The Art of Memory

Frances Yates described the memory strategy valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans as the "Art of Memory" in her widely quoted and seminal book The Art of Memory. Today we know it as the method of loci. But the Art of Memory, as those of the ancient world and those of the medieval world practiced it, is far richer than is implied by that title.

It is known to us from three Roman sources – Cicero, an anonymous work Ad C. Herennium libri IV, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. The strategy itself, although developed by many in later centuries, has always been attributed to Simonides, a Greek of the 5th century B.C. Cicero emphasizes that Simonides is given the credit for the art of memory not simply because he discovered how important order is for memory, but also because of his emphasis on the importance of visualization.

The original concept of Simonides, as encapsulated in the much-quoted and memorable story associated with this discovery, was simple enough. As the story goes (abbreviated version), Simonides was called out of a banqueting hall and during his absence, there was an earthquake and the hall collapsed, killing everyone inside. The destruction was so great the bodies couldn't be identified, but Simonides visualized where everyone was sitting, and so enabled the bodies to be identified.

Order and imagery. The twin staples of mnemonics.

But the truly interesting aspect of this is how this simple idea was developed over the centuries. And the meaning (indeed, multiple meanings) it developed.

According to Mary J. Carruthers in her wonderful work The Book of Memory: A study of memory in medieval culture, medieval European scholasticism was fundamentally memorial. Now this is not particularly surprising - books were handwritten, and obviously far less available than now.

But Carruthers points to something far more interesting - a trained memory was considered moral.

Following the Roman rhetorician Cicero (deeply admired by the medieval scholars), memory was considered to be one of the "virtues", and necessary to develop a moral character. Hence the rote learning so despised in our modern age: schoolchildren learned by heart the wise sayings of great men, so that they could also develop wisdom. Only by making moral arguments part of your character, known so well that the words are engraved in your heart, could you become moral.

I can see their point. Doubtless it is no coincidence that, today, this type of learning tends to occur only in fundamentalist religious education. Nor that its absence in education appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a disavowal of any sort of moral instruction. But the association of morality with memory is a fascinating and, to me at least, unexpected one.

Because of this association with morality, so fundamental to the medieval mind, mnemonic strategies were part of education, part of writing - books (according to Carruthers) were decorated for memorability. She even suggests that Dante's great work, his description of the circles of Hell, was actually a mnemonic device, to help people remember the places and attributes of Hell. This is not as weird as it sounds (well actually it is), because people used such descriptions as "memory places" (loci). The grotesque (to modern eyes) and shocking sculptuary in churches, paintings, drawings seen in the margins of books, all these, Carruthers suggests, were not so much because of some inexplicable twist of the medieval mind, as because they were intent on following the mnemonic principles they had been taught - provoking emotional reactions to enhance memorability.

Indeed, this is one of the (many) ideas I have found particularly intriguing: there is great emphasis from these pre-modern writers about memory, on the need to involve the emotions, to get yourself into a state as it were.

This is a particularly interesting point, because it is largely overlooked in modern memory advice (including my own!). I think the reason it is overlooked is simply because of modern sensibilities. Western culture, especially the scholastic, de-emphasizes emotion. It is therefore fascinating to read Carruthers' accounts of the emotional "states" which some pre-modern scholars seemed to find it necessary to work themselves into, when memorizing. Perhaps most interesting is that these scholars did not make the modern distinction between memory for personal events and information, and memory for "facts" - they understood that, for more effective remembering, all information had to be made into a personal event.

All mnemonic advice stresses the benefits to be gained from forming memories as “scenes” that include personal associations. Hugh of St Victor, for instance, stresses the need to impress the circumstances during which something was memorized as part of the associational web needed to recall it: the sort of day it is, how one feels, the gestures and appearance of one's teacher, the appearance of the manuscript page, and so on.”
(Mary Carruthers: The Book of Memory, p60)

Of course, the emotional component of memory also has an effect through its effect on motivation.

Another thing that struck me was how much ancient and medieval scholars understood about the practical aspects of memory - an understanding which seems to have got lost in the intervening centuries, buried beneath more arcane and complicated mnemonic strategies.

The mystique of these strategies seems to appeal to something in the human mind - the very complexity hints at something special, something magical. I am not decrying mnemonic strategies; they are certainly effective. But the more complex ones do require a great deal of training to be used effectively, and few people really want to put that degree of effort into something that, while potentially useful, is not, for most of us, as useful as all that.

But there are effective memory strategies that don't require so much effort to master, and the pre-modern scholars (at least in early times) understood the basic principles that underlie these:

  • the need to break things up into manageable chunks
  • the need for complete concentration (indeed it was suggested that night time was the best time to engage in memory work, because of the quiet and lack of distraction)
  • the usefulness of reading aloud in a low murmur (if you ever saw the movie Yentl, you might recall the students learning the Talmud doing the same thing).

The need to break things up into manageable chunks is a piece of advice that doesn't seem to be emphasized much in the increasingly complex mnemonic schemes that developed much later, and yet it is probably the single most important principle.

As to exactly what people did to learn information, to make memorable associations, it was recognized that these were matters for the individual, that different methods suited different people (and of course, different materials and different purposes):

"All ancient mnemonic advice [counsels] that any learned technique must be adapted to individual preferences and quirks. One cannot use a “canned” system, nor will every system work equally well for everyone.”
(ibid, p64)

When you're looking for a method of learning that will suit you, emotional affinity is as important as any other factor.

References & further resources

Yates, Frances A. 1966. The Art of Memory (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1990. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) New York: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)

Carruthers, Mary. 1998. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Amazon affiliate link)


reply by Carruthers:

A word of warning. Carruthers' books are not really aimed at the lay audience. Carruthers is clearly writing for her peers, those familiar with Latin and Greek, and the classic and medieval cultures.

Parts of this article originally appeared in the February and April 2002 newsletters.