John of Salisbury and the ‘hermaphrodite’ courtier


Figure 1: New York, The Morgan Library and Museum, MS 456, fol. 5r (detail) via ARTH_214images/Manuscripts/15_century/Chris_Front/ Body_Pol_avis_roi.jpg. Public domain. For discussion, see Sherman 1995, 216-217.

Having posted on Kantorowicz’ King’s two bodies ( reminds me of John of Salisbury and his Policraticus, an important medieval source for the ‘body politic’ Kantorowicz was so interested in. This body is a figure found frequently in political theory from Aristotle to modern times. A mid-fourteenth century copy of the Avis au roys contains a rare visualisation of the ‘body politic’ (Fig. 1; see Sherman 1995, 216-217). It is an idealized nude male body, with the head labelled as the king, the hands as the knights and so on. This body, whether represented visually or textually, is always male (to my knowledge at least), but the Policraticus happens to contain not only an elaborate theory of the body politic, but also a famous passage on hermaphrodites – or rather, the courtier as hermaphrodite. We are still in the ‘political’ sphere in the sense that John, drawing on Ovid, compares the court to the fountain of Salmacis and the courtier to the Hermaphrodite. This is partly a critique of the court, but more specifically of the courtier as someone who tries to be both a courtier and a philosopher – a task, the text implies, that is bound to fail. So John of Salisbury plays both with the sexually charged image of the hermaphrodite in the Ovidian tradition and the doulbe-sexed body as something almost impossible.


English (tr. Nederman 1990, 90–91):

For this reason, the court has been compared to the infamous fountain of Salmacis, which is notorious for weakening virility. For, as the story is told, its waters are beautiful to sight, sweet to taste, agreeable to touch, and most pleasant to all the experiences of the senses. But those who enter it are enervated to such a degree of weakness that like effeminate men they are deprived of the nobler sex; and none stepped out from it other than those who were stunned and distressed to be changed into women. For either their sex, vanishing entirely, had degenerated into the inferior gender or they retained enough of the vestiges of their former dignity to assume the identity of an hermaphrodite, who, by a sort of foolish error of nature, exhibits the likeness of both sexes, yet retains the true quality of neither of them.

This obscure poetic fiction represents the likeness of the frivolties of the courtiers, which weaken men by the debasement of their virility or pervert a retained likenes of virility. He who engages in the trigles of the courtier and undertakes the obligations  of the philosopher or the good man is an hermaphrodite, whose harsh and prickly face disfigures the beauty of women and who pollutes and dishonours virility with effeminacy. For indeed the philosopher-courtier is a monstrous thing; and, while he affects to be both, he is neither on because the court excludes philosophy and the philosopher at no time engages in the trigles of the courtier.

The Latin text (ed. Webb, 329-330):


Charles V of France as depicted in a French translation (by Denis Foulechat) of the Policraticus. Paris, BnF, ms fr. 24287, fol. 1r (detail) via Public domain.

Unde eleganter fons Salmacis infamia mollitiei insignis eidem comparatur. Ut enim in fabulis est, unda illius aspectu decora est, gustu dulcis, suavis tactu et omnium sensuum usu gratissima, sed tanta mollitie ingredientes eneruat ut viris effeminatis nobiliorem adimat sexum ; nec ante quisquam egreditur quam stupeat et doleat se mutatum esse in feminam. Aut enim cedens omnino sexus in deteriorem degenerat aut veteris dignitatis aliquo manente vestigio hermafroditum induit, qui quodam delinquentis a naturae ludibrio sic utriusque sexus ostentat imaginem ut neutrius retineat veritatem.

Hac autem poetici nube figmenti nugarum curialium repraesentatur imago, quae viros abiecta virtute emolliunt aut imagine retenta pervertunt. Qui curialium ineptias induit et philosophi vel boni viri
officium pollicetur, hermafroditus est, qui duro vuultu et hispido muhebrem deturpat venustatem et virum muliebribus polluit et incestat. Res siquidem monstruosa est philosophus curialis; et, dum utrumque esse affectat, neutrum est, eo quod euria philosophiam excludit et ineptias curiales philosophus usquequaque non recipit.

Primary sources

Ioannis Saresberiensis episcopi Carnotensis Policratici libri viii, ed. Clement Charles and Julian Webb, 2 vols., Oxford 1909. []

John of Salisbury, Policraticus. Of the frivolities of courtiers and the footprints of philosophers, ed. and tr. Cary J. Nederman, Cambridge 1990.

Secondary literature

Claire Richter Sherman, Imaging Aristotle. Verbal and Visual Representation in Fourteenth-Century France, Berkeley, Cal. 1995.


Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker (2. August 2016). John of Salisbury and the ‘hermaphrodite’ courtier. Männlich-weiblich-zwischen. Abgerufen am 21. Juli 2024 von

Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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