How Trivial and Medieval!

by J.E.G. Dixon (May 2014)

It is common knowledge among philologists, linguists and some philosophers that the evolution of language in the course of its history reveals remarkable shifts which, themselves, reflect various social and other changes taking place among the people of its origin. This observation is nowhere more true than of its vocabulary. But the process is two-sided. A word, for example, may change its meaning because of changing mores; or it may change its meaning by virtue of a change in the value system of a society toward its own past.

Words of the first class are legion. We will limit ourselves to citing three only: decent, nice, and silly. The original meanings and definitions I give here are from the OED

decent: becoming, suitable, appropriate, or proper to the circumstances or special requirements of the case.

nice: foolish, stupid, senseless.

silly: deserving of pity compassion, or sympathy; or helpless, defenceless.

Words of the second class more often than not reflect a prejudice or ignorance on the part of the people who begin to misuse an ancient word and confer on it a pejorative meaning. I propose to discuss two words of this class. They are: medieval and trivial.

Medieval - Most peoples of Europe look back on their heritage from the Middle Ages with admiration. There is a continuity of intellectual and cultural achievement in most countries that has not merited the derogatory outlook that manifested itself later. True, in France the writers and scholars of the Renaissance scorned the Churchmen of the later Middle Ages; and they had nothing but outspoken contempt for the parasitical monks and their practitioners of law and medicine. It is equally true that the term moyennâgeux can be used with the same disdain or disapproval as our term "medieval" is. But I suggest that it is in the English-speaking world that the term has acquired its almost universal stamp of contempt, an attitude that can only stem from a thorough ignorance of that age. I will quote a few of the definitions given by a few dictionaries.

Collins Dictionary: old-fashioned, primitive.

Collins Thesaurus: old-fashioned and unenlightened.

OED : (3. colloq.) a. Exhibiting the severity or illiberality ascribed to a former age; cruel, barbarous. [1883  Mem. Vol. Rev. A. M'Lean 231  A curious mixture of mediæval rigidity and modern spasmodism.] 1917  Church Times 26 Oct. 335/4   When military officers inflict upon him cruelties almost mediæval, our sympathy goes with him. 1963  M. McCarthy Group xiv. 330   It was medieval of Macy's to fire her because she'd had a breakdown. 1979  P. Theroux Old Patagonian Express (1980) vi. 122   The medieval sight of small children binding up bouquets of flowers with bleeding fingers and being shouted at by cruel old men. 1988  Financial Times 8 June i. 44/3   He stressed he was not seeking vengeance or punishment but a deterrent. Hanging was ‘medieval and barbaric’ and there were more humane methods.

This attitude to the Middle Ages no doubt restricts itself to the very late period of the historical era, when the steam was unquestionably running out of its creativity. Ah, but just go back a bit, say, a few centuries, and we run smack into one of the truly great and fecund ages of human civilization. I suppose it does depend to a certain extent on the chronological limits of the period in question; but I am going to be generous and go back as far as 597, the year in which the great Pope Gregory sent Augustine accompanied by about 40 monks to Britain to take the Christian faith to the heathen English. They landed at a spot on Pegwell Bay, a mile or so west of Ramsgate—three miles from this writer’s birthplace—where Augustine met with the King of Thanet, Æthelberht, in the open air a few miles from the Canterbury of today. And so profoundly did they impress him with their piety, charity and devotion, that they converted, first the king, then his people, to their peaceable ways. So successfully, indeed, that within a few short generations, the northern people of Northumbria could boast of the time of one of their kings: “A woman and her babe might walk scatheless from sea to sea in Eadwine’s day.”  We wish to make a point of mentioning that St. Augustine was of the Benedictine Order, for had it been any other order the consequences for the legal, political, social and moral life of the people would have evolved somewhat differently, for they were the most learned, and hence enlightened, of men and women. One writer has gone so far as to express his admiration in these terms: “Without any doubt, Saint Benedict was the Father of Europe. The Benedictines, his children, were the Father of European civilization.”1

We will press on and mention Magna Carta, surely one of the most illustrious documents in the annals of the human story. We will make a very definite point of entreating the reader, if he needs entreating, to revisit the glorious cathedrals of medieval Europe and to ask himself yet again to conjure up to his mind the qualities of spirit and intellect, and sheer inventiveness, not to mention the human labour, that went into their conception and creation. And finally we will not fail to mention these universities, all founded in the 11th to 13th centuries—Bologna, Oxford, Paris, Salamanca, Cambridge, Montpelier, Padua, Coimbra and Prague—which are still thriving centres of higher learning nine centuries and more later.

Trivial - This word today has but one meaning to the common mind, like mine. I will list the definitions given by two sources.

OED: Of small account, little esteemed, paltry, poor; trifling, inconsiderable, unimportant, slight.

Roget’s Thesaurus. Insignificant, small, inconsiderable, inconsequential, negligible, footling, unimportant, trifling, piddling, etc.

One is justified in wondering how such a once important matter became so degraded. In this case I surmise that it is explained by the degradation of the matter itself. So what is the matter? The word derives form the Latin word trivium. The trivium was the first stage of education in the Middle Ages. It means “three-way path,” and comprised grammar, rhetoric, and  logic (or dialectic). If these terms seem somewhat rebarbative, they lose their menace if it is explained that they simply mean the mastery of language, the art of composition and exposition, and the technique of debate and discourse. They were the foundation of education in Ancient Greece, as they must be of all sound education. But I will let a renowned scholar explain.

In 1946 a famous English writer of crime stories, Dorothy L.  Sayers, who was also, and principally, a highly respected medieval scholar and translator of Dante, gave a lecture at Oxford which she entitled: “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She said of them in part:

The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which ... consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order. Now the first thing we notice is that two of these “subjects” are not what we should call “subjects” at all: they are methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a “subject” in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language... But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language, how to define his terms and make accurate statements, how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language, how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively. At the end of his course he was required to compose a thesis... and afterwards to defend it against the criticism of the faculty. By this time he would have learned... not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits when heckled. There would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate.

I will present an analysis of the three components. (I confess I forget the source of this analysis.)

General Grammar, Aristotelian Logic, and Classical Rhetoric comprise the first three rules-based subjects of the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences. As these disciplines are learned and practiced together, they form the overarching, symbiotic system for establishing clarity and consistency of personal thought called the Trivium.

[1] Grammar. Answers the question of the Who, What, Where, and the When of a subject. Discovering and ordering facts of reality comprises basic, systematic Knowledge.

[2]  Logic. Answers the Why of a subject. Developing the faculty of reason in establishing valid [i.e., non-contradictory] relationships between facts, systematic Understanding.

[3] Rhetoric. Provides the How of a subject. Applying knowledge and understanding expressively comprises Wisdom or, in other words, it is systematically useable knowledge and understanding.

How far we have come from those methods and practices! To be sure, we teach language, but  half-heartedly, and hence totally inadequately. They, for their part, were serious, and imposed the highest scholastic standards; it is we, on the other hand, who have trivialized education; and society as a whole, like our governments, are the living proof of it.

The trivium was but the indispensable propaedeutic to the quadrivium, the four-way path to learning, comprising, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. (The term was coined by Boethius.) The two paths together constituted the sum of the seven liberal arts, which were the indispensable introduction to the queen of all learning, Philosophy. With the Renaissance and the burgeoning of the spheres of learning, the schools inevitably followed, with what they called "subjects." The past several centuries have witnessed an unparalleled increase in "subjects," which have been progressively introduced into our schools, and foisted on our pupils in total disregard of their interest in or their aptitude for them. It is past time when the whole question of a school and university curriculum based on "subjects" called for a thorough and impartial examination. But that is for another time.


1) Réginald Grégoire, Léo Moulin and Raymond Oursel, The Monastic Realm (Rizzoli, New York, 1985) p. 277.

 J.E.G. Dixon's latest book is The Literary Culture of France.


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