Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi


  • David SalomoniEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_686-1


In the transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern era, the formal structure of the seven disciplines of the Liberal Arts, inherited from late Roman antiquity, remained unchanged; nevertheless, it underwent substantial alterations in terms of the content. Especially with regard to the Trivium, which aimed to provide students with a full set of language skills, the Renaissance saw the attention of educators moving away from medieval manuals to the works of the ancient authors and a general rebalancing of the importance of the three subjects which made up the Trivium – grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric – in favor of grammar. The Renaissance Trivium was not intended merely to enable students to acquire the linguistic knowledge required to pass on to the study of theology, as in the Middle Ages, but became the main vehicle for educating the individual to virtue and action in the world.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Trivium compressed the three Liberal Arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. This division is due to Martianus Capella, a late Latin philosopher (fourth to fifth century ad), who was responsible, among other things, for a classification of all human knowledge. We can find the first representation of the Liberal Arts in Martianus’s Satyricon (410). Before him St. Augustine had tried to provide an organization for the Liberal Arts in his works De ordine, De doctrina Christiana, and De musica. In these treatises, Augustine attempted to show that the Liberal Arts correspond to mankind’s need for natural knowledge, preparing the way to knowledge of God (Black 2001).

Another author who made a fundamental contribution to the structure of Liberal Arts was Cassiodorus. His works De institutione divinarum litterarum et De artibus et disciplinis liberalium litterarum defined the curriculum that became the norm during the Middle Ages. Cassiodorus also inspired the philosophical school of York, where intellectuals such as the Venerable Bede and Alcuin lived and worked. Alcuin revived Augustine’s notion that the Trivium and the Quadrivium were propaedeutic to the study of theology. After Alcuin, the Trivium and the Quadrivium determined the practice of medieval teaching. Among the disciplines of medieval Trivium, dialectic played the dominant role, because it was identified with philosophy itself. Although the formal structure of the Trivium remained unchanged, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance brought substantial innovation.

Even during the Renaissance, the seven Liberal Arts preserved the traditional division between the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium, however, was reinterpreted in order to respond to the new cultural needs of the time. What disappeared, for example, was the combination of grammar and dialectic, which, in the past, had served to provide a solid foundation for theology. It was replaced by a return to the combination of grammar and rhetoric, in line with the interpretation of Quintilian, whose Institutio oratoria was recovered in the 1420s. Grammar, during the Renaissance, performed new functions which made it the base discipline for all linguistic subjects. Dialectic, on the other hand, was restored to the role it had played in late ancient times, that is, in the field of eloquence and elegant speech. Taken together, the three disciplines of the Trivium in the fifteenth century were reconfigured by taking a direct and systematic approach to the auctores – the most important classical authors for education – while completely excluding medieval summae and making only limited use of manuals (Grendler 1989, 2002).

In the new Renaissance conception, grammar was needed to achieve several ends. Among these were how to explain and interpret words, investigate and expound poetry, and learn history. The Renaissance’s finest educators, such as Vittorino da Feltre and Guarino da Verona, adhered strictly to the guidance of Quintilian in his Institutio oratoria. They divided the teaching of grammar into two key stages: the learning of language for the purpose of explaining and interpreting words and the analysis and explanation of authors, in relation to the study of poets and the learning of history. The first language to be taught was Latin, to which some masters, like Vittorino, added Greek (Huntsman 1983).

In the teaching of Latin grammar, we can clearly see the elements of continuity and rupture between the medieval Trivium and the new Renaissance model. The basics of grammar were still generally learned from Priscian’s Institutiones, as in the Middle Ages. This work, however, was supplemented in the Renaissance by Diomedes, Ars grammatica, and Nonius Marcellus, De compendiosa doctrina. Using these manuals, teachers often addressed issues such as morphology, phonetics, syntax, and accentuation. For the study of lexicography, Renaissance teachers used the ancient encyclopedic authors, especially Pliny the Elder, Marcus Varro, Marcus Cato, and Cornelius Celsus.

For the teaching of Greek grammar, the Renaissance Trivium adopted the Erotemata, in the version by the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, which was revised, abridged, and translated into Latin by Guarino da Verona. This primer was, in some rare cases, supported and supplemented by the work of Polybius of Sardis, De barbarismo et solecismo, a copy of which, for example, was owned by Vittorino da Feltre for his pupils, as the catalogue of his books shows, while for etymological and lexicographical issues the massive Byzantine encyclopedia entitled the Suda could be used (Botley 2010).

In the Renaissance Trivium, although the use of manuals was very reduced in comparison to the Middle Ages, textbooks, with their regulae and exempla, nevertheless remained an essential tool, a fundamental prerequisite to achieving linguistic competence. In the study of Greek and Latin, however, the Renaissance Trivium added an empirical approach in which they were treated as living languages. The first step was for teachers to introduce their students to relatively easy poetry, usually from Homer and Virgil. The next step was learning excerpts from authors of increasing difficulty, usually the letters of Cicero and the speeches of Demosthenes, analyzing the words (verba) and defining the meaning and construction of each of them, in order to advance to the second phase: exposition. Once the students were able to recite Homer, Virgil, and Cicero by heart, the first part of learning of grammar was concluded, since this showed that they had acquired both the theory and the technique of grammatical analysis (Black 2007).

Subsequently the approach became less technical and more hermeneutic. The reading of auctores aimed to provide students with the life lessons handed down by these authors, in line again with the advice of Quintilian, for whom grammar was not confined to a sterile set of language skills but had to lead to sapientia (“wisdom”). The study and reading of ancient historians was particularly important. In a sense, in the Renaissance Trivium, the study of history took place within the learning of grammar. The reason, according to some important Renaissance educators, was that, from both a technical and a pedagogical point of view, while philosophy, poetry, and history were similar in content, history was closer to the realities of life and was therefore better able to attract the attention of young people. In addition, the use of history textbooks enabled students to complete their education in the grammatical rules of prose (Woodward 1996).

The Latin historians studied within the grammar curriculum were generally Livy (Historiarum Romanarum decades III), Sallust (Bellum Catilinae, Bellum Iugurthinum), Julius Caesar (Commentarii de bello Gallico), and Valerius Maximus (Memorabilia). Among those educators who taught also the Greek historians, we find authors such as Plutarch (Parallel Lives), Xenophon (Memorabilia), Thucydides (The History of Peloponnesian War), and Arrian (The Anabasis of Alexander) (Woodward 2013).

After the historians, the teaching of grammar in the Trivium included a section on poetry. Again, the initial aim was to complete the students’ skills in grammar, metrics, and style; only afterwards did the focus move to the content of poetry. In this way, they came into contact with the ideas of the ancients, learning to embrace virtue and reject vice. Among the Latin works studied were Virgil’s Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, Horace’s Satires and Odes, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Tristia.

Other poetical works in the Renaissance Latin grammar curriculum are Lucan’s Pharsalia, the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and the Satires of Persius and Juvenal. The Greek part of the poetic curriculum usually included Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables in verse, the comedies of Aristophanes, and Theocritus’s Eidyllia for older pupils. Among other authors we find Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Hesiod. The teachers, in their lessons, were not confined to expounding these authors but often urged students to practice the ars poetica themselves, that is, to engage in imitative composition.

Within the program of the Trivium, the next subject to be taught was dialectic. The purpose of this course was the formation of Quintilian’s ideal orator (“vir bonus dicendi peritus”), a man who combines eloquence and moral perfection. In this field as well, the Renaissance Trivium followed the guidelines set out by Quintilian, who assigned greater importance to ethics, that is, the transmission of the contents and ideas of texts, than to aesthetics. It was widely thought, moreover, that dialectic was a science that related to the realm of opinio (“opinion”) and not of veritas (“truth”) and that it made itself explicit, above all, through elocutio (“expression through words”).

Some educators defined dialectic according to two interpretative keys: a rational science of discourse and the interpreter and guide of all the arts. From this point of view, therefore, emerges a full recovery of Aristotelian concepts, confirmed by the works that we find widespread for this teaching: the entire Aristotle’s Organon (in particular, the Analytics and Topics) and Boethius’s De hypotheticis syllogismis, which is a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories (Stump 1983).

Regarding educational practice, we know that instruction in dialectic was divided into two essential parts: the first was dedicated to the reading of texts and the explanation of rules, while the second was dedicated to the discussion and practice of syllogisms. The dialectical syllogism for many Renaissance masters was equivalent to the Aristotelian syllogism, that is, a rational argument aimed at persuasion but unsuitable to demonstrating the truth in an absolute sense. Overall, the lessons in dialectic were more practical than theoretical because teachers wanted their students to acquire three basic language skills: the ability to define the subject, the ability to distinguish between genres, and the ability to draw conclusions from a speech. Once these objectives had been achieved, the student could go on to the rhetoric course (Eisenbichler and Terpstra 2008).

The teaching of rhetoric in Renaissance schools and colleges began with the reading of treatises (lectura), followed by exercises in the translation and imitation of the main classical authors (auctores). The most important Latin author was Cicero, especially the Philippics, along with his letters and treatises. For the Greek language, the key authors were Demosthenes and Isocrates. Both in Greek and Latin, however, the aim of the masters was to teach schoolchildren to write in a concise and clear style, without bombast. Once they had acquired the basics of the discipline, students had to prepare a speech to declaim in front of their classmates, as had been the custom in ancient schools of rhetoric. The study of rhetoric was thus finalized by practical and professional activities, using all the language resources which the students now possessed.

With rhetoric, studies of the Trivium, designed to provide a full linguistic education, were completed. The acquisition of this expertise gave students access to the next stage of their education, the Quadrivium, the part of the humanist curriculum covering arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (Camargo 1983).

This, then, was the general conception of the Trivium promoted by fifteenth-century educators such as Vittorino and Guarino. After the Council of Trent, moreover, the leading pedagogues of the Counter-Reformation, especially the Jesuits, took over the Renaissance rethinking of the Trivium and the Liberal Arts. Their “educational ideal was clearly humanistic … in line with the civic orientation of Renaissance humanism” (Casalini and Pavur 2016). The Jesuits brought this reformulation of the Trivium into the colleges that they established at the four corners of the world, alongside their work of evangelization.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationUniversità degli Studi Roma TreRomeItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jill Kraye
    • 1