Robert O'Neill: Art of Memory

Art of Memory

By Robert ONeill

8. Art of memory

One of the most confusing aspects of magic deals with imagery. It will take several chapters to untangle all the threads. We will begin with the Art of Memory which Yates (1966) established as an integral part of the esoteric tradition. Yates also shows that Llull's Art contributed to this tradition, which helps tie this chapter to material presented earlier.

We use memory aids all the time, e g., notes, pictures, charts, maps, sketches. Prior to cheap paper and printing, such aids were not available and developing one's memory was critical. To meet the need, the ancients developed memorization into a fine art, which came to be known as artificial memory or the Art of Memory. The list of classic authors that discussed and developed the Art reads like a who's who of the authorities cited and honored in the late Middle Ages (from Le Goff 1977 and Rossi 1983): Simonides (~556-468bc), Plato, Aristotle's De memoria et reminiscentia, Iamblicus, Porphyry, Quintilian's De institutione oratoria (end of first century bc), Seneca, the anonymous Rhetoria ad Herennium (~86-82bc, attributed to Cicero), Cicero's De oratore: (55bc), and the fifth century pagan rhetorician, Martanus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (Le Goff 1977).

The pagan torch was taken up by Augustine (Confession 10:8). Albertus Magnus discusses the art in De Bono and his commentary on Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas includes a discussion in the Summa. The Dominican, Giovanni da San Gimignano, discuss the techniques at the beginning of the 14th century (Le Goff 1971). Particularly relevant is the presentation of artificial memory by another Dominican, Bartolomeo da San Concordio (1262-1347), who wrote in Italian and directed his presentation to laymen (Le Goff 1977).

The details vary with different authors but the core of the Art remains constant. First, one must develop a vivid mental image of the 'locus', i.e., the place. Many early authors recommend, for example, that you use your own house. The idea is that you can walk though the individual rooms in a specific order that is familiar and requires no mental effort. Second, within each room of the locus, one places a vivid image. The image might be a statue, a beautiful person, or a mythic beast. The vivid images, each in its proper place, are the essence of the method. Then, third, one takes a list or topic and divides it into small, comprehensible units. Each unit is associated with one of the images. To remember the total topic, one uses one's imagination to walk successively into the 'rooms', sees the image, and the unit associated with that image is recalled to memory.

The method sounds ridiculously simple. But if you think it is too simple to really work, then you haven't tried it. Authors unanimously recommended it for 2,000 years. I can add my personal endorsement. It takes considerable time and attention to firmly establish the locus and images. But once the foundation is laid, it becomes easy to place and recall the units, even of a complex subject. In fact, you may even find, as I did, that you already have an ordered set of vivid images in the 22 Tarot symbols!

The core method is simple and doesn't really seem to have anything to do with magic, mysticism, or the Tarot. But as we example the details and how the method developed in western culture, the Art of Memory becomes more intriguing, and even a bit curious. We will begin by examining the three components, locus, image, and memory unit.

The place

The Greek and Roman authors named the first component "locus" and meant the term literally, a place. One can easily imagine walking through the rooms of one's own house and so they recommended using it as the framework. If using a physical location for memory sounds strange, then think about common phrases such as, "Now, where was I?", "Getting back on track", and "Let's move on".

But the critical element is not a physical place, rather it is a familiar order, a framework that allows one to move from one image to the next without effort. Later authors recommended imagining a ladder with steps (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002). Others used the familiar Neoplatonic map of the universe, with successive spheres for the elements, planets, stars, etc. (Yates 1966). Most interestingly, a number of authors use a tree. This recalls the apocalyptic figures of Joachim of Fiore (Reeves and Hirsch-Reich 1972), Ramon Llull's tree, and the tree image of QBLH. And may I remind you of the tree configuration for the Tarot suggested in the last chapter?

Things get curiouser when we discover that alphabets and numbers were also recommended as loci, even letters on concentric circles (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002). So the Hebrew letters on the QBLH tree and Ramon's Art fall neatly into the Art of Memory.

In a separate article, "The Fool's Journey", we considered the possibility that the Tarot might represent a mystical journey. Journeys, such as those portrayed by Dante and Petrarch, occur within. Pilgrimage was seen in the Middle Ages as a similar sort of an exteriorized mysticism, a ritual with actual objects (loci & images) (Turner and Turner 1978). It is interesting therefore, that the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem was recommended as a memory locus (Carruthers 1998). For one that had completed the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, individual places along the path would be memorable and would serve as the 'rooms'.

The images

The second component of the Art involved the images that were placed within the locus. It was universally recommended that the images be 'memorable' in the sense of being vivid or unusual, even absurd (Carruthers 1990). The images must be simple enough to be grasped in a 'conspectus' or glance (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002).

The descriptions of the memory image remind one of the allegorical figures in the emblem books. In these books, a woodblock image accompanied a verse with a moral lesson. The image doubtless served to recall the moral lesson (Tuve 1966). Memory images may also have influenced alchemical images, possibly facilitating recollection of a stage in the process.

Through its emphasis on imagery, the Art of Memory influenced the fine arts. Le Goff (1971) emphasizes that we should look with the "eyes of memory" at Giotto's frescoes in Padua and Lorenzetti's frescoes of good and bad government in Sienna. Late medieval and Renaissance frescoes are ordinarily a set of striking images in a specific spatial order or meaningful configuration.

Clanchy (1993) draws attention to the possibility that the elaborate paintings in medieval manuscripts may be derived from the memory arts. The illuminated initial (decorated first letter on a page) served to draw memory to the whole meaning of the text on the page. Similarly, the grotesques in the margins (eg., rabbits, dragons, dogs) may be more than decoration. Clanchy (1993) notes that scholars developed systems of indexing the contents of a manuscript using marginal symbols. In other words, a symbol sketched in the margin was meant to relate the contents of the page to other pages with similar content. Thus, the manuscript marginalia may have arisen as memorizing keys or notae.

By the 15th century, many applications of artificial memory had done away with complex imagery. In developments that we would recognize as a diagram or outline, the imagery was replaced by key-words or by letters of the alphabet, known as notae (Carruthers 1990). We will discover in a later chapter that some applications of the memory art became known as the "Ars Notoria".

The unit of memory

The classic authorities spend less time discussing the 'res', the item or sub-group that was to be associated with each image. If the task was to memorize a grocery list, each image might bear a single item. Complex subjects would be subdivided into logical units and the unit became the 'res'. This concept of outlining or dividing a subject into 'bite-sized' units may be one of the motivations for dividing Biblical books into chapters and verses (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002).

Things get still curiouser when we consider the size of a 'res'. How many individual items should be grouped together and placed on an individual image? No hard and fast rules are given, but Aquinas often used seven. For example, in his commentary on the memory treatise of Aristotle, Thomas uses a triangle of seven letters to explain a point (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002):





It appears that Aquinas, like many medieval authors, was influenced by NeoPythagorean ideas and tended to use seven and geometric figures.

But it turns out that there may be a real psychological basis for using seven. In an utterly fascinating article in The Psychological Review (1956), George Miller of Bell Laboratories assembles the empirical evidence: "For seven years, this number has followed me around. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution."

Miller assembled data from many studies, but one will suffice as an example. A number of dots were flashed onto a screen and subjects were asked to report the number of dots. Up to six or seven dots there were few, if any, errors. Beyond seven, errors were more and more common. Similar results were found by other researchers dealing with distinguishing sounds of different volume or with the number of items that could be recalled after a single reading of a list. Miller concludes the article: "what about the magical number seven?...For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover. But I suspect it is only a pernicious Pythagorean coincidence."

One of the studies in Miller (1956) found that subjects became confused when they tried to distinguish more than seven distinct tones or notes. Historically, there is little doubt that our seven note scale was derived from Pythagorean principles, but apparently there is also a connection with the Art of Memory as well.

That there is a connection between music and memory should come as no surprise. How did you learn the alphabet? You sang it! Most cultures use songs or chants to remember genealogies and legends. The epic songs of the 11th and 12th century troubadors is an example (Le Goff 1977). The epic poetry of Homer and Virgil was sung to the accompaniment of a lute.

The art of memory and orthodox mysticism

Things get curiouser and curiouser when we consider how the memory art was transformed in the monasteries. Carruthers (1998) feels that the classic study of Yates (1966) is misleading in assigning the Art of Memory to the arcane rather than the monastic tradition. Once again we find that an important part of magic was actually preserved, developed, and promulgated within orthodox Christianity, rather than being orally transmitted through secret societies, etc.

The mystical basis of the Art of Memory is found in the scriptures (Le Goff 1971). In the Old Testament, the people are continuously admonished to remember God's presence (e.g., Deuteronomy, chapters 8-9). Isaiah (44:21) says to "Remember these things". In the New Testament (e.g., 2Timothy2:8) the new Christians are told to "Remember Jesus Christ". Cruden's (1977) index of the bible lists 78 uses of the word 'remember' in the Old Testament and 21 in the New Testament.

The early desert fathers took the scriptural admonitions literally and used them as the basis of their mystical prayer. The name of their technique is usually translated as the Practice of the Presence of God. But the Greek words, mneme theou, mean the Memory of God (Carruthers 1998).

As western monasticism developed, thoughtful reading and memorization of scriptural texts became a key devotional practice (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002). In the monastic context, the technical memory art of the classic writers was applied to memorizing scriptures. Thus, Hugh of St. Victor recommends an imaginary picture of Noah's Arc as the locus, with scriptural verses placed on the steps of a ladder of spiritual progress from the bottom to the top of the Arc (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002). The goal of memorizing was no longer recalling information but contemplation. The reader 'saw with his heart the truth of hidden things' (Clanchy 1993).

Gradually, memory took on a second meaning. It was no longer simply the recollection of items on a list, but recollection in the sense of drawing within and remembering God. By the 13th century, the two meanings had mixed and blended into a memory art that was essentially meditation (Carruthers 1998). The Art of Memory was at the core of orthodox mystical methods.

The transformed memory art did not remain in the cloister. Meditative reading was widely recommended to the secular clergy and laity. The faithful were encouraged to perform a periodic examination of conscience. The common method was based on memory art with images of the seven Vices and Virtues used to recall good deeds and sins (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002).

The extent to which the Art of Memory influenced religious thought can be seen in the illustrations of the 14th century Psalter of Robert de Lisle. The illustrations include the usual devotional images of the life of Christ, crucifixion, and Madonna. But Sandler (1983) notes that there are additional diagrams belonging to the memory arts. The images were originally designed by a Franciscan, John of Metz, and are found in number of other manuscripts.

In addition to the tree of Virtues and Vices mentioned above, we find, among others, a diagram of the cosmic sphere, shown by Yates (1966) to be an esoteric memory locus. We also find a Wheel of Fortune. We find a diagram with seven circles, each divided into seven sections, and we find the Tower of Wisdom. This tower is a typical memory locus with 21 'rooms' identified by letters between A and X. The letters J, V and W are missing, just as they are missing from the table in the Numerology chapter. The locus and rooms are concerned with various virtues and their characteristics.

The art of memory in 15th century Italy

As we approach the time and place of the Tarot's origin, the memory art, already a religious and mystical method, takes on additional connotations. The first addition comes from the late medieval and early Renaissance fascination with syncretism. Western civilization basically felt it knew everything; all that remained was to synthesize, to draw together the many pieces. Theology and philosophy had reached its pinnacle with Thomas and the scholastics. Architecture, fine art, and epic poetry had achieved perfection. Nothing remained but to prepare for the Antichrist.

This hubris led to a new connotation for recollection. Recollection began to be used in the sense of re-collecting everything, pulling everything together into a grand synthesis. And the Art of Memory was pre-adapted for this new application (Carruthers 1990) as it permitted large amounts of information to be held in the mind.

But the recollection was not simply synthesis. Since knowledge was already complete, anything new, anything creative or inventive must necessarily involve the rearrangement of elements already known. This is very much the spirit of Llull's art: every syllogism was already implied within the known. And once again the memory arts were pre-adapted to the rearrangement and manipulation of the known (Carruthers 1998). It seems a strange conclusion to us, but to the 15th century, creativity was about memory! Galileo and Columbus soon burst the illusion of omniscience, but it was very much the vogue in 15th century Italy.

The creative aspects of memory led logically to the final application of the art: magic. Jacobus Publicus writing in the latter 15th century extols the power of memory. Orthodox mysticism is mixed into the dialog since artificial memory can help free the soul from the fleeting and fragile body. Like Llull, he uses the alphabet and concentric moveable circles as a part of his art (Carruthers and Ziolkowski 2002).

The reader who has labored through the preceding chapters on 15th century concepts of magic should not be scandalized by the associations of the Art of Memory and magic. In a culture where spiritual things are more real than material ones, calling something to memory makes that thing real and existing. The memory art thus provided a mechanism for the manipulation of the nonmaterial. And purposeful manipulation of the nonmaterial isn't a bad definition of magic!

The natural therapeutic effects of continuous manipulation of archetypal memory images was key to the transformation of the memory arts into mysticism and magic (O'Neill 1986). We should not be surprised that Llull was considered a great Magus in the 15th century since he had devised a method for the manipulation of cosmological symbols.

The Art of memory and the Tarot:

Throughout this essay we have implied that the 21 + 1 symbolic cards of the Tarot are related to the Art of Memory. The foundation of the Art is a set of ordered images and that is what the Tarot is. The order and the images must be very familiar and playing a game with the cards would have accomplished that.

In the Iconology book we established that the Tarot images are derived from contemporary sources such as religious art and the triumphal tradition. Many of these sources were strongly influenced by the memory art (Le Goff 1971). Yates (1966) shows that the Virtue symbols were used as memory images. Sandler (1983) shows the Wheel of Fortune in a collection of memory images. Both Yates (1966) and Sandler (1983) show the cosmic spheres, reflected in the Star, Moon, and Sun cards, as memory images. Both Albertus Magnus (Carruthers 1998) and Thomas Aquinas (Rossi 1983) discuss the memory arts as an aspect of Prudence. So it is possible, if speculative, that Prudence is missing from the Tarot symbols because the entire symbolic system is subsumed under that virtue.

On the negative side, there is one thing about the Tarot symbols that do not fit the typical memory art system. It was usually recommended that the individual memory images be vivid and even absurd (Carruthers 1990). Demons and dwarves might serve, but seldom the contemporary images of the Tarot. On the other hand, we have seen the Tower, Wheel of Fortune, Virtues, and Cosmos in other memory systems.

We should also recall that the woodblock printers who manufactured the early printed Tarots also produced 'Holy Cards". As we will see in the next chapter, these Holy Cards definitely fall into the category of memory images; not in the technical sense of storing memories but memory images in the monastic/religious sense. They were used to re-collect emotions, imagination, and devotion.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the Tarot symbols were influenced by the memory arts. Were they designed to memorize grocery lists? They certainly can be used in this way, but it is unlikely that the designers had this foremost in their minds. Were they designed with a didactic, moral, religious intent? This is more likely since essentially all of the contemporary symbolic systems had such intent. Were they designed as a Neoplatonic system that synthesized knowledge? That seems likely, given the fascination of that culture with synthesis in art, architecture, sculpture, and poetry. Were they designed with a meditative, mystical intent? Were they designed for magical purposes, such as divination? These questions must be left to speculation since only circumstantial evidence exists. All that we can offer is the observation that the Tarot belongs to a class of image systems, the Art of Memory, which was often used for mystical and magical purposes in 15th century Italy.

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