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Seven Liberal Arts

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Seven liberal arts originated in the Classical world. They were codified as such in late antiquity by writers like Varro and Martianus Capella and became the usual structure of learning in the Middle Ages. Seven liberal arts parted into the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium was the literacy part of the arts, grouping grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Quadrivium was the scientific part, with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Quadrivium worked upon the division of mathematics by the Pythagoreans. Not included in the arts, philosophy came to be considered like the domain which was encompassing all branches of knowledge as it had developed from dialectics. Among the seven liberal arts themselves, a hierarchy appeared as the trivium was considered the lower stage, mathematics the intermediate, and science the uppermost. Such a hierarchy was defining the cursus of studies too, leading pupils from the trivium to science domains. The prioritary place given to philosophy certainly finds its origin about the Greeks where philosophy eventually came to occupy the uppermost place of studies, being the theology of sort of the Greek world. Such a hierarchization of studies enlisting miscellaneous sciences into the service of a higher part of knowledge was too already known about the ancient Hindus. Structuration of a way of learning occurred mainly about the Greeks, which from Pythagoras to Aristotle through the Sophists and Plato, progressively put into practive various curicula, thus somehow devising the domains of what was to become the liberal arts. By the Romans stress was put mainly on sciences of eloquence like grammar and rhetoric as philosophy kept being considered like the ultimate purpose of any education. It seems possible that the term 'liberal' was already used by Antiquity to mean that the domains of knowledge were reserved to free men ('liber' is for 'free' in Latin). This, without doubt, was linked to this idea that the life of any serious Roman patrician had to be parted between 'otium' and 'negotium' only, that is leisure and public affairs, as labour was considered unworthy. Such a view eventually brought in the Middle Ages that a thinker must dedicate himself wholly to theory as thinking had to keep away from any experimentation which was considered to close to the 'mechanical arts.' In the domain of science, that came to give prominence to applied sciences -or even to purely theoretical science- against experimental one

As Christianity gave back to labour a more dignified role, it did not lowered learning however. As far as the hierarchy of knowledge and terms are concerned, the Church kept this idea of liberal arts and of their different stages. Theology was now learning's topmost part as a Christian turn was obviously given to knowledge. 'For what avails a golden key if it cannot give access to the object which we wish to reach,' wrote St. Augustine. The Trivium (grammar, dialectic, rhetoric) now was used for understanding the Holy Scriptures. Mathematics, as far as they were concerned, were the way to have a glimpse into how God had ordered the world. Knowledge accumulated by philosophers of Antiquity was seen like a pre-Christian intuition toward truths of Providence and was now to be used by the Christian society. 'Artes mechanicae,' or the 'mechanical arts,' since the 9th century A.D., were opposed to the liberal arts. That also was done in a devaluating sense. A re-evaluation was to occur beginning in the 12th century A.D.

The 'Satyricon Libri IX' by Marcianus Capella (about 420 AD), the 'De artibus ac disciplinis liberalium artium' by Cassiodorus (about 550 AD) or the 'Origines, sive Etymologiae' by St. Isidore (about 600 AD) were the books were the seven arts content was perpetuated during the early Middle Ages. It seems like it is Boethius who, in the 6th century, used for the first time the term 'quadrivium', and including in it arithmetic, geometry, the astronomy and music. As Cassiodorus and Boethius still had not transformed the liberal arts into a complete codex of knowledge, it is Martianus Capella who did. Martianus Capella had been born in Carthago, Africa as he was living in Rome by the end of the 5th century A.D. He wrote a roman called 'Satyricon,' by which all seven liberal arts are presented like a homogenous and unseparable family. As Mercury had decided to marry with Philology, the latter is brought into escorted by the seven arts (Grammar, Rhetorics, Dialectics, Arithmetics, Geometry, Astronomy and Music). Those each explain then their origin and their object. Albeit suspect as it still was a large reflectance of pagan Antiquity, that book became a basic reference during the Early Middle Ages. Alcuin explicitely refers to the seven liberal arts in the introduction to the treatise to the Trivium: 'Wisdom has built herself a house, she has hewn her out seven pillars.' Alcuin also takes the Academy of Plato in pity as he shows that albeit it knew the seven liberal arts, they had not been still '[knighted] through the teachings of Lord Christ.' Due to the intensive role of Irish monks in Germany, the arts there came to be known as the 'Methodus Hybernica.' The number "seven" was reminding of other Christian features, usual to theologians, which were also going by seven (the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Virtues, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, etc). They came in turn to inspire other features: the seven mechanical arts, the seven accomplishments required from candidates for knighthood, the seven higher sciences of civil and canon law, with the five branches of theology. The seven liberal arts were the training for beginners. From there they could go on further on their own in their study of the world. Liberal arts had become then the complete codex of knowledge. A tendency to encyclopedic knowledge existed at that time already. After the Carolingien times the seven liberal arts continued to be the basis of any studies and were even the source of the medieval universities. It was not until the 16th century A.D., during the Renaissance, that they were replaced in training by eloquence (style) and erudition. Renaissance was coming back to Romans as the seven arts were maybe more related to Greeks

Rabanus Maurus, a scholar who is belonging to the second generation of the Carolingian Renaissance, was the author of the 'De Universo,' a encyclopedic dictionary in 22 books. That work is a display of all the domains in knowledge as it is representing for the Carolingian era what the Etymologies of St Isidore, or the works of the Venerable Bede had been about 600 and 700 A.D. respectively. It shows well further that the antique knowledges either kept passing from generations to generations during those times of the formation of the European synthesis, or that they built upon the same references, by interval, to the works of the Antiquity. One also sees how fundamental Greek works have then been lost in the West, like the maths by Euclides or the scientific approach of Aristoteles

One thing which has to be well present in any study of the culture procedures of the ancient Europe is that the Roman Church played a greater role in society and culture than today. The Church impacted at a high degree nearly all aspects of life. Most of the branches of knowledge were considered in the perspective of how they were useful to Christiandom only. Hence quantitative approaches were no that much frequent and references to ancient data from the Antiquity were another way not to procede with contemporary efforts. Knowledge, in these times and these conditions, was for practical benefits only. How such part of knowledge was useful for the daily needs of the people and how it was useful to understand God, was the sole important thing

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir l'poque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 3/17/2011. contact us at