Yates on the Art of Memory: Straight mnemotechnic

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << Look with the eyes of memory first)

We are now in the end of the Middle Ages, around the 14th and 15th centuries, and the World is again on the verge of profound changes — and so is the Art of Memory. The Humanist movement is trying to extricate mankind from the Dark Ages by focusing on the ancient knowledge of Classical Antiquity. Cicero is in the center of attentions once more. However, while his importance is unharmed and continue to grow, the connection he represented between the virtues, and thus Scholasticism and God, and the Art of Memory is shaken. The unearthing of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria contributes even more to the weakening of the kind of artificial memory the Middle Ages knew about. Gutenberg’s invention is rendering useless to remember. In the brave new world of Petrarch’s and Erasmus’ Humanism, the age-old art would be just that — aged, old and medieval. Chapter 5 of Francis Yates’ “The Art of Memory” provides once more a looming perspective on the fate of the art. However, yet again, it seems it will be reborn anew.

I won’t pretend here to understand what exactly catapulted the Humanist movement (or even what it really consisted in), but it seems to be a consensus that Petrarch initiated it by rediscovering a number of Cicero’s letters. The art of speaking and writing as a means of reaching “the good life” was once again dominating the intellectual life and shaping the world. Two consequences of this renewal of interest by ancient rhetoric treatises had profound effect on the Art of Memory.

First, it finally became known by the end of the 15th century that the authorship of the Ad Herennium was not Cicero’s. This took a while to be generally accepted, but it gradually weakened the link between the Art of Memory and Prudence. Remember that it was the First Rhetoric of Cicero — De inventione — that placed memory as part of Prudence, and it was “his” Second Rhetoric — the Ad Herennium — that had shown how to cultivate memory through art. It was Cicero’s great importance and influence on Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas that had solidified that connection and made it stick throughout the Middle Ages. Now, that link was broken, and the Humanist movement away from Scholasticism tended to widen the distance between the Art of Memory and the soul.

Second, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, which had disappeared during the middle ages,  had been discovered and printed by 1470 and was being intensely studied by the humanists. Quintilian was not a fervorous supporter of the Art of Memory like Cicero and, instead, proposed a much more “no-nonsense” use of it. His approach was based on the “ad herennian” one, but boiled down to strictly memoria rerum (memory for things) and using just concrete objects placed on known locations. He acknowledges the possibility of using other kinds of loci such as pictures and imagined places, but he is much clearer with respect to more typical memory palaces such as buildings. He is also the only one who talks about journeys as a method of gathering loci. Francis Yates regards his version of the art as the prototypical “straight mnemotechnic“, a style that would flourish into a much more practical recommendation of the art — one that would even become a commercial enterprise.

Four authors are considered by Yates as being the “leading names amongst writers on memory” and all of them appear after Quintilian’s work is made publicly available. The Oratoriae artis epitome by Jacobus Publicius, the first Ars memorativa treatise to be printed, was published in 1482 and still possessed most of the properties of a medieval treatise on memory, hugely influenced by Aquinas and Magnus. The Phoenix, seve artificiosa memoria, by Peter de Ravenna, was published in 1491 and became the most well-known treatise, hugely contributing to the popularisation of the art (or, at least the more “mnemotechnical” version of it). The Congestorium artificiose memorie by Johannes Romberch and the Thesaurus artificiosae memoriae by Cosmas Rossellius were published, respectively, in 1520 and 1579, and represent efforts to disseminate the Dominican art of memory.

All these treatises, in spite of their medieval influence, were giving a new face to the Art of Memory, one which was more convoluted but, at the same time, more practical and akin to what we see in use today.

Common to all of them was the use of “visual alphabets” and “memory images”. Visual alphabets are sets of images to be used for representing the letters of the alphabet. Yates talks about letter-shape lists, where objects are chosen based on their shape similarity with the letter per se — e.g., a compass would stand for “A” — and first-letter lists, where the names of objects would begin with each of the letters of the alphabet. Visual alphabets are a common mnemonic practice today, but they are usually used as “pegs”. A peg in reality is any object used to secure something in place. In mnemonics, a peg is a pre-defined image used to attach another image to be memorised. Since you already have the peg firmly “secured” in your mind, it is easy to remember the associated image. Therefore, mnemonists usually create several lists of known images which have a natural ordered disposition among them. Numbers are a common peg list, just as an alphabet is. What is interesting here is that these visual alphabets are not being used as peg systems. In fact, although I have pinpointed throughout this series of posts several passages where the use of pegs could possibly be implied, it seems that they haven’t appeared yet in the history of the art (and I wonder if they ever will). Here, as Yates explains, the visual alphabets are used for “making inscriptions in memory”. To understand what she means, however, I need to first introduce the concept of “memory images” as she understands it.

A memory image is an image used as a place-holder for other “subsidiary” images. I don’t like Yates’ terminology, but I do like the concept very much. The term “memory image” is ambiguous because any image that we conjure mentally to encode information is in essence a “memory image”. But in this case, the image is being used more as a memory palace than anything else. However, calling such images simply as memory palaces would also be ambiguous or, at least, incomplete. The reason is that memory palaces are usually independent of the information being stored. To be true, today there are those who advocate setting related themes to memory palaces that would hint to its contents, but this is not an established practice and this is not either what is going on here. These “memory images” are themselves the subject-matter, the memoria rerum part of the complex image to be formed. Visual alphabets are then used to provide additional images to represent related concepts, which are attached to the main image somehow — they are the memoria verborum part of the complex image formed.

The example given from Romberch’s book is that of Grammar, one of the Liberal Arts of the Trivium, which is personified as a woman. The related concepts of predicatio, applicatio and continentia (whatever these mean) are encoded in the image by, respectively, a bird beginning with “P” (pica) which she holds, a bird beginning with “A” (aquila) on her shoulder, and four objects from the letter-shape visual alphabet for the letters C, O, N and T, which appear almost as if tattooed on her chest.

What I really like about this method is its scalability. One of the greatest caveats of usual mnemonic practices today is that memory palaces are hard to create, hard to expand and they lack a clear organisational scheme. You need to first find interesting places, get to know them, commit the loci to memory, and only then start placing images. Nowadays, we have video-games, movies, Google Earth and many other interesting ways of gathering loci, but even so it takes time. And you are not being efficient, because you are memorising a lot of stuff that is unrelated to what you really want to remember. Then there is the problem of matching the number of loci you have to the number of subject-matter items you want to memorise. And even if you do match them, what to do when you bump into new related knowledge that you feel like memorising?

The “memory image” method (I have to stick with Yates’s term for now, since I haven’t come up with a better one), in turn, has a number of advantages. The “memory palace” is itself the subject-matter, the “thing” or the keyword that summarises the topic, so you memorise only the information you need to. And as you do this, you get better at remembering a concept-image which might be used by you over and over again in other memorisation endeavours, whereas a memory palace is stuck to the information it contains and used no more (assuming you are aiming for long-term retention, not ephemeral memory exercises such as remembering a deck of cards). Moreover, this whole idea resonates with something I’ve been musing about very recently and I confess I am excited about it. Memory images may provide a fantastic knowledge organisation framework if, instead of placing subsidiary images representing simple words, we place images representing “things”, or the subject-matter of a subsidiary topic. By doing so, we can add ever more detailed information to the same main “mother-image”, forming a potentially infinite nested structure. This solves many (but not all) scalability problems we face today with the memory palace method. The need to categorise/organize your memory palaces is also a common problem. Since they are usually unrelated to the subject-matter being memorised, they don’t come to mind immediately when searching for information about a topic, which might even hamper problem-solving (I raised this possibility in this forum post). Now, if you have chosen well your main image for a given topic, say, a telescope for remembering Astronomy, it will come to your mind as soon as Astronomy does, and all the other attached information should (in theory) come in sequence.

I know I’ve digressed here, but I believe this “memory image” method, although still far (really far) away from my dream-method to remember it all, is an interesting path for further investigations. Of course, it is not without (huge) problems. The greatest one I foresee is the lack of spatial awareness when recalling images that are simply placed over another image. The very principle of the memory palace technique is abandoned here. Where is that familiar place where you can walk around and actually look to find the mnemonic images? Where is that familiar feeling of “having been there”? I can only wonder for now if cognitive science, psychology or, who knows, even philosophy might one day show me hints of a solution.

Coming back from the tangent I went off on, the Art of Memory is turning into a straight mnemotechnic used for practical matters. Although books on memory are being printed for the first time, and thus reaching a much wider audience, the very fact that books are being printed appears as a dark cloud in the horizon. Why remember knowledge if we can print it and easily disseminate it?1 Although there is a renewed interest in ancient rhetoric and Cicero is still its champion, the humanists are influenced by Quintilian’s skeptic approach to memory and end up following Erasmus’ preference for “study, order and care” in lieu of those medieval memory schemes. The Art of Memory seems to be, at best, being absorbed into the lesser straight mnemotechnic and, at worst, fading into oblivion. But, as Francis Yates teaches us in the end of Chapter 5, it will be transformed again; this time, by the Renaissance.

(You might be interested in The reversed theatre >>)


  1. Remember Socrates’ warning in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus when talking about the god Theuth’s invention of writing: “…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.“ 

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