John of Salisbury

John of Salisbury
(ca. 1115–1180)
   John of Salisbury was a churchman and a scholar, a scholastic philosopher who was one of the premier Latinists of his age.He was a student of Peter ABELARD and was secretary, friend, and biographer of Thomas BECKET, but he is best remembered as author of the Polycraticus (The statesman’s book).
   John was born into a Saxon family near Salisbury in Wiltshire in the south of England. Not much is known about his early life, but in 1136 he traveled to France, where he spent 12 years studying in various cathedral schools. He studied under Abelard at his school at Mont St. Genevieve until the great man retired, then from 1138–40 studied grammar and the Latin classics at Chartres under William of Conches (who had written an important commentary on The CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY of BOETHIUS) and the scientific curriculum of the LIBERAL ARTS, the quadrivium under Richard l’Evque.William and Richard were disciples of the great teacher Bernard of Chartres, who was known for his emphasis on Platonic philosophy and on the study of Latin literary classics, both of which play a role in Salisbury’s writing. Ultimately he returned to Paris where he completed his education in theology between 1141 and 1145.
   In 1148 Salisbury attended the Council of Reims, where he obtained, from St. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX, a letter of introduction to Theobold, archbishop of Canterbury. He also seems to have become part of the papal retinue, and spent the next several years at the court of Pope Eugenius III in Rome. In 1154 he returned to England, where he became secretary to Archbishop Theobald. It was at Canterbury that he wrote his two best-known works, the Polycraticus and the Metalogion, both of which he dedicated to Becket, then chancellor of England. About 1159, Salisbury fell into disfavor with King HENRY II, and although he remained as secretary to the new archbishop when Becket assumed the post in 1162, Salisbury was ultimately forced to leave England altogether in 1163, taking refuge in Reims with his friend Peter of La Celle, who was abbot of St. Remigius. Becket’s own difficulties with Henry led him to follow Salisbury into exile at Reims, and Salisbury spent several years trying to promote a reconciliation between the archbishop and the king. In 1170, efforts apparently successful, Salisbury returned to England with Becket. Salisbury was probably present with the archbishop when, on December 29 of that year, he was murdered by Henry’s agents in Canterbury Cathedral.
   Following Becket’s murder, Salisbury continued his career as statesman and churchman. He was made treasurer of Exeter Cathedral in 1174, and in 1176 was appointed bishop of Chartres. As bishop, he attended the third Lateran Council in 1179, and died the following year. He was buried near Chartres, at the monastery of St. Josaphat. Salisbury was one of the most sophisticated scholars of his day, and his literary output reflects his wide learning and his facility with the Latin language. Some 300 of his letters survive, written to various scholars and leaders of his time, and give a vivid picture of intellectual life in the 12th century. He wrote a Vita Sti. Anselmi (Life of St. ANSELM) in 1163, and his Vita Sti. Thomae Cantuar (Life of Saint Thomas of Canterbury) in 1171. His Historia pontificalus (Pontifical history), composed ca. 1163, is an eyewitness history of the papacy during Salisbury’s time in service in Rome, from 1148–52. The Metalogicon is a treatise in four books concerned with the correct use of logic. It contains information about education in the 12th century, and about the scholastic controversies of Salisbury’s age.His bestknown work, the Polycraticus, is a study in eight books concerned with the principles of government, providing an account of the ideals of feudal society. Salisbury’s work in general is a model of elegant Latin prose and depth of learning.
   ■ John of Salisbury. The Historia pontificalis of John of Salisbury. Edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
   ■ The Letters of John of Salisbury. Edited by W. J.Millor and H. E. Butler. Revised by C. N. L. Brooke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
   ■ ———. The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium. Translated with an introduction and notes by Daniel D.McGarry. 1955.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
   ■ ———.Polycraticus: The Statesman’s Book. Abridged and edited with an introduction by Murray F. Markland. New York: F. Ungar, 1979.
   ■ Wilks, Michael J., ed. The World of John of Salisbury. Oxford: Published for the Ecclesiastical History Society by B. Blackwell, 1984.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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