Trivium (education)

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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. 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.



Grammar is the mechanics of a language; 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:

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

Another description is:

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

The study of logic, grammar 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]


Further reading

  • Winterer, Caroline. "The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910." Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers, essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning", presented at Oxford, 1947.
  • 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.

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