The Seven Liberal Arts

copyright © 2002, Nathaniel Lane Taylor

“The classical Roman curriculum of the liberal arts, as defined by Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 bc), had consisted of nine subjects — grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and architecture.  In the middle ages, medicine eventually became a university subject [i.e. one of the advanced subjects, with law and theology], while architecture was a craft learnt in apprenticeship and practice rather than in school. ...   At an early stage, the programme became formally divided into a first and second phase, the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium — grammar, logic and rhetoric — dealt with techniques of discussion. The quadrivium — geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music — constituted a ‘scientific’ syllabus, summarising the principles of order in the physical world.” [1]

The richest medieval depiction of the Seven Liberal Arts is the dense schematic and allegorical composition of Herrad of Hohenburg in her Hortus deliciarum, a codex containing a pedagogical miscellany for the use of the nunnery of which she was abbess, dating from the end of the twelfth century.[2]  

Herrad gives us a classicizing image, with Philosophia enthroned as the mistress of all the arts, the source of the 'seven founts of wisdom' which are the arts themselves, symbolized first as streams and then as the women in the arcades of the wheel. Plato and Socrates sit at Philosophia's feet; 'poets' and 'wise men', below the figure, are the beneficiaries of this learning. [3]   The only nod to a religious context is the reminder, in Philosophia's banner, that "All wisdom comes from God."

[1] Michael Haren, Medieval Thought: the Western Intellectual Tradition from Antiquity to the Thirteenth Century, 2d ed. (Toronto, 1992), 67-8.

[2] Herrad of Hohenburg (ca. 1130-1195), Hortus deliciarum, ed. Rosalie Green et al. (2 vols., London: Warburg Institute, 1979), 2:33 (f. 32r).

[3] The place of the three heads in Philosophia's crown (Ethics, Logic, and Physics) in the schema is not clear.

rev 08/18/2004