Septem Artes Liberales
Several years ago I had the great pleasure of reading my first book from G.K. Chesterton. I have been a fan ever since. A writer of fiction, history, poetry, mystery, plays, and faith; all filled with his trademark paradoxical and profound writing style. One of the first books of his which I read was called Orthodoxy. It is from this book that the following quote is taken, and it concerns a term known as the Dark Ages.
I take in order the next instance offered: the idea that Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations.
If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.
It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived under the load of waters; after being buried under the debris of dynasties and clans, we arose and remembered Rome.
If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag.
But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new. She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch.
In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.
This quote came to mind while reading about the development of education in Europe. As early as the 5th century, schools were forming in monasteries and at cathedrals mostly to teach clergy. Later in the 11th century, universities would arise that would take the knowledge preserved through the collapse of the Roman Empire and set the stage for modern science. It’s through these years when the western empire (Europe) was struggling, that the church, which was the only institution to survive the fall of the Roman Empire, held things in the west together.
Islam, coming in to play in the 7th century took control of much of the former Empire and with the wealth of knowledge gained made several advances in science and math. Byzantium in the east, being the capital of the remaining Empire held things together, but the west was too far removed from the authority in Byzantium to benefit from it’s power. In the west there were several revivals through this period such as the Carolingian Renaissance, and schools of learning in Ireland, and several notable persons such as Saint Isidore of Seville who produced a Latin Encyclopedia in the 7th century. But in all of this it was the church which stabilized the west, and over the years Europe began to get back on track.
The main subjects one would learn during this time were those of the Trivium and Quadrivium. Trivium consisted of Grammar, Dialectic and Logic. These were preparatory for the areas of study in the Quadrivium which were Geometry, Arithmetic, Astrology and Music. Together these formed the seven liberal arts. Upon completion of these, the student would gain a master of arts and from there could advance into the study of Theology, Law or Medicine.
The arts date back to Greek times, but the seven noted above are generally attributed to a 5th century pagan named Marianus Capella. Later they were separated into the Trivium (latin for Way of Three) and Quadrivium (Way of Four). Gerbert d’Aurillac who would become Pope Sylvester II, was pivotal in the education of Europe, having mastered the Trivium and Quadrivium he became a teacher himself having as one of his students the future emperor Otto III. Gerbert is also known for introducing the abacus to Europe, as well as Persian/Islamic numerals for arithmetic (how does one do math with roman numerals?), and the astrolabe.