Conversazione 2016 - Our Three-Fold Cord (with audio)

Image used by permission from the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection, Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada
My Conversazione at the 2016 LER was based on an amazing document by Charlotte Mason. I have typed it in its entirety below for you to enjoy.  Also, here is my Prezi presentation, as well as the beautiful House of Education certificate (above) with which we did a modified picture study. Regarding Roman numeral II, a more detailed post will be coming with the new book Nicole Handfield edited, Charlotte Mason and the Great Recognition, and the stunning new prints of the complete fresco that will soon be available. Also, I have posted the audio below. (First time I've embedded an audio here!)  Please note that there were quiet spots where we examined the certificate that have been eliminated. You will also hear Nicole tell a little bit about her book and how it came to be.

Our Three-Fold Cord was a leaflet presented to students graduating from her House of Education. Essex Cholmondeley (Chum-lee) states, "Perhaps the most life-giving ideas that the students received were the three which form 'The Threefold Cord,' a short leaflet given to each student on leaving college." (The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 156)

What were these "life-giving ideas"? Well, that's what I set out to explain in the talk.  I think you will enjoy reading the document for yourself and exploring these life-giving ideas.






We read in the Purgatorio, Canto I., how Virgil was directed to prepare Dante for his difficult ascent:

“Go, then, and see thou gird this one about

With a smooth rush, and that thou wash his face,

So that thou cleanse away all stain therefrom.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

This little island round about its base,

Below there, yonder where the billow beats it,

Doth rushes bear upon its washy ooze;

No other plant that putteth forth the leaf,

Or that doth indurate, can there have life,

Because it yieldeth not unto the shocks.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

Then came we down upon the desert shore.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

There he begirt me as the other pleased;

O marvellous! For even as he culled

The humble plant, such it sprang up again

Suddenly there where he uprooted it.”  (Longfellow’s Translation).

Here we get the idea of the yielding rush incapable alike of selfassertion and of receiving the wounds and scars of mortification. The waves that beat upon the desert shores are the waves of our badge, and remind us of the “waves of this troublesome world.” We look for the scriptural origins of Dante’s thought – how St. Peter says, in his First Epistle, “Yea, all of you, gird yourselves with humility, to serve one another;” and we recollect that St. Peter had seen the pattern of the Divine Humility girding Himself for lowest service on the last night of His human life. Let us read the Divine Law about humility (St. Luke xxii., 24-29); together with the saying of William Law, “There never was nor ever will be but one humility in the whole world, and that is the one humility of Christ.” In St. Matthew xviii., 1-7, we read how or Lord Himself recognizes the little children as also “humble” 9because of His own indwelling); perhaps the offence against children, of which such terrible condemnation is spoken, is to offend against their humility in such a way as to make them lose this Chirst-like quality. Consider what humility is; it is not relative but absolute; it does not mean that we shall think small things of ourselves compared with this one and that, but that we shall have eyes so steadfastly fixed upon our Master, our duty, our sphere of service, that we shall have no moment left in which to think of ourselves at all – a most blessed way to escape all wounds, and wrongs, and injuries, and bitter mortifications. We consider that the Rush is our most appropriate badge, because, though humility is binding upon every Christian person, it is most especially so upon those who are called to feed His lambs, the lambs whom He has Himself declared to be “humble,” like unto Him. 

            We see, too, how well our motto- “For the children’s sake”-a chance phrase in a letter from our Lady Visitor-expresses the sentiment of our Badge. “For their sakes I sanctify Myself,” said our Master.


            Mr. Ruskin has done a great service to modern thought in interpreting for us the harmonious and ennobling scheme of education and philosophy recorded upon one quarter of what he calls the “Vaulted Book,”* i.e., the Spanish Chapel attached to the Church of Sta. Maria Novella, in Florence.

            “The descent of the Holy Ghost is on the left hand (of the roof) as you enter. The Madonna and Disciples are gathered in an upper chamber: underneath are the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc., who hear them speak in their own tongues. Three dogs are in the foreground – their mythic purpose, to mark the share of the lower animals in the gentleness given by the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ .    .    .    .    .    . On this and the opposite side of the Chapel are represented by Simon Memmi’s hand, the teaching power of the Spirit of God and the saving poser of the Christ of God in the world, according to the understanding of Florence in his time.

            “We will take the side of intellect first. Beneath the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit in the point of the arch beneath are the three Evangelical Virtues.  Without these, says Florence, you can have no science. Without Love, Faith, and Hope – no intelligence. Under these are the four Cardinal Virtues .    .    .    .    .Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude. Under these are the great Prophets and Apostles.    .    .    .    . Under the line of Prophets, as powers summoned by their voices are the mythic figures of the seven theological or spiritual and the seven geological or natural sciences; and under the feet of each of them the figure of its Captain-teacher to the world

Our immediate concern is with the seven mythic figures representing the natural sciences, and with the figure of the Captain-teacher of each. First we have Grammar, a gracious figure teaching three Florentine children; and, beneath, Priscian. Next, Rhetoric, strong, calm, and cool; and below the figure of Cicero with a quiet beautiful face. Next, Logic, with perfect pose of figure and lovely face; and beneath her, Aristotle-intense keenness of search in his half closed eyes. Next, Music, with head inclined in intent listening to the sweet and solemn strains she is producing from her antique instrument; and underneath, Tubal Cain, not Jubal, as the inventor of harmony-perhaps the most marvelous record that Art has produced of the impact of a great idea upon the soul of a man but semi-civilised. Astronomy succeeds, with majestic brow and upraised hand, and below her, Zoroaster, exceedingly beautiful-“the delicate Persian head made softer still by the elaborately wreathed silken hair.” Next Geometry, looking down, considering some practical problem, and her carpenter’s square in her hand, and below her, Euclid. And lastly Arithmetic, holding two fingers up in the act of calculating, and under her, Pythagoras wrapped in the science of number.

The Florentine mind of the middle ages believed not only that the seven Liberal Arts were fully under the direct out-pouring of the Holy Ghost, but that every fruitful idea, every original conception, whether in Euclid, or grammar, or music, was a direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without any thought at all as to whether the person so inspired named himself by the name of God, or recognized whence his inspiration came.

And what subjects are under the direction of this Divine Teacher? The child’s faith and hope and charity-that we already knew; his temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude-that we might have guessed; his grammar, rhetoric, logic, music astronomy, geometry, arithmetic-this we might have forgotten, if these Florentine teachers had not reminded us; his practical skill in the use of tools and instruments, from a knife and fork to a microscope, and in the sensible management of all the affairs of life-these also come from the Lord, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working. His God doth instruct him and doth teach him. Recognising that “his God” doth co-operate with us in the act of giving knowledge to a child, we approach the work of teaching with simplicity, sincerity and reverence.


            Students are usually anxious to correct their own impressions by some words from the artist as to the meaning of his work. The following is the reply of H. Wilson, Esq., the artist who designed the beautiful certificate. (Mrs. Dallas Yorke’s generous gift to the House of Education), to the numerous students who have asked for an explanation of the design: -

“The subject is, of course, that of Education. The stream figures the stream of knowledge, the river of mental life flowing from beneath the foundations of the temple of the spirit in the middle distance.  The temple is circular, symbolizing completeness and enduringness: above its altar is a lamp typifying the sun, the source of physical life; the dome symbolizes the heavens, and round the frieze are signs of the Zodiac. Behind the temple rugged mountains thrust their peaks into the sky, the top of the tallest passes beyond the picture to suggest that the highest peak is the unattainable – the ideal, and moreover, that the ends of knowledge are hidden – that while we may grasp a few threads, the end of the skein is beyond our reach. In the foreground Psyche clothed with knowledge and winged is seated. She is just embracing one of a group of children, to suggest that love is the inspiring and all-important agency in Education, only at its touch does the birth of the soul begin. This inspiring, inspiriting, inbreathing of the conscious soul is shadowed forth by the butterflies hovering round the children’s heads. The figures themselves are seated on a little eminence; beneath it is a little beach on which the children are playing, some with shells, others with insects, with plants and flowers, or with animals, to suggest that in play each child follows its own natural bent, and gives not only a clue to its character, but valuable indices of the right way of treating and educing the best side of that character. The border shows the tree of knowledge, with children playing in the branches; above, in the initial letter, is seated the mistress instructing her pupils; below are shown the roots of the tree knowledge among the rocks, with flowers growing everywhere; on the left are the battlements of the city which endures.”

The chief danger, in designing such a certificate, is to keep down a natural tendency to allegorize to excess, and to make, instead, as much as possible of the opportunity for a piece of pleasant decoration. In the contriving of this the various ideas summarized above arose, and I attempted to give them fitting expression.     H.W.


  1. Thank you so much for including the audio. I have listened to it 3 times already! So rich. I plan on sharing it with my husband too.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. This is my kind of conversation: art, philosophy, symbolism, inspiration, all tied up with words from dear Charlotte. Beautifully done, all involved with this presentation. I enjoyed it immensely

    1. Then you and I love the same type of talks! I love your summary and am so glad you enjoyed it.

  3. very interesting! I have enjoyed reading this and thinking about it. I have a few questions - 1.) so the 3 strands in the Three-fold cord are the badge, creed and certificate. Do they each represent something specific? Such as, humility, the Holy Spirit, and education - and how they all work together? 2.) What does the author mean in the first section where we read "In Matt. 18:1-7 we read how our Lord Himself recognizes the little children as also 'humble' (because of His own indwelling)..."? Is the author saying that the children are indwelt by His Holy Spirit (which to me would mean they are saved)? 3.) and lastly, I know the last section is written by H. Wilson. But are the first two parts written by Charlotte Mason?

    Thank you again, Nancy, for posting this :) I hope you don't mind my questions! It's all very interesting and I've enjoyed all the little tidbits from the LER that have been shared!

    1. Dear Charissa,

      You were missed at the LER! These are great questions and I’m happy to try and answer them.

      1. Each of the strands represents an idea with lots of layers. The badge represents humility. The creed represents the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of our children, especially in regard to education/teaching/learning. And the certificate is a piece of beauty that reminds the graduate of all she has learned at the House of Education. I like Essex’s words on this about the certificate, ““The design embodies that delight in knowledge which it is the privilege of the student to discover and to share with those in her charge. Teaching is not a technique excercised by the skilled on behalf of the unskilled. It is a sharing of the effort to know, using all that is best in the world of books, of music, of pictures, all that can be observed and cherished out of doors, all that hand and eye can make; all that religion, history, art, mathematics and science can reveal to the active mind.”
      2. Charlotte Mason is recounting the passage in Matthew where the Lord declares the children humble. Here is the passage:
      Matthew 18:1-7New International Version (NIV)

      18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
      2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
      6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!
      Mason calls this humbleness “the state natural to children” (Vol. 2, p. 283)
      “Humility does not think much or little of itself; it does not think of itself at all. It is a negative rather than a positive quality, being an absence of self-consciousness rather than the presence of any distinctive virtue” ( Vol. 2, p. 284).

      And in the passage, the Lord warns that if we don’t change and become like little children (state of humility – lack of self-consciousness like a little child) “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

      This humility we find in a child is part of who they are based on being made in the image of God. I don’t think the debate is whether a child is “saved” or not. At least that’s not the point in this section. Rather, the point is that we are to empty ourselves of …ourselves (!) and to focus on Christ and become like Him. She makes a big point of “not thinking of yourself at all” – true humility that is brought about only through the one great humility – Jesus Christ.

      Volume 2, p. 282-285 expands upon this concept beautifully if you wish to read more.

      3. Yes, Charlotte Mason is the author except where she quotes others, H. Wilson, Esq. being one of those!

      Does this help?


  4. oh, thank you so much! I see now that when CM refers (in the certificate) to "the indwelling of Himself", she is referring to that spirit of humility which is so natural to children. Neat!! and it sounds like I am on the right track in understanding what each "cord" stands for (well, except the 3rd - but you elaborated very nicely on that for me in your answer). I like what you said, "an idea with lots of layers". - more to think about!

  5. I really love the quote on humility by Miss Mason that is in your slides. Wow. So much to think on!

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