He was born in Milwaukee and received a BA in Classics from Yale (1981), an MA (1986) and a PhD (1990) in History from the University of Chicago, and an Habilitation à diriger des recherches from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris (2001).
He has taught and lectured in universities in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East and is currently Professor of History at the University of Nantes (France) and director of a major European research program, "RELMIN: The legal status of religious minorities in the Euro-Mediterranean world (5th-15th centuries)".
He works on the history of the rich web of relations in the medieval Mediterranean world, between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
In 2013, he was elected member of the Academia Europaea.
- Petrus Alfonsi and his Medieval Readers (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993)
- Les Relations entre les pays d'Islam et le monde latin du milieu du Xème siècle au milieu du XIIIème siècle (Paris: Bréal, 2000)
- Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)
- Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008)
- Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009; French edition published in Paris: Seuil, 2007).
- "John Tolan's web page".
- His Amazon author's page "John Victor Tolan: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle". Amazon.com. Retrieved October 30, 2012.