Down the medieval memory lane

Because we live in the Age of Information, we don’t think too much about memory, unless by memory weean storage devices, memory sticks and other depositories of digital information outside of ourselves. We have moved from a way of thinking about how to best memorize as much information as possible to one where the focus is how best to equip machines to do this task for us. The age of human memorising seems located in a galaxy far, far away, littered with the remnants of memories of parents and teachers yelling at us for not learning the poem or the formula by heart.

We just don’t care about memorising. This is such an astonishing fact that when we turn our minds to how humans used to engage their memory in pre-modern times, our reaction is on a spectrum between astonishment and shock. It is truly shocking when you think that a 12th-century monk could learn the entire Bible by heart, as well as a host of other theological, philosophical and literary works. That a book strewn with quotes may be written entirely from memory. In any case, we wouldn’t today think of our ability to memorize as an ‘art’. And besides, why would we? We’ve convinced ourselves that we don’t need it anymore because we can outsource it.

The art of ancient and medieval memory (known in Latin as ‘ars memoriae’) is a fascinating topic, and one that has been in focus since the 1960s. We can say three fundamental things about pre-modern memory:

  1. It was subject to conceptual modelization. Although taking a variety of forms, memory was understood as a space for putting stuff. Whether as a storage room, a strongbox or a birdcage, it was seen as an extremely well-organised space, like the bedroom your mother always wanted you to have as a child.
  2. Memory-training and acquisition was an ethical and self-edifying endeavour. Memorizing was not so much about remembering stuff than remembering the necessary stuff for specific projects (writing, speaking in public). Memorising was a way of absorbing the wisdom of the past and making it your own. It was ethical because it was the means to an ethical end, whether about doing good in the world or spiritual growth. The ignorant cannot act virtuously, whereas wisdom is located in the strongbox of memory and cannot be pursued without it.
  3. Memory was so central to learning that it shaped the book culture. A large part of the reading process was geared towards memorization. Many of the features of our written culture today are the effects of the former art of memory: page layout, rubrics, illustrations, colours, fonts… Remember, we didn’t discover visual memory, we inherited it from those who based their entire system of knowledge-transmission on it. Books were a function of memory and reading, while memory and reading were mutually dependent.

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