The trivium is implicit in the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii ("On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury"), by Martianus Capella, although the term was not used until the Carolingian Renaissance, when the term was coined, in imitation of the earlier quadrivium. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were essential to a classical education, as explained in Plato's dialogues. Together, the three subjects were included to and denoted by the word "trivium" during the Middle Ages, but the tradition of first learning those three subjects was established in ancient Greece. Contemporary iterations have taken various forms, including those found in certain British and American universities (some being part of the Classical education movement).
Etymologically, the Latin word trivium means "the place where three roads meet" (tri + via); hence, the subjects of the trivium are the foundation for the quadrivium, the upper division of the medieval education in the liberal arts, which comprised arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time). Educationally, the trivium and the quadrivium imparted to the student the seven liberal arts of classical antiquity.
Grammar teaches the mechanics of language to the student. This is the step where the student "comes to terms", i.e. defining the objects and information perceived by the five senses. Hence, the Law of Identity: a tree is a tree, and not a cat.
Logic (also dialectic) is the "mechanics" of thought and of analysis; the process of identifying fallacious arguments and statements, and so systematically removing contradictions, thereby producing factual knowledge that can be trusted.
Rhetoric is the application of language in order to instruct and to persuade the listener and the reader. It is the knowledge (grammar) now understood (logic) being transmitted outwards, as wisdom (rhetoric).
In The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (2002), Sister Miriam Joseph thus described the Trivium:
Grammar is the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; logic is the art of thinking; and rhetoric is the art of communicating thought from one mind to another; the adaptation of language to circumstance.
. . .Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized. Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known. Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated.
In the Dictionary of Word Origins (1990), John Ayto said that study of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) was requisite preparation for study of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). For the medieval student, the trivium was the curricular beginning of the acquisition of the seven liberal arts; as such, it was the principal undergraduate course of study. From that contrast, between the simpler trivium and the difficult quadrivium, arose the word trivial.
- C.T. Onions, ed. (1991). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. p. 944.
- 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. 18–9.
- Joseph, Sister Miriam (2002). "1 The Liberal Arts". The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Paul Dry Books, Inc. pp. 3 and 9.
- Ayto, John (1990). Dictionary of Word Origins. University of Texas Press. p. 542. ISBN 1-55970-214-1.
- McLuhan, Marshall (2006) The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time (McLuhan's 1942 doctoral dissertation); Gingko Press ISBN 1-58423-067-3.
- Robinson, Martin. (2013) Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons From the Past London: Independent Thinking Press. ISBN 978-178135054-6
- Sayers, Dorothy L., (1947) "The Lost Tools of Learning", an essay presented at Oxford University.
- Winterer, Caroline. (2002) The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910 Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.