The Art of Memory

by John Michael Greer

Nowadays, surrounded as we are with dozens of ways to make up for the weaknesses of human memory, there is one thing that is still easy to forget: that life wasn't always quite so simple. In the Middle Ages, most of our modern methods of collecting and storing information hadn't even been imagined.

Forget about microfilm, memory chips and similar high-tech approaches; less complex devices like filing cabinets and index cards were completely unknown in the middle ages, and even paper, the bottom line of modern information storage, was unheard of in the West. Rather, parchment made from sheepskins was used, a material so expensive that it was often laboriously scraped clean after short-term uses so that something else could be written on the same sheet.

Still, limits on material resources tend to bring out the more resourceful qualities of human nature. With few ways to replace or supplement memory, the educated looked instead for ways to amplify it, to learn how to use its strengths and work around its weaknesses. In the process, they made use of one of the most remarkable facets of medieval and Renaissance culture: the Art of Memory.

The Origins of the Art
The ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, according to legend, invented the Art of Memory when he was hired to recite verses at a banquet. In the usual fashion of the time, he started off with a few lines in honor of the godsin this case Castor and Polluxbefore settling down to the serious business of praising his host. The host, piqued at this diversion of flattery, gave Simonides half the amount agreed upon, and told him he could get the rest from the deities he had praised.

Shortly thereafter, a servant came up to Simonides and told him that two young men on horseback had come to the door, asking for him. The poet went outside; no one was there but as he stood looking around in puzzlement, the roof of the banquet hall collapsed behind him, crushing the arrogant host and all the dinner guests. Castor and Pollux, traditionally pictured as two young horsemen, had indeed paid their half of the fee.

Such stories were commonplace of ancient Greek literature, but this one has an unexpected moral. When the bodies of the dead were recovered, the story continues, they were so mangled that not even the victims' families could figure out who was who. Simonides found, though, that he could picture the banquet hall in his mind's eye and remember the order in which the guests had been sitting. This allowed him to identify the dead, and as he pondered his ability for memorization, it gave him the key to the Art of Memory.

That key is the use of visual images in an ordered, spatial arrangement. Human memory recalls concrete images far more easily than abstract ideas, and it remembers an ordered chain of associations more accurately than a random assortment. Just as Simonides could remember the guests at the ill-fated banquet by picturing them in the setting of the banquet hall, masters of the Art of Memory in the centuries that followed turned the information they wished to remember into striking visual images and arranged them against fixed architectural backgrounds in order to memorize them quickly and effectively.

These methods, which became part of the standard training for orators and scholars in ancient Greece and Rome, spread widely and reached dizzying levels of efficiency. It's recorded of one famous practitionerthe Roman orator Hortensiusthat he sat through a day-long auction and then recounted from memory the item, purchaser and price for every sale of the day.

Textbooks of rhetoric generally included a discussion of the Art of Memory and it was by way of several of these books that the Art survived the collapse of the Roman Empire.

During the Middle Ages, these techniques were revived and brought into widespread use. The practice of the Art of Memory was seen as an act of Prudence, one of the seven cardinal virtues, and monks and friarsespecially members of the Dominican Orderwere encouraged to put it to work in countless ways. Later still, with the coming of the Renaissance, the Art of Memory became a common accomplishment of the educated.

In the hands of Renaissance practitioners like Giordano Bruno, the traditional methods of memory gave rise to new and intricate systems. The arrival of printing and of cheap plentiful paper barely cut into its popularity and it was only with the coming of 17th-century rationalism and the Scientific Revolution that it finally fell into obscurity.

The Methods of the Art
The techniques of the Art of Memory may seem strange to modern people, a measure of the difference between modern and medieval ways of thought, between our current habits of thinking in abstract verbal and mathematical terms, and the more symbolic, concrete, and experiential consciousness of an age when written documents were few and visual images had a far more important role in communication. The idea of representing slander, for example, by the image of a woman being bitten by a snake that issues from her own mouth, may seem bizarre nowadays, yet symbolic images of exactly this kind played a central part in medieval language and art, and in the Art of Memory as well.

In using the Art, the information to be remembered was turned into a striking symbolic image. That image might be beautiful, repulsive, hilarious or shocking, but it had to be memorable and it had to contain a clear reference to the information being memorized. Puns, double meanings, and every kind of wordplay could be put to use in this connection. Another common habit was to devise an alphabet of images, using either the shapes, or the names of objects to refer to each letter of the alphabet. Thus a figure representing a word beginning with the letter V might stand in front of a forked tree or carry a fox (in Latin, vulpes) under its arm.]

Each of these images was then placed in order against a known setting, usually the inside of a familiar building. Students would commit as many buildings to memory as they could, and use each one to store a different kind of information. Each building would be divided up into loci or "places," which were specific spots where a memory image could be put; every fifth place might be marked with a Roman numeral V or a hand, every tenth one with an X. (It's from the use of the Art of Memory in rhetoric, that we still say "in the first place" when going over the points of an argument.) Once the images were placed in their settings, the practitioner of the Art simply had to walk through the building in his imagination, taking note of the figures there and recalling their meanings.

As the Art spread through medieval and Renaissance culture, this architectural approach remained the most common way to recall places, but other systems came into use as well. Some masters of the Art took the heavens as their memory "building," placing figures on the different planetary spheres and the constellations. Others worked out ways of creating imaginary buildings for memory use or developed dizzyingly complex systems of rotating circles in which every position created a different set of loci.

All these techniques may to us seem strange, or even as pointless. But the mind recalls images better than ideas, especially images with an emotional charge. Memory uses chains of association rather than logical order to connect one memory with another (such as mnemonic tricks like string tied around a finger), and memory follows rhythms and repetitive formulae; it's for this reason that poetry and music are much easier to remember than prose. By combining all these factors with training and practice, the Art produced a memory that worked in harmony with its own strengths to make the most of its own potential.

An Example of the Art
To make sense of these strange techniques, it is useful to look over the shoulder of a student of the Art as he begins the construction of a set of memory places and images.

Imagine, then, a young Brother Anselm as he stands one evening in the cloistered garden of the Abbey of St. Quilibet. A novice, he has just started on the task of learning Latin; the Art of Memory is also part of the curriculum and he has resolved to use memory to make learning Latin easier.

He turns slowly around, staring at the old gray stone of the cloister arches, the tiled roofs above, the herbs and flowers all about, committing the whole image to memory. There are seven entrances to the garden; a Latin noun can take seven different cases, and remembering all of them has bedeviled his early lessons. He decides to begin with that.

First is the nominative case. He thinks of white-haired Brother Martin, easily the abbey's most devout monk, beginning the sign of the cross, "In Nomine..." That forms his first memory image; he imagines Brother Martin on his knees in the first entrance, eyes turned up to Heaven, to fix the picture in his imagination.

Next comes the genitive case. The first image that comes to mind makes Brother Anselm turn bright red; he murmurs a prayer against sinful thoughts, and replaces it with a picture of Adam and Eve, the progenitors of humankind. This image he places at the second entrance.

The next two, the dative and accusative cases, are easy enough. Dative makes him think of the great calendar of saint's days in the abbey library; to suggest the initial letter, he puts it in the arms of thin and weakly Brother Daniel, who staggers under the burden. That makes him feel guiltyalthough not quite guilty enough to change the pictureand so for the accusative case he uses a lurid picture of the Devil, the accuser of humankind, pointing a clawed finger at him as if to remind him of his sins. And so on.

He runs through the images once again in his imagination, making sure he has remembered all of them, and then leaves the garden in time for Vespers. Every day thereafter, he walks through his growing collection of memory places in his imagination, noting the images to make sure that each one still calls its meaning to his mind. With practice, he finds that the images remain clear and meaningful for months at a time, even if he leaves them unvisited; he also finds that if he wants to use the seven entrances for something elsethe seven cardinal virtues, for exampleall he needs to do is construct different images in those places and visit that portion of his inner kingdom. By that time, though, he will be well on his way to mastering the Art.

The Uses of the Art
In today's world of gigabyte hard disks and million-volume research libraries, learning the Art of Memory may seem about as relevant as studying the best way to make clay tablets for writing. Still, the Art of Memory is one of the best ways there is to enter into the spirit and consciousness of the Middle Ages. To practice the Art even a little, is to venture back into a world where living memory was the chief means of information storage, where imagery and spoken language made up the fabric of human communication, and where one person could quite literally store the sum total of human knowledge in his or her own head.

It also has its practical side. The methods of the Art of Memory work so much better than ordinary rote memorization, that even a little experience with the Art can make a startling difference. Anything from shopping lists to class notes can be remembered quickly and efficiently, and you aren't likely to leave your memory at home when you go to take a final exam! So sit yourself down, close your eyes, and start putting to use this popular Medieval practice.

© 1997 Renaissance Magazine
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