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In Memoriam:
Frances A. Yates’ The Art of Memory

[1]2,434 words

How does memory work? What enables us to conjure up experiences, facts, and events from our past? St. Augustine wrote that our experience becomes memory by “going to a place which is yet not a place,” pre-empting Freud’s work on memory.

Incidentally, if you are ever racking your brains to try to remember some event, person, or fact, take this tip I learned from Freud (although, ironically, I can’t remember where): Don’t try to remember, don’t thrash your memory. Simply get on with something else and, in a minute or two, the memory will arrive. It works for me every time.

There is a theory that a person could remember every experience they have ever had, but — and I believe this is also Freud — the resultant information would overwhelm us. And so a type of selective memory is actually a psychical defense mechanism. This recalls the story “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges. In the tale, Funes receives a head injury which results in him developing an ability to remember everything that has ever happened to him. This apparently amazing power is actually debilitating, and Funes is often seen in the town square, staring into space as he recalls a day in his own life in its entirety, and in real time.

We do not have as great a need for exhaustive memory as our ancestors, and this is largely due to technology. Our phones are prosthetic memories, able to access any information, take endless photographs, keep a calendar, and even log our thoughts. But how did pre-technological ages maintain their memories and what techniques did they perfect to recall the past — or more likely, required information?

The late Dame Frances A. Yates, who died in 1981 at the age of 81, was one of Britain’s greatest historians, her main area of expertise being the Renaissance. While much of her work presupposes some knowledge of the period, The Art of Memory (AM) can be read by someone with no knowledge of the Renaissance, and is in fact an excellent introduction to this most vital of epochs.

Cicero, in the Tusculan Disputations, poses the questions that AM sets out to answer by way of the practitioners of what Dame Frances calls “mnemotechnics”:

For my part I wonder at memory in a still degree. For what is it that enables us to remember, or what character has it, or what is its origin?

Dame Frances is, however, cautionary concerning her neologism:

The word “mnemotechnics” with its modern associations is inadequate as a description of this process, which it is better to call the medieval transformation of a classical art.

And this is the story AM tells: the strange journey of a technique intended to strengthen memory from its beginnings in antiquity; its passage through Scholasticism, Aristoteleanism, and Platonism; the discovery of its occult side during the Renaissance; its embroilment in furious academic battles amid Oxford’s dreaming spires; and its arrival at its final destination in the seventeenth century where it was, Dame Frances suggests, one of the main contributors to the Scientific Revolution. Memory is something all mankind shares, but very few are adept enough to improve. As Dame Frances writes: “[I]n the age before printing a trained memory was vitally important; and the manipulation of image in memory must always to some extent involve the psyche as a whole.”

And the art of memory begins where so much philosophy and thought begin: in the Classical world and with the “respect accorded in antiquity to the man with the trained memory.”

Dame Frances’ tale begins with Simonides of Ceos, a poet who is snubbed for payment at a banquet by his host Scopas because the bard over-praised the gods Castor and Pollux. A servant tells Simonides that two young men wish to speak with him in the courtyard. He departs and, in his absence, the ceiling of the banqueting hall collapses, killing all the diners and mangling them beyond recognition. When Simonides returns (possibly from a life-saving appointment with Castor and Pollux), he is able to recall who was sitting where, and in this way the dead guests are identified. And so the art of memory is born.

Its development in the Classical world is strictly technical, and the art revolves around the placement of images within a mental space which reproduces a structure from reality. These were mostly buildings, and “the ancient memories were trained by an art which reflected the art and architecture of the ancient world.” A favorite venue for mental recreation would be “an unfrequented building.” And so Cicero, Quintilian, “Tullius,” and an anonymous book called Ad Herennium laid down the keys for what would become a formidable tradition in terms of its adherents.


You can buy Mark Gullick’s Vanikin in the Underworld here. [3]

Aristotle, as you would expect, wrote on memory, although apparently his book dedicated to the subject is lost. But his appearance allows Dame Frances to make an early division in the history of the art of memory: “Aristotle is essential for the scholastic and medieval form of the art; Plato is essential for the art in the Renaissance.”

The art of memory thrives quietly throughout the Medieval period, and figures as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Peter of Ravenna, and even Dante all play a part in keeping the flame burning, but it is when Dame Frances reaches the Renaissance that you can see her truly warm to her subject, particularly the memory theatre of Giulio Camillo.

The long Renaissance featured a fascination with toy theaters, marvelous singing fountains, and mechanical animals, and so Camillo’s memory theatre tapped into the zeitgeist in more ways than just the increasingly popular art of memory.

This was a literal theater in miniature, meticulously crafted and soon famous, becoming the talk of society across France and Italy. Graded in levels through which the user ascended, each level was watched over by associative sigils or images, the planets, mythological figures, and the seven pillars of Solomon’ s House of Wisdom. And as the images used in mnemotechnics moved in the Renaissance from being mostly synecdoche to being far more astrological and mystical, so too a chain reaction familiar to the Renaissance magi can be seen:

Though the art of memory is still using places and images according to the rules, a radical change had come over the philosophy and psychology behind it, which is now no longer scholastic but Neoplatonic.

From Classical and Medieval rigor to the celestial flights of Neoplatonism, the art of memory was about to attract the attention of the authorities, and “Camillo thus did not escape the accusation of being a magician.”

Camillo’s theatre is at the center of the Venetian Renaissance, but Dame Frances turns back to the Medieval period for the next stage in the saga of memory, back to a form of artificial memory called “Lullism” after its founder, Raymond Lull, and which was to become one of the strongest tributaries of the river of memory’s art and technique.

Lull, writing in the thirteenth century, had formulated a system far closer to the ancient and mystic Cabala than the memory-buildings of Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance mnemotechnics. Often revolving — literally — around the use of memory wheels, or concentric circles which can be moved in an orbit relative to other wheels, Lull’s art is a literal ars combinatoria. It is also a different approach to the art of memory:

[W]hat is totally absent from genuine Lullism as artificial memory is the use of images in the manner of the classical artificial memory of the rhetoric tradition. The principle of stimulating memory through the emotional appeal of striking human images has no place in the Lullian art as memory . . .

This is at the root of why the ecclesiastical authorities began to balk at memory systems such as Lull’s: because they don’t stop at memory but instead use syncretic, pseudo-Cabalistic methods to try to investigate the secrets of the universe. The main charge the Church levelled against mnemotechnics is that it championed and thematized an artificial memory intended to supplement and improve on the memory with which God naturally endowed us. You can see the problem. By the time we get to that obscurantist titan of the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno, we can see the state’s changing attitude towards the art of memory and its practitioners.

Bruno is a very difficult writer, and it is unclear as to whether he is attempting to bring light or darkness to his various subject matters. Dame Frances paints a Byronic figure:

Here was a man who would stop at nothing, who would use every magical procedure however dangerous and forbidden, to achieve the organization of the psyche from above, through contact with the cosmic powers, which had been the dream of the decorous and orderly Camillo, but which Giordano Bruno pursues with a much more alarming boldness and with methods infinitely more complex.

Bruno’s work was too rich for Rome’s blood, and Bruno spent his last years in prison before being executed at the stake in 1600. The art of memory is not a low-stakes game.

Peter Ramus was a sixteenth-century French dialectician and teaching reformer who had his own brush with the authorities. (Strange to think that a teaching reformer in the Renaissance would have had his students’ interests at heart. How different things are now!)

His techniques for strengthening the artificial memory, along with the ferocious combinatorial order of Raymond Lull, are isolated by Dame Frances as an important way-station en route to the seventeenth century’s search for method:

Whoever wishes to probe the origins and growth of methodological thinking should study the history of the art of memory, in its medieval transformation, in its occult transformation, memory as Lullism, memory as Ramism. And it may appear when this history is fully written, that the occult transformation of memory was an important stage in the whole process of the search for method.

No memory theatres, Cabalistic wheels, and memory treatises; no Descartes.

During the Renaissance, all that era’s greatest names had a contribution to make to the art of memory. Marcilio Ficino, the great translator of Plato for the Medicis (and for posterity); Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the author of the central Renaissance text, the Oration on the Dignity of Man; and the aforementioned Giordano Bruno — who caused havoc in debates at Oxford University with his zealous defense of Lullist memory techniques as opposed to the more acceptable Ramism. At the tail end of the Renaissance, mnemotechnics had just one more port of call before washing up in the Enlightenment. The English Hermeticist Robert Fludd used a very mystical basis for his musings on memory, and also highlighted perhaps more than any of the other featured thinkers the ancient motto revived by the alchemists: Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius. This is perhaps more familiar to us as “As above, so below,” and involves the age-old trope of man as microcosm and the universe as macrocosm, and the synchronicity and correspondences between the two.

Dame Frances has a lot of fun with Robert Fludd, not least because it allows her a little academic sleuthing as she considers whether Fludd might have used as his memory theater Shakespeare’s rebuilt Globe Theater (it has recently been rebuilt again, and is a must-see if you are ever in London.)

Dame Frances finishes her tale of the art of memory in the seventeenth century, the century of scientific Enlightenment. The mnemotechnic art, she can see, is already looking antiquarian and outdated:

Robert Fludd is a last outpost of the full Renaissance Hermetic tradition. He is in conflict with representatives of the new scientific movement, with Kepler and Mersenne. Is his Hermetic memory system, based on the Shakespearean Globe Theater, also a last outpost of the art of memory itself, a signal that the ancient art of Simonides is about to be put aside as an anachronism in the seventeenth century advance?

But Dame Frances takes the art of memory to the extent of its existence, determined that a “a history which began with Simonides must not end before Leibniz.”

Throughout all of this deep Hermetic magic — Cabala, Bruno’s shadows of ideas, the Scholasticism, the Aristoteleanism, the Platonism, the neo-Platonism — we must hold fast to the fact that the art of memory is reducible to a clearly delineated set of techniques which anyone could utilize.

The art of memory is also a well-honed technique based on the mental manipulation of place and image. The mysterious Tullius gives very specific instructions for choosing a mental venue:

The five rules for choosing places are . . . 1. In quiet spots to avoid disturbance of the intense concentration needed for memorizing. 2. Not too much alike, for example not too many identical intercolumniations. 3. Neither too large nor too small. 4. Neither too brightly lighted nor too obscure. 5. With intervals between them of moderate extent, about thirty feet.

And the choice of memory locus will be dictated by the individual personality:

[D]ifferent people will choose different places — some a field, some a temple, some a hospital — according to what “moves” them most; yet the five precepts hold good, whatever the nature of the place-system chosen by the individual.

At first I was vaguely disappointed when Dame Frances announces that she has never herself tried to construct a memory theater. Then I realized this was actually consummate scholarship: the realization that our minds are structured and function entirely differently from the mind of a Renaissance intellectual. Technology is doubtless responsible for much of this functional disparity. Perhaps this reordering of the psyche is the first step towards transhumanism. First get them thinking like a computer . . .

But if Dame Frances A. Yates has no interest in building and populating her own memory theater, there is a fictional character who has. I read AM long before I read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see Harris acknowledge AM at the end of the book, the reason being that Hannibal Lecter — in hiding in Florence, which is rich in potential memory theaters, according to Dame Frances — has his own rather grand and even grand guignol memory palace.

The only puzzle the book threw up for me was that Dame Frances makes no mention of the Tarot deck. There are many theories about the Tarot cards [4], and one is that they are a memory system, the major arcanum able to interpret the world via its images and in its many ramifications. I suppose it is not possible, even for a scholar of Frances Yates’ caliber, to investigate all territories, and The Art of Memory gives plenty to entertain the intellectual adventurer.

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