Published Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2006


Given his reputation as the most learned and literate man of his time, it is remarkable that John of Salisbury (ca.1120-1180) is not better known to the Western world. Granting the general “obscurity” of the Middle Ages, it remains odd that the man uniformly recognized as the “finest flower” of the twelfth-century renaissance has not attracted greater attention. What makes this state of affairs doubly ironic is that John is among the most readable of medieval authors. By common consent, he was a stylist of the first order, and as a humanist he speaks in a language intelligible to the modern reader. Indeed, it is difficult to identify another writer between Augustine and Chaucer with a greater appeal to modern sensibility than the Sage of Salisbury.

Perhaps the root cause of the general neglect of John is the failure of modern scholarship to make his principal work, the Policraticus, readily available to teachers, students, and the reading public. To this day there is no complete English translation of the Latin original. This peculiarity is echoed in the relative dearth of studies devoted to John. There has been only one biography to date, and that was published over seventy-five years ago. The only other full-length study is over a half-century old. Beyond these works (and a compilation of papers published in the mid-1980s), the last century of scholarship has produced a mere two dozen articles and essays, many published in specialized journals. Indeed, had it not been for Cary Nederman, who has almost single-handedly sustained Salisburian scholarship for the last twenty years, it is certain that John would have fallen into even greater obscurity.

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