Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford > English Scholars of Paris: John of Salisbury
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

X. English Scholars of Paris and Franciscans of Oxford.

§ 2. English Scholars of Paris: John of Salisbury.


The first important representative of England in the schools of Paris was John of Salisbury. He began by becoming a pupil of Abelard, who had returned to the scene of his early triumphs, and at the age of 57, was now lecturing on the hill of Sainte-Geneviève. That “illustrious and admirable teacher” was discoursing, as of old, on logic; and “at his feet” John of Salisbury “acquired the first rudiments of dialectics, greedily seizing all that fell from his lips.” But his brilliant instructor was once more opposed, and once more withdrew from Paris; and the pupil passed into the school of Master Alberic and Robert of Melun. The first was, “in questions, acute and expansive”; the second, “in responses, brief and lucid”; and, if “anyone could have combined the merits of both, he would have been unrivalled in debate.” 3  Having thus studied logic for two years (1136–8) in Paris, John of Salisbury spent three years (probably the latter part of 1138, and a large part of 1139 and 1140) working at “grammar,” or the scholarly study of Latin literature. The place is not named, but it has, rightly, been identified as the school of Chartres. 4  In that school the sound and healthy tradition of Bernard of Chartres was still maintained by his pupils. By John of Salisbury’s time, Bernard had been succeeded as chancellor of the cathedral school by Gilbert de la Porrée. John of Salisbury learnt rhetoric from Richard L’Évêque, who was “familiar with almost every branch of learning, whose knowledge was even greater than his eloquence, who had more truth than vanity, more virtue than show.”  5  He had already attended, with less profit, the somewhat meagre lectures of Bernard’s younger brother, Theodoric, who is nevertheless described as “a most studious investigator of the Arts.”  6  This description was confirmed in 1888, when he was identified as the author of two large volumes containing a comprehensive Survey of the Liberal Arts, written in a bold and clear hand, which may now be seen in the public library of the cathedral town. It may be added that it was between 1134 and 1150, during the time when Theodoric was successively “master of the school” and chancellor, that the south doorway of the west front of the cathedral was adorned with figures of the seven arts, each of them associated with the ancient representative of that art, for example, grammar with Priscian, dialectic with Aristotle and rhetoric with Cicero.   3
  It was probably early in 1141 that John returned to Paris. For a short time he attended not only the lectures of Gilbert, who had lately ceased to be chancellor of Chartres, but also those of Robert Pullen, the future cardinal, who had taught at Oxford in 1133. Socially, he saw much of Adam du Petit Pont, who owed his surname to the school that he had set up on the little bridge between the Ile de la Cité and the Quartier Latin.   4
  John of Salisbury’s student life in Paris, and Chartres, and again in Paris, probably extended from early in 1136 to late in 1145. In the spring of 1148 he was present at the council of Rheims. It was there that he was introduced by Bernard of Clairvaux to Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, an introduction that had an important effect on his literary and ecclesiastical career.   5
  About 1150 he returned to England, and resided mainly at the court of Canterbury, engaged on secretarial and diplomatic work, which frequently took him to the court of Rome. On the most celebrated of these visits, during the winter of 1155–6, his friend the English pope, Hadrian IV, sent Henry II his written authority to extend his rule over Ireland, together with an emerald ring in token of his right. 7  It was probably John of Salisbury’s eager interest in the privileges of the church while he was still in the service of Theobald that led to his soon falling into disfavour with the king. During the enforced leisure of 1159 he revised and completed two of his most extensive works, finishing the Policraticus shortly before, and the Metalogicus immediately after, the death of Hadrian IV (3I August, 1159). Both of these were dedicated to Becket, the warlike chancellor, with whose aid Henry II was then “fulminating” at the siege of Toulouse. 8  When Becket became archbishop in 1162, John of Salisbury entered his service, and, soon afterwards, composed a Life of archbishop Anselm with a view to the canonisation which was not conceded until three centuries later. On the king’s return, early in 1163, John of Salisbury found it safest to leave the country, staying for six or seven years with Peter de la Celle, then abbot of Rheims, under whose roof he wrote the Historia Pontificalis. His exile, like that of Becket, lasted till late in 1170. On the fatal 29th of December he was at Canterbury with the archbishop, who unhappily disregarded the counsels of moderation suggested by his devoted friend. They entered the cathedral together. In the face of the murderous attack on the archbishop’s person, John of Salisbury seems to have fled at first, but to have soon returned to the post of peril. He was probably present at the end. He was certainly believed by his friend Peter to have been “sprinkled with the precious blood of the blessed martyr.”  9    6
  He immediately urged the inclusion of his master’s name in the calendar of martyrs, wrote his Life, and loyally served his successor. In 1176 his devotion to the memory of St. Thomas and his friendship with the archbishop of Sens led to John of Salisbury being made bishop of Chartres. For the last four years of his life he was the most prominent personage in the place where he had spent three of the most successful years of his youth. In the necrology of his cathedral church he is described as vir magnae religionis, totiusque scientiae radiis illustratus.   7
  His Letters give abundant proof of his wide influence as a sagacious counsellor, an able politician and a zealous ecclesiastic. They were collected and edited by himself soon after 1170. Of the 326 comprised in the modern editions, some were written after the above date, and some by other writers. His Entheticus, an elegiac poem of no less than 1852 lines, was, apparently, intended as an introduction to Policraticus, which is now preceded by a short set of verses bearing the same title as the above poem. In both of these poems, which are written in a strong and solid but not particularly elegant style, Becket is warmly eulogised. He is the king’s right hand, the embodiment of all excellence, the refuge of the oppressed, the light of the church, the glory of the nation. 10    8
  The Policraticus is a work in eight books. The primary title has led to its being regarded as a “statesman’s handbook.” The alternative title, De Nugis Curialium, et Vestigiis Philosophorum, is suggestive of a satire on the vanities of courtiers, followed by a set treatise on morals; but the latter half deals with the principles of government, and with matters of philosoply and learning, interspersed with many digressions. It is, in fact an “encyclopaedia of miscellanies,” reflecting the cultivated thought of the middle of the twelfth century. It includes an interesting chapter on Aristotle, 11  and a satirical account of the scholastic controversies of the age.   9
  The Metalogicus, in four books, contains a defence of the method and use of logic, vindicating the claims of “grammar,”and pleading for an intelligent study of logic. It includes an analysis of the whole series of Aristotle’s treatises on that subject, being, in fact, the earliest work in the Middle Ages in which every part of the Organon is turned to account.   10
  The Historia Pontificalis is only preserved in an incomplete form in a single manuscript at Bern; it was not printed until 1886, and was not identified as the work of John of Salisbury until 1873. It gives an account of the ecclesiastical history of the years 1148 to 1152 but is really as much a satire as a history.   11
  In his attitude towards the ancient classics, John of Salisbury is far from regarding Aristotle as infallible; he is opposed to Plato, though he is fully conscious of Plato’s greatness. His favourite author is Cicero, and the purity of his own Latin prose has been justly praised. Caesar and Tacitus he knows solely by name; but in all the literature accessible to him he is obviously the best read scholar of his time. A humanist two centuries in advance of his age, he is eager to give the widest possible interpretation to “whatsoever things were written aforetime for our learning.”  12    12
  In his day the first period in the medieval study of logic was drawing towards its close, and with the degenerate type of the professional dialectician he has no sympathy. The earliest of all the medieval theories on the nature and the functions of the state is due to John of Salisbury. He is the first of modern writers on the philosophy of politics, and he founds his own theory on the records of the Old Testament and on the annals of the ancient Roman empire.   13

Note 3Metalogicus, II, IO. [ back ]
Note 4. Schaarschmidt, Joh. Saresberiensis, p. 22. [ back ]
Note 5Metalogicus, loc. cit. [ back ]
Note 6Metalogicus, I, 5. [ back ]
Note 7Metalogicus, IV, 42. [ back ]
Note 8Policraticus, VIII, 25. [ back ]
Note 9. Petrus Cellensis, Ep. 117. [ back ]
Note 10. Migne, P. L. CXCIX, 379, 993 [ back ]
Note 11. VII, 6. [ back ]
Note 12. Cf. Prologue to Policraticus, VII. [ back ]

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