The mind mapping turn

The so-called ‘Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s diagram’ integratingĀ  man (ADAM in the middle) in the cosmos (the four elements in the outer roundels connected to the seasons, etc) in a 12th-century manuscript containing mathematical and astronomical information for the use of calculating time. British Library, Harley MS 3667

We all use mind maps, diagrams which organise information and help memorise ideas and structures. They are very popular because they are efficient. They just work. And they feel very modern, on the cusp of our technological age. Except that they aren’t.

Mind maps are a product of the medieval West. By the 12th century, the few intellectual centres in Europe had gathered enough writing and information on all areas of knowledge that some housekeeping was in order. The first age of information was dawning. This was Europe’s first attempt to systematise knowledge and to find ways of organising what appeared to many as a fast-growing intellectual mess. Synthetic tools were found which made it easier to grasp a large field of information such as philosophy, ethics or even history. Knowledge continued to grow, but many thinkers, and especially teachers, sought ways to make sense of all that had been written in a given field.

Mind maps developed as complex tools of dealing with a large body of structured information. By the mid 12th-century, intricate diagrams and mind maps emerged, many of them as elaborate as any modern mind map. Though the impulse for creating mind maps came from the jumbled state of knowledge in the West, the justification for such an approach lay in the belief that everything in the universe, physical and human, is interconnected, and a totalizing picture may be arrived at diagrammatically. For this reason, many medieval mind maps, such as Byrhtferth of Ramsey’s diagram above, can be all-inclusive, seeking to contain an entire field in a single image.

The mind mapping turn had important consequences in the West. As knowledge was systematised and tamed, scholars found it easier to access information. No stone was left unturned. Almost every field of inquiry could be reduced to a diagrammatic image. To help his students memorise the figures of the Old Testament, for instance, the 12th-century theologian Peter of Poitiers wrote a chronicle where text served to explain a multi-page diagram of Old Testament characters meaningfully connected with each other via lines and medallions like genealogical trees. The first age of information was raging.

Diagrams explaining the genealogy of Christ from Adam in a 12th-century manuscript of Peter of Poitiers’ Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, Walters Art Museum, Walters Ms. W.796

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