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The Medieval Trivium

by Tamara Mazzei

In the Middle Ages, a good university education included what were known as the Seven Liberal Arts, parts of which were adopted from ancient Greece. These were divided into the trivium (Latin - the three roads) and the quadrivium.

The trivium, said by John of Salisbury (in Metalogicon) to concern "the power of language," referred to the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (dialectic). The quadrivium, on the other hand, which referred to the study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, concerned "the secrets of nature."

The arts of the trivium were considered a necessary base for mastering the arts of the quadrivium. It is worth noting that the arts of the trivium were more significant than merely learning to speak well and to use proper syntax, as the modern usage of the words might imply.

For example, the study of grammar, the most frequently taught because it was considered the most important, was subdivided into several areas: prose, meter, rhythm, and poetry. It entailed learning to create meaning from words, in addition to learning to use them properly. It was, in essence, very similar to what we think of today as the study of literature. Grammar was thought to give students a deeper understanding of the meaning of language and a greater ability to discern complex concepts as used in poetry and scripture.

Modern references to the medieval trivium often substitute the word "logic" for dialectic. In reality, though these words are interrelated, in this context they do not mean precisely the same thing. Dialectic is a form of reasoning that uses dialogue and debate (i.e., an exchange of ideas) to arrive at conclusions or "truths." In the high Middle Ages, as a way of educating their students, university masters would engage in public debates on all manner of things, including theological questions. This practice, which had its origins in the ancient Greece of Aristotle, came to be called Scholasticism and was used by the Church to refute ideas considered heretical by using logic to expose "false" beliefs.

Rhetoric was a system of rules of ways of doing things that governed literary writing and formal speeches (sermons) that applied to both prose and poetry. The study of rhetoric taught students to focus on the style and the elements of discourse. e.g., arrangement, delivery, invention, style, memory. Some scholars also looked at the context of the speech such as whether it was meant for judicial, political or ceremonial purposes.

Rhetoric is frequently divided into the ars dictaminis (how to write letters - the oldest of the three divisions, dating from the eleventh century), the ars praedicandi (the srt of saying things, which is really about how to write a sermon) and the ars grammatica (grammar - which itself has several subcategories).

As the Middle Ages progressed, current knowledge increasingly extended the liberal arts and even fell outside the structure. The liberal arts, therefore, and philosophy as their foundation stone, should be regarded as building blocks, not as the sum of all Medieval learning. They represented the basic rounded education of a person with higher learning.


Chaucer and the Trivium The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales by J. Stephen Russell


University as a Medieval Institution

Medieval Sourcebook: Petrus Paulus Vergerius: The New Education (c. 1400)

Online Reference Book: The Birth of the Universities

What Every Medievalist Should Know: Logic/Dialectic


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