It is a commonplace that medieval education amounted to the teaching of the seven liberal arts, what we call the trivium and quadrivium—grammar, logic (or as it was then called, dialectic), and rhetoric, on the one hand; arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, on the other. But where, exactly, did this classification get codified, and how was it transmitted down through the centuries?
I did not know the answer until I read Charles Homer Haskins’s The Rise of Universities a few weeks ago. Cicero speaks of liberal arts, and Quintilian follows him, but the seven disciplines as we know them did not gain currency until Martianus Capella’s early fifth-century allegory De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury), sometimes also called De septem disciplinis and the Satyricon (not to be confused with Petronius’s). In Capella’s rendering, the seven arts, personified as women, are offered as wedding gifts by the gods at the marriage of Mercury and Philology; each offers a long speech describing her domain of study. (The term quadrivium itself appears to have been coined by Boethius, not Capella, and I’m still not certain about trivium.) The manuscript became a standard medieval textbook; it was copied and commented on straight up until the renaissance of the twelfth century, when the Latin-speaking medieval curriculum at last outgrew these rudiments thanks to an influx of translations of Greek texts—especially Aristotle’s—from Arab scholars in Spain. The images in this post are of a mid-15th century manuscript at the Vatican, with illumination and drawings by the painter Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora. (Some other representations of the seven liberal arts are here.)
And yet, in Capella’s hands, these rudiments are not so rudimentary nor as stale as we may imagine—at least, as I imagined. The portraits of the arts are vivid, modern, and cheeky. There is a strong undercurrent of irony in the understated manner of the best classical dialogues. The gods interrupt; the goddesses fire back. Dialectic snarks that she should be forgiven her neologisms since she is asked to speak in Latin rather than Greek. Bacchus, it is said, is “completely unacquainted” with her. The speeches are longer and richer—both stylistically and substantively—than the spare, plodding, sophistical medieval treatise I expected. The language, as far from the sermo humilis of the Christian church fathers as from the later casuistry of the high scholastics, relishes in ulteriority, taking obvious pleasure in finding the most resonant formulation and in saying many things at once. (My title is a case in point: without Dialectic, we read, “nothing follows”—a tiny phrase bursting its semantic seams, so dense is it with significance. I detect at least three different registers of allegorical reference: the concept of logical consequence, according to which one proposition follows from another; the epistemic primacy of logic as method, the tool of all other forms of inquiry; the historical or developmental primacy of logic, in the life of the student and the school—that which must be learned before the higher arts, and a rite of passage one must clear to prove one’s bona fides.) It is a token of our proximity to this past, rather than our distance from it, that I read and delight in it so easily, and find it more familiar than foreign.
Some of my favorite moments so far, from the speeches by Grammar and Dialectic, in the translation by William Harris Stahl and E. L. Burge (1977):
Once again in this little book the Muse prepares her ornaments and wants to tell fabricated stories at first, remember that utility cannot clothe the naked truth; she regards it as a weakness of the poet to make straightforward and undisguised statements, and she brings a light touch to literary style and adds beauty to a page that is already heavily colored. (p. 64)
[…] an old woman indeed of great charm, who said that she had been born in Memphis when Osiris was still king; when she had been a long time in hiding, she was found and brought up by the Cyllenian [Mercury] himself. This woman claimed that in Attica, where she had lived and prospered for the greater part of her life, she moved about in Greek dress; but because of the Latin gods and the Capitol and the race of Mars and descendants of Venus, according to the custom of Romulus she entered the senate of the gods dressed in a Roman cloak. She carried in her hands a polished box, a fine piece of cabinetmaking, which shone on the outside with light from ivory, from which like a skilled physician the woman took our the emblems of wounds that need to be healed. Out of this book she took first a pruning knife with a shining point, with which she said she could prune the fault of pronunciation in children; then they could be restored to health with a certain black powder carried through reeds, a powder which was thought to be made of ash or the ink of cuttlefish. Then she took out a very sharp medicine which she had made of fennelflower and the clippings from a goat’s back, a medicine of purest red color, which she said should be applied to the throat when it was suffering from a bucolic ignorance and was blowing out the vile breaths of a corrupt pronunciation. She showed too a delicious savory, the work of many late nights and vigils, with which she said the harshness of the most unpleasant voice could be made melodious. She also cleaned the windpipes and the lungs by the application of a medicine in which were observed wax smeared on beechwood and a mixture of gallnuts and gum and rolls of the Nilotic plant [papyrus]. Although this poultice was effective in assisting memory and attention, yet by its nature it kept people awake. She also brought out a file fashioned with great skill, which was divided into eight golden parts joined in different ways, and which darted back and forth—with which by gentle rubbing she gradually cleaned dirty teeth and ailments of the tongue and the filth which had been picked up in the town of Soloe [i.e., solecisms]. (p. 64-66)
This phonetics primer, a sort of proto-IPA, comes to a surprising climax:
We utter A with the mouth open, with a single suitable breath.
We make B by the outburst of breath from closed lips.
C is made by the back teeth brought forward over the back of the tongue.
D is made by bringing the tongue against the top teeth.
E is made by a breath with the tongue a little depressed.
F is made by the teeth pressing on the lower lip.
G, by a breath against the palate.
H is made by an exhalation with the throat a little closed.
I is made by a breath with the teeth kept close together.
K is made with the palate against the top of the throat.
L is a soft sound make with the tongue and the palate.
M is a pressing together of the lips.
N is formed by the contact of the tongue on the teeth.
O is made by a breath with the mouth rounded.
P is a forceful exhalation from the lips.
Q is a contraction of the palate with the mouth half-closed.
R is a rough exhalation with the tongue curled against the roof of the mouth.
S is a hissing sound with the teeth in contact.
T is a blow of the tongue against the teeth.
U is made with the mouth almost closed and the lips forward a little.
X is the sibilant combination of C and S.
Y is a breath with the lips close together.
Z was abhorrent to Appius Claudius, because it resembles in its expression the teeth of a corpse. (p. 75)
While Grammar was saying this, and Jupiter and the Delian were urging her forward, Pallas spoke up: “While Literature here is hurrying on to discuss the connection of syllables, she has passed over the historical aspect.” At this objection by the maiden goddess, Grammar in great agitation answered: “I know I must pass over a great deal, so as not to incur the distaste of the blessed by getting entangled in details. So I shall perform my purpose, hastening along the shortest ways, to avoid getting lost, hidden in thick undergrowth or a dense mass of briars.” (p. 76)
When Grammar had said this as if she were merely introducing her subject, Minerva intervened, because of the boredom that had come upon Jove and the celestial senate, and said: “Unless I am mistaken, you are getting ready to go back to the elements and begin telling us about the eight fundamental parts of speech, adding also the causes of solecisms, the barbarisms, and other faults of speech which celebrated poets have discussed at length; you will also discuss tropes, metaplasms, schemata, figures, and all the faults which flow, as it were, from the fountain of embellishment, illustrating either the misconception of the writer who does not understand them or the labored ornamentation of the pedant. If you bring such matters from the elementary school before the celestial senate, you will nip in the bud the goodwill you have won by this display of knowledge. If you were to take up a discussion of rhythm and meter, as you would venture to do with young pupils, Music would surely tear you apart for usurping her office. The teaching you have given us will be well-proportioned and complete if you keep to your own particular subjects and do not cheapen them by commonplace and elementary instruction.” (p. 105)
Into the assembly of the gods came Dialectic, a woman whose weapons are complex and knotty utterances. Without her, nothing follows, and likewise, nothing stands in opposition. She brought with her the elements of speech; and she had ready the school maxim which reminds us that speech consists in words which are ambiguous, and judges nothing as having a standard meaning unless it be combined with other words. Yet, though Aristotle himself pronounce his twice-five categories, and grow pale as he tortures himself in thought; though the sophisms of the Stoics beset and tease the senses, as they wear on their foreheads the horns they never lost; though Chrysippus heap up and consume his own pile, and Carneades match his mental power through the use of hellebore, no honor so great as this has ever befallen any of these sons of men, nor is it chance that so great an honor has fallen to your lot: it is your right, Dialectic, to speak in the realms of the gods, and to act as teacher in the presence of Jove.
So at the Delian’s summons this woman entered, rather pale but very keen-sighted. Her eyes constantly darted about; her intricate coiffure seemed beautifully curled and bound together, and descending by successive stages [editor: “The Latin here, deducti per quosdam consequentes gradus, applies equally well to a logical argument “deduced through certain successive steps” as to Dialectic’s symbolic hairstyle], it so encompassed the shape of her whole head that you could not have detected anything lacking, nor grasped anything excessive [editor: Remigius remarks that this may refer to the requirements of a good definition […] More probably it simply refers to the rigor and completeness of logical argument]. She was wearing the dress and cloak of Athens, it is true, but what she carried in her hands was unexpected, and had been unknown in all the Greek schools. In her left hand she held a snake twined in immense coils; in her right hand a set of patterns [editor: formulae] carefully inscribed on wax tablets, which were adorned with the beauty of contrasting color, was held on the inside by a hidden hook; but since her left hand kept the crafty device of the snake hidden under her cloak, her right hand was offered to one and all. Then if anyone took one of those patterns, he was soon caught on the hook and dragged toward the poisonous coils of the hidden snake, which presently emerged and after first biting the man relentlessly with the venomous points of its sharp teeth then gripped him in its many coils and compelled him to the intended position. If no one wanted to take any of the patterns, Dialectic confronted them with some questions; or secretly stirred the snake to creep up on them until its tight embrace strangled those who were caught and compelled them to accept the will of their interrogator.
Dialectic herself was compact in body, dark in appearance […] and she kept saying things that the majority could not understand. For she claimed that the universal affirmative was diametrically opposed to the particular negative, but that it was possible for them both to be reversed by connecting ambiguous terms to univocal terms [editor: This sentence remains opaque. […]]; she claimed also that she alone discerned what was true from what was false, as if she spoke with assurance of divine inspiration. She said she had been brought up on an Egyptian crag [editor: The original text may, however, have had urbe [city] instead of rupe [crag].] and then had migrated to Attica to the school of Parmenides, and there, while the slanderous report was spread abroad that she was devoted to deceitful trickery, she had taken to herself the greatness of Socrates and Plato.
This was the woman, well-versed in every deceptive argument and glorifying in her many victories, whom the Cyllenian’s two-fold serpent, rising on his staff, tried to lick at, constantly darting its tongues, while the Tritonian’s [Athena’s] Gorgon hissed the the joy of recognition. Meanwhile Bromius [Bacchus], the wittiest of the gods, who was completely unacquainted with her, said […] (pp. 106-108)
[On the darting eyes, I think immediately of Ayn Rand in this interview with Mike Wallace.]
Pallas ordered Dialectic to hand over those items which she had brought to illustrate her sharpness and her deadly sure assertions, and told her to put on an appearance suitable for imparting her skill. Grammar was standing close by when the introduction was completed; but she was afraid to accept the coils and gaping mouth of the slippery serpent. Together with the enticing patterns and the rules fitted with the hook, they were entrusted to the great goddess who had tamed the locks of Medusa. (p. 109)
For assessing virtue as well as practicing it, Jupiter considered the levity of the Greek inferior to the vigor of Romulus, so he ordered her to unfold her field of knowledge in Latin eloquence. Dialectic did not think she could express herself adequately in Latin; but presently her confidence increased, the movements of her eyes were confined to a slight quivering, and, formidable as she had been even before she uttered a word, she began to speak as follows:
“Unless amid the glories of the Latin tongue the learning and labor of my beloved and famous Varro had come to my aid, I could have been found to be a Greek by the test of Latin speech, or else completely uncultivated or even quite barbarous. Indeed, after the golden flow of Plato and the brilliance of Aristotle it was Marcus Terentius’ labors which first enticed me into Latin speech and made it possible for me to express myself throughout the schools of Ausonia. I shall therefore strive to obey my instructions and, without abandoning the Greek order of discussion, I shall not hesitate to express my propositions in the tongue of Laurentum. First, I want you to realize that the toga-clad Romans have not been able to coin a name for me, and that I am called Dialectic just as in Athens: and whatever the other Arts propound is entirely under my authority. Not even Grammar herself, whom you have just heard and approved, nor the lady renowned for the richness of her eloquence [Rhetoric], nor the one who draws various diagrams on the ground with her rod [Geometry], can unfold her subject without using my reasoning. (p. 110)
You should put up with the strangeness of my language, since you have compelled a Greek to treat the subject in Latin. (p. 111)
While Dialectic was holding forth in this way and getting on to matters as complicated as they were obscure, Maia’s son [Mercury] grew impatient and nodded to Pallas, who cut in: “Madam, you speak with great skill; but now stop your exposition before you get entangled in the complexities of your subkect, and its knotty problems exhaust the goodwill of Hymen. You have said in summary all that is fitting from that which learned discussion ahs contributed for the development of the subject in a large volume. A modest spring from deep learning is sufficient; it brings to light things hidden from sight, and avoids tedious discussion, without passing over anything and leaving it unrecognized. The matters that remain are founded on great deceit, and false deception encompasses those who are caught by them, while you prepare sophisms fraught with guile, or seductively make sport with trickeries from which one cannot get free. And when you gradually build up a sorites, or fashion errors which truth condemns, then your sin, your wicked deed, resounds in the ears of the Thunderer, since the lofty denizens of heaven hate everything false in a woman of shame. If you ponder it, what is more cruel than making sport of people? You have had your say, and you will surely become a disreputable and itinerant charlatan if you go on to build up your snares. Away then with shifty profundity, and leave what time remains to your sisters.” (p. 153)