09.04.07, Nederman, John of Salisbury

Main Article Content

Janet T. Sorrentino

The Medieval Review baj9928.0904.007


Nederman, Carey. John of Salisbury. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005. Pp. x, 100. ISBN: 0-86698-331-7.

Reviewed by:
Janet T. Sorrentino
Washington College

Cary Nederman's John of Salisbury is a remarkable achievement. This little manual--one hundred pages in all, including fourteen pages for bibliography and index--puts its subject before the reader in a way that is both accessible and thoroughly intellectual, as befits the great twelfth-century bishop. Nederman draws on his many years of experience immersed in the study of John of Salisbury as well as a series of lectures he gave at St. Catherine's College, Cambridge, entitled "'The Shoulders of Giants': Twelfth-Century England through the Eyes of John of Salisbury" (viii). He sets out to "distill and crystallize the recent advances in the appraisal of John's career and thought" (1). Herein I believe is one of the reasons for his success in his essay, for he does not go back to recreate the wheel, so to speak, by reiterating or holding discourse with all the previous scholarship. Rather, he takes what has come before as a starting point and proposes to offer a "new biobibliographical study" of John of Salisbury. Nederman further engages with five key issues: the dates of John's major works, his attitudes toward his teachers and contemporary philosophical schools; his closeness as a friend to Thomas Becket; the effect of Becket's death on his later career; and any lien between his intellectual activity and his church career (2).

The book is divided into two major sections: Life and Career, and Writings. Within the first section, Nederman divides John of Salisbury's life into five subheadings: early life and education (1115/1120-1147), his career at Canterbury (1148-1156), his career as a writer and administrator (1157-1161), the period of the Becket dispute (1162-1170), and his final years (1171-1180). The major works he develops in the second section are Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum, Policraticus, Metalogicon, Historia Pontificalis, and a final category of miscellaneous and spurious writings.

With regard to the dates for the major treatises, Nederman argues that Part I and possibly Part II of the Entheticus de Dogmate Philosophorum were composed in France between 1141 and 1147. Parts III and IV were written between 1154 and 1156 (10-11). John's admiration for Becket remains clear in the Entheticus Maior unsullied by his later disappointment when Becket as Chancellor harmed rather than helped the cause of Canterbury. Nederman argued that this helps place the date of the poem prior to mid-1156 when Theobald and Becket clashed over Becket's support of the king's agenda. Also, the poem refers to Henry II as puer and to his court as the nova curia (17).

The chronology for composing Policraticus and Metalogicon is more complex. Especially with the Metalogicon, there may be a span of as many as twenty years between when John first began writing portions of it and its completion in late 1159. Relying on the new editions, Nederman charts the composition of the various sections of both treatises (27). He argues that both were completed by the end of 1159, although it is likely John continued to revise both (25-27). Nederman argues that John's fall from favor with the king, caused by deliberate attacks upon him in the Canterbury circle greatly distressed John's sense of right, leading him to ponder seriously about the dangers of court life (22-23). Ultimately he sent a full draft of the Policraticus to Peter of Celle in the late summer or early autumn of 1159; he wrote the final chapter of the Metalogicon also in late 1159 when John complained to Becket about the burden of administrative work he was carrying for the ill Archbishop Theobald (23-24).

Nederman concurs with Marjorie Chibnall's dating of the Historia Pontificalis between early 1164-1166 during the period of his exile in Rheims (33, 75). Thereafter, John's new level of support for Becket in 1166 following the failed attempt to reconcile himself to Henry II manifested itself in renewed letter-writing from his base in Rheims. The letters stand as a remarkable witness to John's network of friends, acquaintances, and admirers, and provide a vast storehouse of information about the major intellectual and political centers of Europe (32-3).

John's contact with and commentary on his contemporaries in and out of the schools has always generated interest among historians. Nederman also highlights John's relationships with his teachers. Nederman takes the position with others that John's education took place in Paris, and not the "School of Chartres" (5). John greatly admired his teacher Peter Abelard. He continued his friendships with Abelard's students even after Abelard was condemned, and despite his disagreement with Abelard over the question of universals (5-6). John was critical of Robert of Melun and Alberic of Rheims, the former for easy answers to difficult questions, and the latter for obscure answers to more straightforward ones (7). He greatly admired his teacher of theology, Gilbert of Poitiers. John praised him for his learning as well as his subtlety. His respect is clear in the Historia Pontificalis where he describes Gilbert's trial for heresy in 1148. Although he does not speak ill of Bernard of Clairvaux who prosecuted the trial, John remained firm in his admiration for his former teacher (8). He became friends with his teacher Adam du Petit Pont, although he was not impressed with his explanations of Aristotle. John disdains the misplaced intellectual pride he saw in his own former student, William of Soissons, who also studied with Adam du Petit Pont (9). John does indeed criticize the superficial and utilitarian approach to education popular among teachers and students alike. Although Nederman believes John left formal education for court life because of poverty, nevertheless it is clear too that John, a rigorous thinker and demanding teacher, became thoroughly disenchanted with the seriousness of education in Paris after the prosecution of his former teacher Gilbert of Poitiers (11-12).

With regard to John's friendship with Thomas Becket, ultimately Nederman thinks their relationship was more professional than personal. His assessment rests especially on the tone of John's many letters; those between John and his close friends indicate an intimate correspondence unlike those between John and Becket (16). Although John addressed both the Policraticus and Metalogicon to Becket, Nederman thinks John would have been inspired by friends and contacts with a deeper philosophical bent than Becket (22-23). Furthermore, even during Becket's exile, John acted on his behalf in France, but once Becket fled there, John did not accompany him to Pontigny or Sens, but remained with Peter of Celle in Rheims (29-30). Nederman sees John's refusal to renounce his obedience to Becket at the king's demand as pivotal in John's opinion of the king as a persecutor of the church (31). He supported Becket in the crisis and took a leading role in promoting the cult of Becket, promoting thereby as well the power of the see (35).

Nederman characterizes the twelve years John spent in the English court as the "peak of his creative activity as an author" at the same time that he "was also establishing himself as an ecclesiastical servant of prodigious talent and energy" (11). His duties and responsibilities in Canterbury prepared him well for running eventually his own ecclesiastical court (14-15). His selection as bishop of Chartres, a royal appointment, was secured with help from other prelates (37). He became Treasurer of Exeter in 1173, and bishop of Chartres in 1176. Both positions "reaffirmed his long-standing network of associations" (36). Although he worked in Exeter, Nederman understands that John could never have risen to any higher office in Angevin territory because of his long-standing disputes with the King (35-36).

A deliberation over John of Salisbury's humanism informs Nederman's assessment of the medieval bishop's writings. He chose Gerald Walsh's definition as the best fit with John: "the idea that a human being is meant to achieve during life a fair measure of human happiness. It implies, of course, that happiness is to be sought in a human way." [1] Using this definition, Nederman can incorporate John of Salisbury's ability to follow in the footsteps of the philosophers--both Christian and pagan--without requiring John to have been a classical humanist in the tradition of the Florentine Quattrocento (41-43).

Both the subject and the stylistic threads of the Entheticus point to John's humanism. The poem teaches the reader about the "sources of philosophical wisdom and virtue, the relationship between human reason and divine truth, and the good order of the school and court." (44) By adopting classical literary motifs, John exemplified his humanism and found a platform for his criticisms of contemporary intellectual society. His search for the truth, which must for him be a Christian philosophy, nevertheless leads him to examine the ancient philosophers for their excellent--if incomplete--wisdom. His journey demonstrates his admiration for, among others, Cicero.

Ultimately, for Nederman, the Policraticus demonstrates "the principle that philosophy is an aid to achieving the good life of both the individual and the whole community" and "that public affairs are not necessarily corrupt, but can instead be conducted in a philosophically satisfactory manner according to which human goodness and happiness are promoted and enhanced" (62). For this reason, John occupies an important place in the integration of public life and philosophical inquiry. John's openness to all virtuous philosophers, not just Christian ones, is also exemplified here. He draws on Deuteronomy from the scriptures, but also pagan authors, such as Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Suetonius. Nederman agrees with recent scholarship that suggests John's exposure to these authors derived from florilegia. Moreover, John knew Aristotle's Organon and Plato's Timaeus (54). Apparently John was not above inventing a convenient source. Following the work of Hans Liebesch├╝tz, Nederman concurs that the "Instruction of Trajan" attributed to Plutarch was a "convenient fiction" (55). Perhaps influenced by the extremes of temper and behavior which surrounded him, John extols "moderation" as the key to the rightly ordered political life (58-9). As such, he equates immoderation with tyranny. Against those who would claim that John never actually intended to suggest regicide as a possible solution to public tyranny, Nederman proposes that the murder of bad rulers was consistent with John's basic political philosophy. In other words, human responsibility and duty require one act for the public good (61).

John's humanism especially appears in the Metalogicon where the curriculum of the schools--the study of the trivium, in particular logic--makes possible the acquisition of the very wisdom that can bring about true human happiness. Nederman points out that in the Metalogicon John's sense of balance and moderation again regulates the extremes he observes around himself. While he sifts and mines the classical writings in his pursuit of knowledge, he cautions against too great a veneration for the ancient authorities that would make one reject contributions by scholars of their own day (64). With regard to the duty of the student, "John advocates the principle that people must find a middle ground between an absence of intellectual curiosity and an overzealous pursuit of all topics" (72). John's careful analysis weighs against hasty adoption of principles for the sake of claiming resolution of a question. Yet one may proceed on the basis of "logical probability," a methodology that Keats-Rohan, von Moos, and Nederman agree informs the Policraticus as well as the Metalogicon.

Nederman also tussles with the identity of the "Cornificians," those critics of schools' curriculum in John's day. That these critics of logic are sometimes referred to in the Metalogicon in the singular, and sometimes in the plural, complicates the effort to identify who he is/they are. They appear to derive from court, monastery, schools, and business (66). Nederman suggests that the vehemence leveled at the courtier reflects John's loathing of Arnulf of Lisieux whose career spanned a variety of roles. The monastic character of "Cornificius" may represent Bernard of Clairvaux who not only preached against the curriculum of the schools but led the charges against two of John's beloved teachers, Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers. Nederman's explanation of the Cornificians' critique is especially interesting. While they attack logic/dialectic in the curriculum, they especially strike at rhetoric by claiming that eloquence is a gift of nature, thereby denying the purpose of education. "To imperil society by assailing the human capacity to improve rational powers--the very accusation that John levels against Cornificius--is to cut the human race off from the happiness that God has accorded in the present life, as well as to exclude the possibility of realizing the grace bestowed by Him" (69). In addition, "human sociability" requires both reason and speech, both of which require practice and action. Action for John is an essential component to acquiring wisdom, for a knowledge that remains private and abstract without practical experience is not true knowledge.

Nederman suggests that John's Historia Pontificalis, written for Peter of Celle (75) may be a form of personal consolation during his exile as well as a platform for excoriating his enemies (76). Perhaps like the John's Historia Pontificalis itself, Nederman's discussion of the chronicle is more fragmentary than his consideration of John's other major works, and presumes more familiarity with the circumstances of its subject matter. In pointing out John's method, he agrees with Roger Ray when he points to John's method in the treatise as consistent with the role of the rhetorician who, by selection of what is treated, must "trade in verisimilitude, not truth." [2] Nederman tells us that John presents the subjects of his history with their good and bad points, seemingly adopting Abelard's method in Sic et Non (77).

In the section "Miscellaneous and Spurious Works" Nederman agrees with Christopher Brooke and Ronald Pepin in rejecting De Membris Conspirantibus as one of John's writings, and with Carl Schaarschmidt in rejecting Septem Septenis as well. Although Vita Anselmi and Vita et Passio Sancti Thome genuinely belong to John, Nederman is understandably unimpressed with either. It is John's two letter collections that can stand with his major treatises in their erudition, and in the light they cast on his generation. Indeed, his contemporaries recognized the excellence of his letters, on the "erudition and beauty of their composition, not to mention the wisdom they contain" (81). His second letter collection illuminates much about his opinions concerning both Henry II and Becket, and clearly John doesn't exonerate either from the vice of immoderation.

In the end, Nederman concludes that whether one considers John's major treatises or his letter collection, his thought possessed an intellectual unity, (86) in so far as he believed philosophy demanded action and experience to be scientia. "The life of the mind and the life of action were of a piece for John of Salisbury" (86).

Nederman brings current the modern bibliography about John of Salisbury; he does not reproduce the comprehensive bibliography in David Luscombe's World of John of Salisbury but continues it with works from 1983-2004, supplementing it with some works not mentioned in Luscombe's volume. It is truly unfortunate that somehow the index printed incorrect pagination for many, if not most, of the citations. For example, only one out of nine page citations for "New Academy" was correct. Many of the pages indicated for Cicero are also off by at least a page or two. It was perhaps a case of an older file erroneously printed with the final pagination of the proof, but it is too bad precisely because this volume is so very useful as a reference as well as an essay. Corrections in a subsequent edition--and this is a book which should be reprinted for its wealth of mature reflections on John of Salisbury--could easily remedy the problem. It will be useful to experts, to graduate and undergraduate students alike. Every academic library should own it. Every humanist will enjoy it.


1. Gerald G. Walsh, Medieval Humanism (New York: Macmillan Co., 1942), 1.

2. Roger Ray, "Rhetorical skepticism and Verisimilar Narrative in John of Salisbury's Historia Pontificalis," in Classical Rhetoric and Medieval Historiography, ed. Ernst Breisuch (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), 77.

Article Details

Author Biography

Janet T. Sorrentino

Washington College