They are called liberal (Lat. liber, free), because they serve the purpose of training the free man, in contrast to the artes illiberale, which are pursued for economic purposes.
Catholic Encyclopaedia (1914)
The liberal disciplines’ status rose and fell in medieval Europe. For John the Scot and those following him, the seven were natural sciences instilled in every human being so that they might appreciate the nature, mind and immanence of a creator Gd. From about the late twelfth century however, the imagery shows affect from rising insistence that all other forms of learning must be considered subservient to the discipline of Theology.
The details shown below are from a thirteenth century manuscript. Each of the seven is dressed as a servant or handmaiden (ancillary) whose gesture signals the nature of her art and that it confers only knowledge of this lower world (Lat. inferior).
From about the late fourteenth century, the frequency with which the Seven Liberal Arts are depicted increases noticeably, with something of that increase apparently due to a conceptual ‘tug of war’ between the majority attitude and that of a small but influential group of Italian humanists. The opening of the wider world to Latin Europeans during the ‘Pax Mongolica’ had brought with it a vivid realisation that, in fact and rather as John Scot had said earlier, study of these subjects was universal, and took the form everywhere of formal and natural education: study of arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy and those arts assisting fluent speech, writing and debate were truly the most natural (or, in the terms of the time, ‘God-given’) way to understand creation.
Here (below) is a well-known series of the Seven Liberal Arts pictured in the humanist style. These paintings are attributed to the workshop of a Florentine painter, Francesco Pesellino.
Below, Grammar is shown as the spirit which enables converse between Latin and Greek, between Turk, Arab, Jew and Ethiopian, though the painter does not omit to mention Grammar’s traditional role as educator of children.
More conservative elements deplored such elevation of the secular and depiction of these allegorical figures in style and dress akin to saints or royalty.
The traditional idea of Grammar had been as any or all of mother (mater), ‘magister’ and disciplinarian. In twelfth-century Chartres cathedral, the figure can be interpreted in any of these three characters, depending quite literally on one’s point of view. Here we seem to see a faint memory of the fasces, a bundle of rods associated with the Roman ‘magister’ as interpreter of ancient legal authorities and arbiter of punishment. But such associations were no longer second nature in medieval Europe and Grammar soon became less the higher authority skilled in authoritative texts than the simplest sort of school-room disciplinarian.
Such an image for ‘Grammar’ and the idea of the seven arts as ‘ancillary’ to theological studies are not entirely absent from humanist works, but their expression is quite rare.
By contrast, they are given strident expression in less élite circles and works. The example (below) was made closely contemporary to the Pesallino-school painting seen earlier, but here there is no adulation of any subject save Theology, and the whip-bearer is a cleric.
Interestingly, that German image incorporates a correlation between the seven liberal arts and the seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major – as well as invoking ideas about the chariot of the sun. Fusion of the two strands of legend and metaphor is not native to western European astronomical lore, though Ursa major was sometimes called there the peasants’ wagon: Carles waen.
Teaching the Liberal Arts in Medieval Europe…
Titus Burckhardt, ‘The Seven Liberal Arts and the West Door of Chartres Cathedral’, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer, 1969). (pdf). http://www.studiesincomparativereligion.com/uploads/articlepdfs/103.pdf
Laura Clever, ‘Grammar and Her Children: Learning to Read in the Art of the Twelfth Century‘. A good web-essay with rare, copyright images. http://merg.soc.srcf.net/journal/09education/cleaver.php
- many of the same images are in a paper written in 1974 by Michael Masi, ‘Boethius and the Iconography of the Liberal Arts’, Latomus, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 1974), pp. -57-75. Highly recommended. Available through JSTOR.
Andrew Fleming West, ‘The Seven Liberal Arts’. This classic paper was first published in 1912; as edited in 2012 by Christopher Perrin it is accessible online. (pdf)
If you can get access to the Encyclopaedia of Ancient History, the article ‘Seven Liberal Arts’ by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli will reward the trouble taken.
Image of Grammar from the west front, south portal of Chartres courtesy of Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton College. https://www.bluffton.edu/homepages/facstaff/sullivanm/chartreswest/sportal.html
I’d like extend particular thanks to Mary Ann Sullivan, who exemplifies the adage that the person who loves to learn loves to help others learn.