Reflection on Memory


The first readings of the course, selections from Francis Yates’ The Art of Memory, and Mary Caruthers’ The Book of Memory, were interesting reads and an unexpected kick-off to the course. Now, my exposure to the Middle Ages is fairly small, consisting of what I recall from sophomore world history, a couple semesters studying philosophy in my debate class, and my experience in playing a medieval political-simulator video game called Crusader Kings. In addition to my unfamiliarity with the Middle Ages, I’m a transfer student from SLCC, so I have no experience with University of Utah classes in general, Honors classes in particular. So having any expectations really isn’t justified, on my part.

While unexpected, though, they were very welcome, and did seem to be a great way to get one’s feet wet in the course. The readings immediately confirmed what Brian had said about the Middle Ages, that the study requires an anthropological mindset and a willingness to explore a cultural mindset where all the “laws” of our culture, which challenging would be seen almost silly except in the right context, are not present in another culture. The Middle Ages are, indeed, another culture, separated by time rather than geography. And the culture of the Middle Ages is not the culture we think of when we think of the Western world. I came to see this through the writings when Caruthers immediately contrasted the medieval concept and the modern concept of a topic that one would think wouldn’t even be up for debate: the nature of intelligence.

Intelligence in the modern Western world is linked with innovation and creativity. The great men of our age, such as Einstein or Newton in science, or my favorites Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes in economics (my field of study), are famous for their ability to develop new methods in their fields of study, to approach problems from a new and improved angle. In essence, they are innovators, known for their creativity and ingenuity. It’s in our language. “Clever!” “Ingenious!” And these exclamations are made when a new idea has been proposed that solves problems. But this is not the definition of intelligence in the Middle Ages.

In the middle ages, intelligence is associated with memory. Caruthers describes how praised St. Augustine was for his memory in his canonization hearings, his ability to dictate to four persons simultaneously (a claim that may be unconfirmed, but not unheard of), his dedication to memorization, and his ability to recall texts at any position in the document. He even supposedly dictated in his sleep! Yates described the methods of mnemotechnique that were used, techniques dating back to the rhetoricians of antiquity but were practiced just as much by those of the Middle Ages (and I wish I were more aware of these techniques when I was practicing oratory in high school debate).

Caruthers mentions that the lack of availability of easily accessible text is a possible explanation of the emphasis on memory in medieval society. I believe that there can be no arguing this fact: I postulate that cultures quite often develop patterns, norms, and beliefs in connection with their context, including the limitations of their situations. In a world where books are handwritten and the only copy in existence may be the original, mnemotechnique becomes a very valuable tool. After reading in Yates the various methods involved, such as association with strong emotional images and traveling to places, one can see how mnemotechnique is not simple by any means, so one who has perfected it to the point of being able to recall manuscripts word for word (and remembering words is often cited as very difficult and should be secondary to remembering things) is bound to be revered by one’s peers. Furthermore, the people of the Middle Ages may also have recognized that knowledge cannot exist in a vacuum, and one who has mastered mnemonic techniques will have immediate access to the information he needs for the development of his own ideas, and thus will produce a better product than one who cannot access that information.

But this is not to say that memory was valued solely for its utility in a world where information isn’t easily accessed; it’s very handy in rhetoric. A speaker will give a better speech if he knows what it is he’s going to say, which should have been prepared beforehand. And there’s something to be said for being able to remember what you encounter in life. When I saw the syllabus for this class, I felt disturbed by the fact that I did not remember very much from The Prince, even though I’ve read the book three times. Perhaps a strong memory was associated with a richer experience of life, where experience, including intellectual experience, was preserved and not forgotten and wasted.

To wrap this reflection up, I would like to say that this knowledge of the medieval attitude toward memory, and their attitude toward it, should garner respect from those of the modern world. Like all cultures different from our own, the people of the Middle Ages are often derided. Calling someone “Medieval” is no more flattering than calling someone “savage”. And yet they were aware of techniques that predate a knowledge of psychology, even though the study is psychological in nature. Nor is the medieval attitude entirely obsolete; wouldn’t you feel slightly at ease now if you could remember what it was I was talking about in the third paragraph, which you probably read two minutes ago?

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