A picture is worth a thousand words

We’ve heard it many times: a picture is worth a thousand words. Written words. But before a picture is resolved into a thousand words, it saves up a thousand memory banks.

An image is worth a lot of memory space.

We may think we’ve discovered the value of visual memory, but actually visual memory has been there for a long time, long before we’ve entered the chirographic age – the age of handwriting, which precedes the ages of print and digital.

In an oral or semi-oral society, images are cues that have more to do with memory than with style or esthetics. The power of evocation is memory first, emotions later. Image evoke other images or narratives. An image encapsulates a story and triggers a cognitive bullet – which is to say that it recalls stored material.

The ancients and the medievals had a remarkable way of theorizing this basic observation: there are ‘images of things’ and ‘images of words’. A picture evokes, which harks back to evocare (ex vocare), to call back, to recall. A picture brings back a thing or a word stored in memory.

Premodern societies were memory-rich societies. Textual resources mobilized the power of memorization, whose objective was recall. Stored information is not useful unless it is easily recalled. More important than input was output. A good memory was one which had a clear map for getting stuff out.

Images are signposts for getting stuff out of memory. Medieval manuscripts are perhaps the best available evidence of this process. Medievalists are constantly recovering age-specific ways in which images were used to organise stored textual material. A rubric here, a decorated initial there, a vignette summarising the tenor of a story or an argument were as many ways of making sure that what goes in must come out. We admire these images today for their esthetic appeal, but that is because we forgot a significant part of their meaning.

Images work. They do the legwork. They set things in motion. They are worth a thousand words, but most of all, they recover those words.



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