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In medieval universities, the trivium comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic and rhetoric. The word is a Latin term meaning "the three ways" or "the three roads" forming the foundation of a medieval liberal arts education. This study was preparatory for the quadrivium, which consists of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. Combining the trivium and quadrivium results in the seven liberal arts of classical study. The trivium is implicit in the De nuptiis of Martianus Capella, although the term was not used until the Carolingian era when it was coined in imitation of the earlier quadrivium.[1] It was later systematized in part by Petrus Ramus as an essential part of Ramism. Logic, grammar, and rhetoric were very important for a classical education, as clearly explained in Plato's dialogues. The three together were defined into one word during the Middle Ages but the tradition of learning these three first was well established in ancient Greece.


Grammar is the mechanics of a language (always Latin, at the time); logic (or dialectic) is the "mechanics" of thought and analysis; rhetoric is the use of language to instruct and persuade. Sister Miriam Joseph described the three parts of the Trivium thus:

Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.

Another description is:

Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized,
Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known, and
Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated.[2]

The study of grammar, logic and rhetoric was considered preparatory for the quadrivium, which was made up of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium was the beginning of the liberal arts. At many medieval universities this would have been the principal undergraduate course. However, the contrast between the simpler trivium and more difficult quadrivium gave rise to the word "trivial".[3]

Just as the trivium is designed to precede the quadrivium, the three sectors that make up trivium are listed in a specifically indicated order. The transition from grammar to logic to rhetoric reflects the development of students as their education progresses. Hence, grammar comes first, indicating the fundamental studies of many different basic disciplines. Grammar provides the simplistic symbols necessary to communicate. Logic pertains to the more detailed stage when analytic questions begin to be pondered. Logic pieces together the symbols learned in the grammar stage. Lastly, rhetoric addresses the final culminating stage where the previous knowledge is brought to fruition. Rhetoric takes the comprehensive knowledge attained in the logic stage and manipulates it as a means to an end. The stages interact as they progress, but form a basic timeline of education. [4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henri-Irénée Marrou, "Les arts libéraux dans l'Antiquité classique", pp. 6–27 in Arts libéraux et philosophie au Moyen Âge, (Paris: Vrin / Montréal: Institut d'études médiévales), 1969, pp. 18–19.
  2. ^ Joseph, Sister Miriam (2002). The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Paul Dry Books, Inc. 
  3. ^ Ayto, John (1990). Dictionary of Word Origins. University of Texas Press. p. 542. ISBN 1-55970-214-1. 
  4. ^ Joseph, Sister Miriam (2002). The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Paul Dry Books, Inc. 

Further reading[edit]

  • McLuhan, Marshall (2006) The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (first publication of McLuhan's 1942 doctoral dissertation); Gingko Press ISBN 1-58423-067-3.
  • Robinson, Martin. "Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons From the Past." London: Independent Thinking Press, 2013. ISBN 978-178135054-6
  • Sayers, Dorothy L., essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning", presented at Oxford, 1947.
  • Winterer, Caroline. "The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910." Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

External links[edit]