Medieval Education: Brief Overview, Readings and Discussion Questions

Basic Pattern of 12th century and following:

Medieval scribe illustration

The Seven Liberal Arts

Trivium ("The Three Roads")--"The power of language"

  1. Grammar--basic structure and mechanics of language; often subdivided into:
    a) prose, 
    b) meter, 
    c) rhythm, 
    d) poetry
  2. Logic (Dialectic)--argumentation, analysis of ideas and thought, public debate
  3. Rhetoric--persuasive speaking, literary writing, formal speech; often subdivided into:
    a) arrangement, 
    b) delivery, 
    c) invention--development of ideas
    d) style,
    e) memory-summary and mnemonic devices

Quadrivium ("The Four Roads")--"The secrets of nature"

  1. Arithmetic--"number in itself"
  2. Geometry--"number in space"
  3. Music--"number in time"--particularly the study of harmonics
  4. Astronomy--"number in space and time"--including the music of the spheres

"Higher Studies"

  • Theology
  • Philosophy
  • Medicine (University of Salerno)
  • Jurisprudence--Canon & Civil Law (University of Bologna)

Other forms of practical education:

The Seven Mechanical Arts: weaving, blacksmithing, war, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine--later dancing, wrestling, and driving. 

The Seven Knightly Arts: riding, tilting, fencing, wrestling, running, leaping, and spear-throwing


"On Study and Teaching" from Hugh of St. Victor (MR 573-590)

  1. How does Hugh line out the differences between ability and motivation in education?
  2. How important to Hugh is a particular order of learning? Do you agree with him?
  3. What are some of the observations he makes concerning reading, especially narration and exposition (letter, sense, conception)? Do they seem sensible to you?
  4. How does Hugh conceive of meditation?
  5. What kind of character is necessary for true learning? What could students today learn from him on this issue?
  6. Compare Hugh's view of learning from the ancients with Walter Map's (MR 602-604)
  7. Why are quietness, diligence, and frugality necessary to education? Do you agree?
  8. What does Hugh think the value of foreign study is? Again, agree or disagree?
Charles V manuscript

"Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of the abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the whole progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

"But if we please to visit the heavenly inhabitants, Taurus, Caucasus, and Olympus are at hand, from which we pass beyond the realms of Juno and mark out the territories of the seven planets by lines and circles. And finally we traverse the loftiest firmament of all, adorned with signs, degrees, and figures in the utmost variety. There we inspect the antarctic pole, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard; we admire the luminous Milky Way and the Zodiac, marvellously and delightfully pictured with celestial animals. Thence by books we pass on to separate substances, that the intellect may greet kindred intelligences, and with the mind's eye may discern the First Cause of all things and the Unmoved Mover of infinite virtue, and may immerse itself in love without end. See how with the aid of books we attain the reward of our beatitude, while we are yet sojourners below.

--Richard de Bury(1281-1345), The Love of Books

"The Problems of a Christian Humanist" from John of Salisbury (MR 598-602)

  1. Why are many teachers of philosophy useless in Salisbury's mind?
  2. Why are both overspecialization and overgeneralization faults in education?
  3. Why does he recommend the study of (classic) writers?
  4. What other advice does he give concerning the study, content, and attitude towards reading? What can we learn from him?

"A Plea for the Study of Languages" from Roger Bacon (MR 604-608)

  1. Why is it difficult to translate from one language to another?
  2. What other reasons does Bacon give for understanding Greek and Hebrew in particular?
  3. Why is it necessary to have scholars who can speak other modern languages, too?