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Digging into the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library: Spotlight on “Tria sunt”

Posted On May 28, 2019 | 16:45 pm | by Nicole Eddy | Permalink
Composition 101 for the medieval university

The start of a new university semester means many things: reconnecting with friends, working out a class schedule (including when to get in a snooze), and, of course, the last-minute dash to the campus bookstore to track down back-ordered textbooks for the first week’s reading. Student life probably looked a lot different in the Middle Ages—although there were likely still some naps—but then as now, textbooks played an important part in college education. One of the most important such manuals in 15th-century England was Tria sunt, whose title was given to it by medieval users and taken from its opening words: “The crafting of any work is concerned with three things: namely, the beginning, the development, and the end.” Most likely written around 1400 by a Benedictine monk preparing pupils for study at Oxford University, the text is now available with English facing the Latin for the first time in a new volume from the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, translated by Professor Martin Camargo of the University of Illinois (Harvard University Press, 2019).

Tria sunt is a guide to rhetoric, or the art of writing beautiful and effective poetry and prose. Far from a niche discipline, rhetoric was one of the seven liberal arts, an educational framework that shaped all medieval higher education and that still sits behind the curriculum of many modern colleges and universities. The liberal arts were divided into two didactic programs: the trivium (Latin for “three roads,” more specifically a place where three roads meet) and quadrivium (a crossroads of four roads). The trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric: the three arts of language. After mastering the trivium, the aspiring student would then turn to the more mathematical pursuits of the quadrivium, with arithmetic, geometry, music (mathematical because of its basis in the application of ratios), and astronomy.

The seven liberal arts were often presented allegorically, with the Arts depicted as idealized women carrying symbolic attributes. But in Tria sunt, theory and practice come together in a treatise that offers concrete advice even as it classifies and defines. Instruction is given on how a work may be structured and on how writing can be made effective by stripping away redundancy or by amplifying a simple thesis. One section is devoted to the drafting of an ideal letter; another chapter carries a title sure to have been clickbait for any aspiring undergraduate, “On the six chief faults to be avoided in any kind of composition.” In these pages we can see how people of the time thought about writing and how such theories could be applied to craft more effective, exciting, and beautiful works.

Sometimes the offered advice seems every bit as modern as medieval, especially in those sections on ornaments of language like metaphor and wordplay. The comic-strip philosophers Calvin and Hobbes once memorably discussed how to “verb” words: repurposing existing nouns and adjectives for new syntactic uses, a practice which, they celebrate, “weirds language.” The anonymous author of Tria sunt spends pages dissecting different ways to practice such a technique, since “in general, whatever expressions are newly invented excellently adorn a composition, as ‘to rose,’ ‘to lily,’ ‘to besten,’ ‘to grassify,’ ‘to honorize,’” and more. But, we are warned, some of the more creative neologisms “are jokes and should be stripped away from serious works.” In order to besten your own class essays, it may be a good idea to stick to what’s in Merriam-Webster.

Tria sunt in the garden

Overall, Tria sunt demonstrates powerfully how the crossroads of trivium and quadrivium foster incremental learning: a student cannot master rhetoric, after all, without a solid foundation in the fundamentals of grammar. But those intersections also reflect a model wherein equally important skills flow together to create a fully formed intellectual. An author crafts a successful written work by uniting all three roadways of the trivium, correctly deploying the building blocks of language, walking the reader through a logically effective argument, and ornamenting the result with rhetorical flourishes and artistic features that convince and delight. In late medieval England, Tria sunt was a bestselling guide for putting such a program into practice.

Buy Tria sunt: An Art of Poetry and Prose and browse other DOML volumes at


Nicole Eddy is managing editor of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Photos by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.