Also known as 'John Parvus' or 'John the Short' and sometimes 'Johannes de Saresberia'
Philosopher, historian, churchman, and scholar
Born c 1115 Died 1180

A medieval ecclesiast who served as secretary to Thomas Becket and who wrote what is arguably the first handbook of political science.


Almost nothing is known of his early life other than he was born somewhere near the town of Salisbury sometime around the year 1115.

But in the year 1136 he certainly went to France and studied in Paris under Peter Abelard at his school in Mont St. Genevieve. In 1138 he continued his studies with Theoderic of Chartres at his school, naturally in Chartres, before returning to Paris in 1140 to complete his studies under such people as Gilbert de La Porrée, Robert Pullus and Simon of Poissy until the year 1145. All of which amounted to a solid and thorough education in medieval theology and philosophy.

In 1148 he was at the monastery of Moutiers la Celle in the diocese of Troyes in France and attended the Council of Reims, presided over by Pope Eugenius III. He left there to serve a few years at the Papal Court in Rome, before returning to England in 1150 to take up the post of private secretary to Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He acted as private secretary to Theobald for several years but his duties cannot have been too exacting as he found time to complete what are regarded as his two principal works, the Policraticus and the Metalogicus.

In 1161 Theobald died, but John continued to act as private secretary to his successor in the post of archbishop, the much better known Thomas Becket. He therefore followed Thomas Becket into exile in 1163 when the latter's dispute with Henry II over the Constitutions of Clarendon escalated into open confrontation.

John spent the next six years at Reims in France where his friend Peter of La Celle was abbot of the monastery of St. Remigius and where he wrote the Historia Pontificalis. He returned to England with Becket in 1170, and was witness to Becket's assassination on the 29th December at Canterbury Cathedral.

John subsequently wrote a brief life of Becket and in 1174 he became treasurer of Exeter cathedral but in 1176 returned to France to take up an appointment as Bishop of Chartres. In his capacity as bishop he attended the Third Lateran Council in 1179 but died the following year and was buried at the monastery of St. Josaphat, near Chartres.

The Polycraticus or The Statesman’s Book

The Polycraticus is a treatise on the principles of government, in which John constructed an elaborate analogy, where each component part of society corresponded to a particular body part, with the prince or ruler being naturally the head. Whilst this concept might seem commonplace to a modern audience it was apparently an innovative concept in the twelfth century and John of Salisbury was therefore quite probably the very first to ever use the term 'body politic'.

The Polycraticus is also notable because of the doctrine advanced of the dual nature of authority over the individual, that of the temporal and the spiritual which, it has been argued is the first glimerings of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. Hence John is sometimes credited as the father of modern political science.



From articles on John of Salisbury;

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia at
  • The ClassicalFree Virtual Academy at

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