said of this colorful, influential character and the parts he played in the story of the Medieval societas Christiana. We have not here tried to summarize his contributions to the philosophical debates of the day, nor his biblical scholarship, nor his creative interaction with ancient authorities such as Vergil, Suetonius, Orosius, and Boethius. His roles during Stephen’s Anarchy and the tribulations of St. Thomas Becket could certainly be explored in more detail. It should be clear from the foregoing, however, that John of Salisbury is a figure from whom we as Protestants may learn much, a giant on whose shoulders we ought to be proud to stand so that, if the Lord wills, we may occasionally see farther than he.


1.Christopher Brooke, “John of Salisbury and His World,” in The World of John of Salisbury, ed. Michael Wilks [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984], pg. 1. ↩
2.On these points see Monika Otter, “1066: The Moment of Transition in Two Narratives of the Norman Conquest,” in Speculum, Vol. 74, No. 3. [Jul., 1999], pp. 565-586; also see my paper An Analysis of the Cult of King Edward. ↩
3.The reader should remember that this is the time of the Plantagenets, who as descendants of the Norman William the Conqueror are simultaneously kings of England and feudal lords in France. Owed feudal allegiance by the lower lords of England, they simultaneously themselves owed feudal allegiance to the king of France–a confusing web of political obligation! Thus, in the case of Henry II, king through most of John of Salisbury’s life, the English monarch also had duties to duchies in Normandy and Aquitaine, as well as being the count of both Anjou and Maine. ↩
4.Richard Barber, Henry Plantagenet: A Biography [New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1964], pg. 11. ↩
5.Cited from Metalogicon iii, prol., by Brooke, pg. 8. ↩
6.Albert Zimmerman, John of Salisbury’s Entheticus Maior and Minor Vol. 1, trans. Jan van Laarhoven [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1987], pg. 8. ↩
7.Brooke, pg. 2. ↩
8.Such as Thucydides, who often put invented speeches into the mouths of historical people for literary effect and because, given the assumptions of rhetoric, the invented speech was thought to be very likely close to what was actually said. ↩
9.Brooke, ibid., pg. 12. ↩
10.Lunscombe, “John of Salisbury in Recent Scholarship”, in The World of John of Salisbury, ed. Michael Wilks [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984], pg. 33. ↩
11.For a technical discussion of examples of such emendation by John, and also his contemporary William of Malmesbury, see Janet Martin, “John of Salisbury as Classical Scholar,” in The World of John of Salisbury, pp. 182-184. ↩
12.C. Warren Hollister and Judith M. Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History, Ninth Edition [Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002], pg. 316. ↩
13.David Lunscombe, “John of Salisbury in Recent Scholarship,” in The World of John of Salisbury, ed. Michael Wilks [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984], pg. 31. ↩
14.For instance, see the dissenting view of Jan Van Laarhoven in “Thou Shalt NOT Slay a Tyrant!” in The World of John of Salisbury, pp. 319-341. ↩

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