John of Salisbury

John of Salisbury was born in at Old Sarum in about 1110. Little is know about his family circumstances, but the evidence available suggests that he came from a poor family. In 1136 he went to Paris where he studied under Peter Abelard, Gilbert de la Porrée and Adam of Balsham. (1) He described Abelard as "a clear and wonderful teacher" whose every word he drank "with consuming avidity". During this period he read widely. "I shall never regret the time thus spent". (2)

In 1147 he became secretary and advisor to Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He spent much of this time travelling to and from the papal court, and was apparently working for Pope Eugene III by March 1148. Salisbury wrote many letters during this period and in 1159 he commented: "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.". (3)

John of Salisbury and the Archbishop of Canterbury

Peter Coffey has pointed out: "John of Salisbury was one of the most cultured scholars of his day. Notwithstanding the engrossing cares of his diplomatic career, his great learning and indefatigable industry enabled him to carry on an extensive and lifelong correspondence on literary, educational, and ecclesiastical topics with the leading scholars of Europe. His collected letters (over 300 in number), no less than his other works, form an invaluable source of the history of thought and activity in the twelfth century. His fine taste and superior training made him the most elegant Latin writer of his time. He is equally distinguished as an historian and as a philosopher: he was the first medieval writer to emphasize the importance of historical studies in philosophy and in all other branches of learning." (4)

John of Salisbury
John of Salisbury

According to his biographer, David Luscombe, "although John complained on more than one occasion that his duties were inimical to study and that his only free time was that required for eating and sleeping, he managed in at least some of these years to write a great deal." By 1159 John also completed the Metalogicon and the Policraticus. (5)

Thomas Becket

Archbishop Theobald died in 1161 and was replaced by Thomas Becket. Salisbury worked as Becket's secretary but because of his writings he was forced into exile. Archbishop Becket joined him in 1164. The two men were very close: "John, a small and delicate man, warm, lively and playful, a joker with an eye to the ridiculous, the confident member of a learned elite, so sure of his scholarship that he could quote, to amuse his circle, classical authors and other embroideries of his own invention, was everything that Thomas Becket was not." (6)

However, the quarrel between Becket and the king put a strain upon their friendship: John would not abandon Becket's cause but he disagreed with the way Becket was dealing with the situation. Becket now moved to Pontigny Abbey. According to Edward Grim, at least three times a day, his chaplain, was compelled by Becket, to "scourge him on the bare back until the blood flowed". Grim added that with these punishments he "killed all carnal desires". (7)

Under the protection of Henry's old enemy. King Louis VII, Becket organised a propaganda campaign against the monarchy. As Becket was supported by Pope Alexander III, Henry feared that he would be excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church). Alexander sent a letter to Henry urging him to make peace with Becket and suggesting that he restored him as Archbishop of Canterbury. (8)

John of Salisbury was also involved in negotiations with Henry II and Louis VII. The three men met at Angers in April 1166. In a letter to Becket he complained that he wasted money and lost two horses on the journey and that it obtained nothing of value. (9) Talks continued and on 7th January 1169, Becket and Henry met at Montmirail but they failed to reach an agreement. Alexander, finally ran out of patience and ordered Becket to agree a deal with Henry. (10) On 22nd July, 1170, Becket and Henry met at Fréteval and it was agreed that the archbishop should return to Canterbury and receive back all the possessions of his see. (11)

Murder in the Cathedral

John Salisbury returned with Becket later that year. (12) On his arrival, Becket excommunicated (expelled from the Christian Church) Roger de Pont L'Évêque, the Archbishop of York, and other leading churchmen who had supported the king while he was away. Henry, who was in Normandy at the time, was furious when he heard the news and supposedly shouted out: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of Henry's knights, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, Reginald Fitz Urse, and Richard Ie Bret, who heard Henry's angry outburst decided to travel to England to see Becket. (13)

When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December 1170, they demanded that Becket pardon the men he had excommunicated. Edward Grim later reported: "The wicked knight (William de Tracy), fearing that the Archbishop would be rescued by the people in the nave... wounded this lamb who was sacrificed to God... cutting off the top of the head... Then he received a second blow on his head from Reginald Fitz Urse but he stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows... Then the third knight (Richard Ie Bret) inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement... the blood white with the brain and the brain red with blood, dyed the surface of the church. The fourth knight (Hugh de Morville) prevented any from interfering so the others might freely murder the Archbishop." (14)

John of Salisbury, who had taken refuge behind the altar, during the murder, wrote a short biography of Thomas Becket in about 1173. (15) In 1176 he was appointed as Bishop of Chartres. A post he held until his death on 25th October 1180. (16)

Primary Sources

(1) David Luscombe, John of Salisbury : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

John's early schooling, probably in Old Sarum, was provided by a priest who taught him the psalms and also sought unsuccessfully to involve him in sorcery and in crystal-gazing. In 1136 John went to Paris and, in his Metalogicon, he provides valuable sketches of the masters who taught him.

Although John complained on more than one occasion that his duties were inimical to study and that his only free time was that required for eating and sleeping, he managed in at least some of these years to write a great deal.... He presents a radiant picture of Thomas Becket, but he delivers warnings concerning Becket's ambiguous place on the royal scene. By 1159 John also completed the Metalogicon and the Policraticus; both works are dedicated to Becket.

(2) Kevin Guilfoy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2005)

John of Salisbury was born between 1115 and 1120 at Old Sarum near present day Salisbury, England. Little is know about his family circumstances, but they appear not to have been well off, as John bemoaned his relative poverty throughout his life. In 1136, John went to Paris where he studied under, or befriended, many of the greatest minds of his day: Peter Abelard, Gilbert of Poitiers, Adam du Petit Pont, William of Conches, Thierry of Chartres, and others. In 1147, for reasons that are still unclear, John left the schools of Paris. He was probably out of money and needed to find work, but it is also possible that he was fed up with the Parisian schools, or with the persecution endured there by his most influential teachers, Abelard and Gilbert....

Unfortunately for John, he was unable to translate his personal charisma into a successful career as a diplomat and politician. He lacked the most important quality of the truly successful courtier: the ability always to end up on the right side of a dispute. He seems to have been a man of principle who refused compromise, and it is likely that many of the charges he made against others in the Policraticus were taken personally. Even so, he avoided confrontation. Above all, John sought to live the life of authenticity, moderation, and virtue we see defended in his philosophical writings.

(3) Peter Coffey, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)

John of Salisbury was one of the most cultured scholars of his day. Notwithstanding the engrossing cares of his diplomatic career, his great learning and indefatigable industry enabled him to carry on an extensive and lifelong correspondence on literary, educational, and ecclesiastical topics with the leading scholars of Europe. His collected letters (over 300 in number), no less than his other works, form an invaluable source of the history of thought and activity in the twelfth century. His fine taste and superior training made him the most elegant Latin writer of his time. He is equally distinguished as an historian and as a philosopher: he was the first medieval writer to emphasize the importance of historical studies in philosophy and in all other branches of learning. Naturally of an eclectic turn, he displayed in philosophy a remarkably sound and judicious critical spirit. Familiar with all the phases of contemporary scholastic controversies, he was himself among the first to formulate clearly the solution known as "moderate realism" in answer to the fundamental philosophical problem of the value and significance of universal ideas.

(4) John of Salisbury, quotation (1159)

We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

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References

 

(1) Kevin Guilfoy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2005)

(2) John of Salisbury, Letters of John of Salisbury (1955)

(3) John of Salisbury, letter (1159)

(4) Peter Coffey, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)

(5) David Luscombe, John of Salisbury : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (1986) page 32

(7) Edward Grim, Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1180)

(8) Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (1986) page 163

(9) John of Salisbury, letter to Thomas Becket (April 1166)

(10) Frank Barlow, Thomas Beckett : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Michael David Knowles, Encyclopædia Britannica (2016)

(12) Peter Coffey, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)

(13) Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (1986) pages 235-238

(14) Edward Grim, Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1180)

(15) Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket (1986) page 4

(16) David Luscombe, John of Salisbury : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)