The image of an executioner: princes and decapitations in John of Salisbury's Policraticus.

Author:Ristuccia, Nathan J.
  1. A Medieval Humanist

    John of Salisbury's eclectic compendium of moral philosophy, personal reflection, court satire, and exegesis, the Policraticus, is a staple text in the history of European political thought. (1) Completed in 1159, it is the first treatise of political theory since antiquity and a work praised for its balance, reasonableness, classicism, and moderation. (2) John, after all, defends liberty and a commonwealth based on the rule of law, even justifying the assassination of a lawless ruler. (3) And John's style is crisp and playful, with none of the turgidity so often associated with scholastic theologians.

    Contemporary scholars have repeatedly exalted John as a learned humanist. (4) For instance, Cary Nederman, John's foremost biographer, calls him "the quintessential figure of twelfth-century humanism," whose professed loyalties to "the moderate skepticism of the New Academy" "restrained him from any form of fanaticism." (5) Likewise, Christopher Brooke, one of John's editors, notes that those who read John find it "impossible to believe that he has been parted from us for so long," for John speaks in a "familiar voice" with "cosmopolitan flavour," filled with "respect and sympathy for almost all." (6) Medievalist Sigbjorn Sonnesyn describes John's "anticipation of distinctly modern ideas" such as his "doctrine of moderation" and his "preoccupation with liberty." (7) Historian Walter Ullmann mentions "the fastidious elegance of John's style, the comprehensiveness and logical consistency of the thoughts ... his dispassionate approach ... [and] high moral sense." (8) In the words of political theorist Quentin Taylor, John is "the most readable of medieval authors ... as a humanist he speaks in a language intelligible to modern readers ... remarkably progressive" (emphasis original). (9) At times, hearing John's acclaim, one cannot help imagining that the Englishman walked out of an Anthony Trollope novel--a stiff-upper-lipped vicar with a cup of tea in one hand and a Tory pamphlet in the other.

    John was more than a humanist, though; John was also a thinker fascinated with public execution, as this article depicts. What explains the tension between these two sides of his thought? Admittedly, "humanist" is an ambiguous word, especially when prefaced by "medieval." Sir Richard Southern famously defined medieval humanism as the belief in human dignity, the dignity of nature, and an orderly universe accessible to reason. (10) By that standard, John of Salisbury was a humanist. He accepted all three, at least in attenuated forms. Indeed, Southern cited John as a representative figure of medieval humanism. John was also a humanist in the literary sense of an author who studied Roman literature and the trivium and who imitated classical style. Yet, John's humanism does not guarantee that his political ideas strike modern sensibilities as familiar, sympathetic, non-fanatic, or even attractive. John could be a humanist as Thomas More was when he applauded the burning of several Lutherans or as Erasmus was when he commended the massacre of rebel German peasants. A close reading of the Policraticus reveals that John's humanism functions alongside and in harmony with a pessimistic political theology: his concept of the prince-headsman.

    John's pessimism matched his personal and intellectual context; it fit well with his humanism. For, as medievalist Stephen Jaeger has noted, twelfth-century "humanist masters" such as John often exude "melancholy world-weariness" and a sense that "a culture they admired ... [was] threatened, indeed, overwhelmed by a new culture that appeared to them shallow, corrupting, vulgar"; Jaeger describes John's writings as "a conservative, rearguard action." (11) Because of his Augustinianism and Platonic skepticism, John doubted that laws, reason, or public institutions could control human sinfulness without the support of exemplary violence. (12) Reason is limited; humans sinful; laws and institutions fragile. In times of emergency, power in this world must depend instead on violence, ostracism, and decapitation. John portrays public execution as the central ritual of monarchical rule; it serves as much to persuade spectators as to coerce criminals. (13) His fascination with execution shapes arguments in the Policraticus about public offices, civil law, mass spectacle, and tyrannicide. In John's pessimistic vision, the prince is, at bottom, "the image of an executioner," who must dwell beyond the boundaries of ordinary society and its laws in order to preserve the commonwealth from self-destruction. (14) Without the shedding of blood, there is no body politic.

  2. The Office of a Prince

    A reader who has only perused extracts from the Policraticus can understandably misinterpret John as an archmonarchist. Certain passages in John's treatise display an extraordinary reverence for the prince. At times, his language points forward to the divine-right monarchy of early modern theorists like Jacques-Benigne Bossuet or Robert Filmer. The king is, for John, the divinely appointed head over the body politic, an "image of divinity," protected with terrifying punishments against Vese majeste. (15) Nonetheless, this depiction of the prince as god-on-earth has a limited place in the Policraticus, restricted to a few excerpts where this language illuminates John's larger concept of the body politic. The dominant picture of the prince in John's treatise is less glorious--not a god, but an executioner.

    John of Salisbury repeatedly describes the prince as an executioner (carnifex). He begins the Policraticus, for instance, by satirizing the aristocratic pastime of hunting. John mocks nobles for considering this "art of execution" worthy of comparison with a liberal education. (16) Evidently, John perceived similarities between hunting and execution. In Latin, uenatio can mean both hunting animals and fighting beasts in the arena: a normal method of execution in Rome. (17) Moreover, hunting and execution were both elite spectacles that the political leaders performed--in the arena, on the scaffold, or in restricted royal forests--before the eyes of a non-participating population.

    For John, the hunter--like the executioner--is a liminal figure, who serves a useful, though distasteful, role. According to John, in a just commonwealth, only a small marginal group would hunt, for "the pagan political philosophers fashioned justice by requiring that each person be content with his own office, and so they shut hunters off from nobles and city-dwellers." (18) John scorns the Thebans--who supposedly required that all their citizens hunt--as a "polluted race" (gens foeda), which wallowed in the asocial sins of parricide, incest, and oath-breaking. (19) The Thebans, thus, were uncivilized in the pure sense--feral and alien from civic behavior. According to John, kings, popes, nobles, and hunters have different offices in the body politic; only a foolish prince would ever "usurp the hunter's task of executing." (20) No wonder that Nimrod the mighty hunter "learned contempt for God through the slaughter of animals" and then set himself up as the world's first tyrant over Babel--the archetype for the depraved city of man. (21)

    By associating hunting and execution, John plays on an ambiguity in Latin. In Medieval Latin, carrtifex--etymologically a "meat-maker"--denotes either a butcher or an executioner; in Classical Latin, though, the word always means "executioner." (22) Since John was well-read in Roman literature and classical florilegia, he would have known this distinction. (23) The Latin Vulgate, for example, employs carnifex only once, while depicting how the tyrannical Hellenistic king Antiochus IV slew the Maccabean Martyrs. (24) In the Policraticus, carnifex translates as "executioner," for John frequently portrays the prince putting criminals to death, as discussed below. But the double meaning lingered.

    This opening section of the Policraticus links execution not with princes, but with tyrants like Nimrod: for John, the opposite of law-abiding princes. This usage parallels sections in other works by John. In his didactic poem, the Entheticus Maior, for instance, John refers to the tyrannical king Stephen of Blois and his son Eustace--both dead at the time of writing--as "executioners" (carnifices) and the corrupt royal court as a "place of execution" (carnificina). (25) In two of his letters, likewise, John speaks of "the execution grounds of tyrants" (carnificinas tirannorum), contrasting such killings with the proper use of the sword by the prince and his magistrates. (26) Elsewhere in the Policraticus, though, John ties the executioner to the prince. John saves his adulation for the pope, not the prince. The pope, John emphasizes, should have nothing to do with bloodshed and is not an executioner. At various places in his treatise, John worries lest a usurping pope eventually drag the papacy down to the level of a headsman. (27) But, for John, the distinction between tyrants and temporal princes is not that one is an executioner and the other not, but that one kills illegally and the other in accordance with the law.

    Early in Book 4, for instance, in a section contrasting the prince and the tyrant, John describes the prince as an inferior minister, who "receives a sword from the church" in order to "coerce bodies" on behalf of the priesthood. (28) A good Gelasianist, John distinguishes between royal power and priestly authority. The "pious office" of the prince is "exercised in the punishment of crimes and represented in the image of an executioner." (29) Indeed, according to John, the ritual of public execution is only possible due to the will of God. Why else, at the block, would men willingly "offer up their neck" to the prince to be cut off? (30) Reason alone cannot justify such fearsome majesty. But as "the public power," the prince receives from God an "abundance of miraculous...

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