The Relationship of Christianity and Scholasticism During The Middle Ages

by Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

The era of Scholasticism was not merely the narrow-minded and constricting form of education many modern scholars had deemed rank with intellectual stagnation. The overall concept of Scholasticism cannot be understood outside of its historical context. The Scholastic movement began as a response to the bitter turmoil of the Dark Ages, and at its peak in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries culminated into a well-refined method of critical thought. Scholasticism can be thought of as the intellectual refinement of the knowledge available to scholars of the Middle Ages. While the Middle Ages were not a time of great intellectual growth, it ensured that Europe would never again see a time of complete intellectual stand still. In relation to scholasticism’s historical context, the Middle Ages cannot be understood without the recognition of the dominating force of Christianity through out all of European society. The scholastic movement was seeded within, and grew with the progression of the Roman Catholic Church: its primary cultivators. The Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church became the initial authors of scholastic thought by creating harmony between the contrasting viewpoints of philosophy and theology. The works of saints became the texts, which the schoolmen of the monastic and cathedral schools committed to memory. As a result, the growth of Christianity and Education coincided with one another through out the span of Medieval Europe. The intellectual thought of the Middle Ages was highlighted by the symbiotic relationship formed between Scholasticism and Christianity, resulting in a fixed and formal system of education, and the preservation of religious, classical and antiquity works, which together, carved the intellectual path into the European Renaissance.

While the scholastic movement did not consist of new intellectual developments, it did serve the purpose of an intellectual awakening. This period of education and intellectual thought would serve as the foreground for the development of higher education. Scholasticism began in the Christian monasteries with the accumulation of knowledge, these monasteries would later transform into universities. The rise of universities however, began towards the end of scholasticism’s reign; as so, this discussion will stay within the confines of the development of the monastic and cathedral schools. In its broadest framework, scholasticism developed within the Church. Due to the meager intellectual material available, “the limited learning of the times arranged into a systemized form largely on the deductive basis of the Aristotelian logic” (Graves 51). Because of the power wielded by the Church, all subject matter, whether religious or secular, was approached through a highly theological perspective. Medieval thought from the ninth to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was dominated by this ideal, and thus was taught within the schools of the Church, thereby solidifying the methods of scholasticism. Scholasticism was indeed, “the peculiar methods and tendencies of philosophic speculation that arose within the Church”. The term scholasticism was derived from ‘doctor scholasticus’, the term used for the authorized teachers in the monastic schools (Graves 50). From the very beginning of monastic education in the Middle Ages, scholasticism and Christianity were intertwined, influencing those who sought higher intellect within its schools. Both the Christian religion and scholastic method were the basis of a schoolman’s learning. It became a young scholar’s goal through scholastic deduction and argumentation, to show how doctrines, “were consistent with each other and in accordance with reason” (Graves 51). Even with its apparent flaws, such as its characteristic narrowed scope, the greatest aim of scholasticism was to equip a student with the dialectic and intellectual discipline that enabled an individual to be keen and well versed in knowledge of the time.

Medieval education in Europe began with the development of the monastic and episcopal schools, and thus is where the origin of scholasticism is found. The establishment of monasteries, “rose from a protest against vice and corruption, and pointed the way to a deeper religion and nobler life” (Graves 21). Based upon the Benedictine code, the primary purpose of monastic education was the discipline and repression of the body, and gave great prominence to doctrines of labor and systematic reading. It was through the daily devotion of reading that literacy began its revival in Europe (Graves 10). Small isolated communities formed around monasteries, creating a reserved educated culture, whose knowledge would soon spread with the growing influence and strength of the Church. Monks within these communities created the demand for manuscripts and the reproductions of the text. As a result monasteries became precious depositories, providing the preservation of ancient literature and learning. As monastic life grew, so did the interest and care of ancient manuscripts increase, and the demand for duplicates of the sacred writings resulted in the addition of the scriptorium, a room reserved for the copying of texts. Thus the preservation of texts became the primary source of labor in monastic life.

While the copying of sacred texts were in primary regard to the neatness of lines and careful ornamentation, monks gained both intellectual and moral influences from the content of their work. Not only did the text strengthen an understanding of language, reading, and writing, but also monks began to make their own personal connections to the religious topics. As a result monks became authors concerning mainly religious topics such as, “commentaries upon the Scriptures or the Christian Fathers, The Lives of Saints, and the sermons or moral tales” (Graves 12). These writings indicated the first instances of the rudimentary characteristics of scholastic thought/education. The monks and schoolmen of the monasteries began what would be a strong emphasis on the extension of knowledge through dialectical reasoning. What began in the writings of monks was the method of critical thought that would dominate the teachings of Medieval Europe.

A greater understanding of the relations between the Christian faith and the scholastic method can be seen within the influential writings of medieval monks. Their works solidified both the understanding of the doctrines of Christianity and the growth of the critical intellectual thinking characteristic of scholasticism. One such Benedictine monk was St. Anselm of Bec (1033-1109), whose writings, consistent with the methods of scholasticism, contributed greatly to the understanding of the intricacies of the Christian faith. Remember that scholasticism combined, “philosophy, seen as the autonomous operation of reason, and theology, where certitude of the conclusions is based on the principles of faith” (Vignaux 35). This concept was considered an idea under the generalized term of philosophical theology. With the growing influence of secular works through out the middle ages, monks such as Anselm supported the Christian dogma through the elimination of contradictions by intense dialectical analysis. Anselm believed in the accord of reason with dogma, but held that faith must precede knowledge as he once said, “The Christian ought to advance to knowledge through faith, not come to faith through knowledge” (Graves 51). Anselm spent much time in making clear various Christian dogmas such as the Trinity, becoming the most influential/famous to future scholars in his ‘ontological’ argument for the existence of God (Graves 51-52). Adhering to scholasticism, Anselm didn’t seek to discover new truth, but sought to define a clearer concept of his existing beliefs through reason. Reason came through the comparison of works such as his De veritate, what would be considered philosophical, to the Holy Scripture (Vignaux 35). Luscombe supports this idea, for in his perspective Anselm, “sought to explore his existing beliefs with the instrument of reason – and not with this alone for prayer was used as well – and with the aim of bringing out and elucidating the meaning, the implications, and also the truth and the plausibility of Scripture and of revealed truth” (44). Anselm’s work, like many other scholastics, furthered the complex understanding of traditional doctrines. The most significant characteristics of Anselm’s arguments were that while they were purely arguments of Christian faith, they also proceeded as arguments of logic and reason.

While the monastic schools established small communities of education, it was not until the establishment of Abbey and Cathedral schools that learning became widespread. It was through the relationship between education and the Roman Catholic Church that scholasticism became well established during the Middle Ages. This progression took form during a short period within the Middle Ages called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian dynasty arose out of a period of time reflecting political disintegration. One of the more prominent figures of this era known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (742-814), who utilized his power given to him by the Pope over the united Frankish state to ensure a genuine unity of his people (Pedersen 72). Charlemagne, having been taught by monks and thus receiving some formal education recognized that the unity of his people, “could be brought about only through the inner life by means of a common language, culture, and ideas”, and so a revival of learning was deemed necessary (Graves 27). Historically during the end of the eighth century, there existed a lack in education found within not only the officials of the Church, but also the ‘secular’ clergy and nobility. The monastic and cathedral schools had become sadly stagnant in manuscript and intellect production. This case was proven through Charlemagne’s letter to the Abbot of Fulda, in which he states,

We have frequently received letters from monks and in them have recognized correct sentiments, but an uncouth style and language. The sentiments inspired in them by their devotion to us they could not express correctly, because they had neglected the study of language. Therefore, we have begun to fear lest, just as the monks appear to have lost the art of writing, so also they may have lost the ability to understand the Holy Scriptures; and we all know that, though mistakes in words are dangerous, mistakes in understanding are still more so (Graves 27).

Because of this lack of sustained knowledge, Charlemagne utilized his power over the monasteries and bishoprics as the foundation of a revised organized system of education. It was Charlemagne who wished to therefore link public education with the already established education of monks (Pedersen 74, 78). In 787 an educational capitulary was issued to the abbots of all the monasteries, to reprove the clerics of their literacy, and for the schools to offer at least a complete elementary course of education. By using the Church as a vessel of learning, the floodgates of knowledge began to open enabling the scholastic movement to reach a wider pool of intellects. Teachings that were once reserved for the ‘regular’ clergy of the monastic community were brought forth to the general European society.

The schools established within the churches served significant roles to the growth of intellectual awakening during the Middle Ages. Granted, these schools began as institutions of fundamental knowledge in which, “the word school almost invariably mean a grammar school: its chief function was to supply the Church with clergy” (Lawson 8). The schools initially began teaching reading, writing, computation, singing, and Scriptures, which would later lead to the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) (Graves 34). Eventually, through the work of Alciun of York, the educational advisor of Charlemagne, was encouraged the adoption by the Carolingian Franks a program of education in the liberal arts (Luscombe 29), a conjunction of both the trivium and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). As the Middle Ages progressed, scholasticism began to involve more areas of study as opposed purely to the realm of theology. However, throughout all education, the Church held great influence and control over knowledge, and schoolmen were affected through the direct association with their teachers. The Fathers were the first interpreters of the sacred texts; “it was they who gave inspiration and direction to the achievements of the Schoolmen with the importance of philosophy and theology so that the science of God became the monument of medieval learning” (Cassidy iii). It was not until the decline of scholasticism that the Church began to lose power over the intellectual knowledge of European schools, thus proving the close relationship between scholasticism and Christianity.

In regards to the scholastic movement, it cannot be judged fairly apart from the historical context in which it took place. Scholasticism developed within confines of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus like all aspects of European society of the time, submitted to its power of Divine revelation. The range of knowledge the scholastics of the time were able to investigate, served as both an advantage and disadvantage. Unfortunately, only the subjects deemed orthodox by the Church could be defended, lest the men wished to endure persecution. The Middle Ages presented the great thinkers with a fine line between secular knowledge deemed useful and acceptable, and that which threatened the foundation and power of the Church. Counter to this regard, the limited knowledge forced the schoolmen to reduced knowledge into an extreme and logical system, and therefore, “obliged to exercise their keen analytic minds most intensively, and so divided, subdivided, and systemized their material beyond all measure” (Graves 59). Scholasticism allowed these schoolmen to sift through centuries of traditional and rather irrational doctrines, and culminate their findings into a rational system of intellect. Not only did scholasticism equip its subjects with the skills necessary to be keen in what was considered ‘modern’ knowledge, but also it forced the highest accuracy in thinking, refined by careful analytical argumentation. Scholasticism therefore fostered the intellectual development necessary for the beginning of the Renaissance. As Cassidy stated, “whatever is learned that is new must be learned in terms of what is already known (27). Scholasticism, through the preservation of knowledge, as well as the refinement of intellectual thought, became the foundation for new thought to occur.



Angeles, Moses Aaron T. “St. Anselm on the Being of God.” Philippiniana Sacra. 64.130 (2009): 5-20. Print.

Cassidy Ph.D, Rev. Frank P. Molders of the Medieval Mind. Binghamton: B. Herder Book Co. , 1944. Print.

Graves, Frank Pierrepont. A History of Education During the Middle Ages and the Transition to Modern times. Norwood: The Macmillan Company, 1910. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Vignaux, Paul. Philosophy In The Middle Ages. London: Burns & Oates, 1959. Print.


The Trivium Through The Ages

by Alexander Rumann

Liberal Arts have been the basis for education since ancient Greece and are still used to this day. The Trivium has been long standing as the foundation for education. The trivium makes up the first tier of the liberal arts and consists of Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Learning the first three liberal arts is the starting point for the rest of learning that would consist of the quadrivium and then higher learning in research. The three parts to the trivium all feed off each other and one must learn each subject thoroughly before moving on. The starting point of the trivium is grammar for obvious reasons. Students must learn to read and write their letters and make complete coherent sentences. After grammar students move on to the more difficult subjects of rhetoric and dialectic. The last two that are mentioned are argument, also known as public speaking, and logic respectively. These three subjects are to prepare students for the other half of the liberal arts, the quadrivium. The trivium was an instrumental tool for education in ancient Greece and is still used in the world to this day.

As a young child in Greece you would have three teachers. One teacher would be for physical training, a music teacher and one who would teach you letters. The teacher of letters would teach you the basics of reading and writing (Barrow 62). The belief was that a student could not continue on to other parts of the trivium until they had a solid foundation in grammar. The goal of education was to generate sociable and happy citizenry. Education of the Athenians in the fifth century B.C.E. was a form of training in a very strict sense that was more a system of instruction. It consisted of two main parts: the training of the mind and training of the body (Walden 10). Due to the strict sense of education the Greeks used physical was the only way they knew how to deal with unruly students and a child’s resistance to learning to read which they found incomprehensible. The reason for having such a strict system was for the purpose of trying to create a civic spirit, a pride in belonging to a free city, and having loyalty to a political community (Finley 186, 188).

Education in ancient Greece was heavily influenced by the sophists. The sophists especially were the ones who promoted grammar (Walden 20). In the ancient civilization of Greece the trivium was started around the age of twelve, much older than a child in today’s world would start education. In Greece a child would start grammar school at twelve and typically stay there till the age of fifteen where they would then move on to the next stage of the trivium. According to an ancient writer grammar is an ancient discipline that we are exposed to from a very early age. This is true that in grammar there is a concern with the written word and literate societies were concerned with an education that had a large role in the mastery of words (Clarke 11, 12). Before reaching the age to attend grammar school, boys were to be taught by their father or guardian. Fathers were to provide some sort of training to their children so they could obtain some profession or trade when they are older (Walden 60).

The ultimate goal of teaching grammar was to assist student in becoming proficient and effective language users (Glenn 10). Grammar was taught by a specialist called the grammatikos. The basic function of the grammatikos was most revealed in times of decadence when the program was reduced to the bare essentials. Even to this day our vocabulary bears witness to the irreducible nucleus of grammar. The grammatikos would teach very elementary exercises in composition. He would also do some preparatory work with students in the areas of the other parts of the trivium. He would give the basic instruction of the theory behind the art of oratory and the elementary principles of logic (Marrou 192). This early instruction would lead into the area that would be taught by the rhetorician. Grammarians would have boy citizens from the ages twelve to fifteen and then the children would move to the rhetorician. The grammatikos would provide what would now be considered preparatory school (Clarke 12).

Today we still have what we would consider preparatory and grammar schools. Even though in today’s life children are sent to school at the ages of five to seven depending on the parents. Grammar schools are still the first step in a person’s education that must be mastered before they can move on just like in Greek culture. Without grammar a student would be completely helpless in higher education and would have no hope of obtaining the necessary tools to knowledge. The use of grammar is important throughout a person’s life no matter what profession they enter in to. Without the ability to read and write there is little that one can do in society today and causes a great hindrance on them as a functioning role in society. Grammar is of the upmost importance and is the major stepping stone for education.

The second part of the trivium is known as rhetoric, also known as oratory or argument. Boys would start rhetoric school after completing grammar school at the age of fifteen and remain there until the age of eighteen (Walden 33). Rhetoric or public speaking was considered a way of employing various oratorical tropes or ‘tricks of the trade’. Scholars like Plato and Aristotle didn’t initially agree with the art of rhetoric because it was not based on objective facts that could be backed up, it was all about presenting your side in a fair light. Oratory was mainly used to appeal to a person’s emotions rather than present facts (Fuller 296). The main goal of an orator is to express his appealing personality to his audience. It is of the utmost importance to impress that he is a man of common sense, upstanding moral character, and of good will. The orator must be able to read the various emotions of the audience any play to their sympathies and use their feelings to his advantage, in a sense he must excite them. In rhetoric a man must be an expert in controlling the emotions of his audience. He should be able to cause a rise in anger or quickly turn away the wrath of a crowd; or possibly implant a feeling of friendliness or hatred. He cultivates fears in his listeners or inspires them to make a motion. In the same ways he should make the audience feel shame or shamelessness or he must impress on them how kind he is and the unkindness of his opponent and by doing that appeal to their pity. Needless to say the orator must use various methods to excitants not with any respect to the merits of his cause but only to ensure victory. A great rhetorician is one who has the power to impress his own personality onto the audience. He uses this art to manipulate what he says into something that seems credible so as to win the assent of his spectators. It makes no difference if he uses this power of influence for good or falsehood. Orators’ who skillfully choose or invent maxims that express the beliefs of his listeners gets a reputation of being a man of good reputation. The gist of oratory is to string together maxims properly and apply them to the situation at hand. In order to be a great rhetorician one must be familiar with the subject they are presenting whether it is history, finance, or law. Athenian society was constituted on the fact that every citizen should be both their own congressman and lawyer if they were ever convicted of a crime but also to function in society. Most political arguments largely consist of discrediting the opponent as making the other persons argument seem unjust, unimportant or useless (Fuller 294, 296-7, 301).

Rhetoric has two sides to it. When someone uses the art of oratory for good everyone loves it but when it is used for evil we find rhetoric to be terrible. Modern day rhetoricians that we know are Roosevelt and Churchill and also Hitler (Barrow 25). As in ancient Greece as it is today public speaking is extremely important whether it is used for good or evil. Speaking clearly or marshalling an argument can determine whether anyone will listen to or follow you. In today’s world rhetoric is still in use to the same extent it was in ancient Greece. Lawyers and congressmen today use the art of oratory every day to defend clients or rally people to their cause. Without rhetoric there would be a different world than the one we live in. The United States justice system is based on rhetoric; condemning or clearing accused of charges is the way our courts run.

The third part of the trivium is dialectic or also known as logic. Dialectic is literally translated means ‘discussion by question and answer’. Plato argued that discussion between individuals is a much better way of seeking knowledge. Through this discussion one can develop understanding which Plato saw as the essence of education. Dialectic plays off of rhetoric in the sense that it is a form of conversation that is built from the basics of grammar and also a part of rhetoric. The original purpose of dialectic was to understand mathematics. “The metaphor of the line introduced four modes of perception, the final two of which are thinking focused on mathematical objects and true intellect or knowledge focused on the Forms. Mathematical thinking is inferior to dialectic in two respects: it makes use of models, diagrams and so forth and it takes its own concepts for granted or does not question its own hypothesis”, this was not the case later on (Barrow 87, 96, 105-6). What Plato defined dialectic as was “not thinking applied to this or that field but pure thinking, proceeded by independently by sensuous perception”. Dialectic was and is a very abstract study. One devotes themselves to the analysis and clarification of concepts, leading to their arrangement in the interrelated systems which follow the laws of classification and decision and make technical definition possible (Lodge 97, 106).

Logic is still a topic that is used in education today. There is no set curriculum for logic in today’s school system but it is still used. At a young age children usually learn by question and answer even before they are enrolled in school. Anyone who has been around a four year old can attest to that. This style of learning has been used since ancient Greece. There are classes in the college level that are logic based but this is a subject that has been eradicated from early education.

The trivium has come a long way since ancient Greece but it is still a vital part in our educational system. The use of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic has continually been a part of the education that a young person receives. The main pieces are in place still to this day even if how they are taught is completely different. The quadrivium was abandoned during parts of the Middle Ages but the trivium has been constant. There have been changes to the teaching method and presentation of the trivium but it has ever been there in education. The trivium as the foundation of the liberal arts is still the same today as it was back in ancient Greece.

Clarke, M.L. Higher education in the ancient world. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971. 11-2, 33. Print.

Marrou, H.-I. The Legacy of Greece. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. 186-192. Print.

Glenn, Cheryl. The Place of Grammar in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook Publishers, 1995. 9-11. Print.

Fuller, B.A.G. History of Greek Philosophy. New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. 294-301. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato. Great Britain: Biddles Ltd, 1988. 5, 25, 62, 87, 96, 105-6. Print.

Walden, John. The Universities of Ancient Greece. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909. 10, 20-21. Print.

Barrow, Robin. Plato, utilitarianism and education. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. 179-180. Print.


This paper was originally created for Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.