August 18, 2008

Enter the Memory Palace

I have just begun reading Jonathan Spence's account of Matteo Ricci's life. Spence begins by outlining the medieval method of mnemonics- the science of memory. Ricci was interested in this and attempted to teach it in China. But I think it is interesting in its own right- as a means of considering the way that the medieval mind (if there was such a thing) approached the world. The idea was that instead of memorising a fact, you memorised an image associated with that fact. You created your own symbol for the thought and arranged that symbol in a pattern, an architectural pattern- a palace or street. Ricci said that you were better not to arrange your memories within a busy space but within a quiet one. There you could take a tour of your previous thoughts and recover your ideas. Take for example the student of history who faces a test about who were the Early Roman Emperors- asked the question who were the first four emperors of Rome, our student mentally enters her palace and turns to the room of Roman history. Immediatly as she enters she sees a frozen tortoise hanging in the basket of a fishing rod, and she can answer Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula. Why? Because she has remembered that image- and thus has the initial letters of all the Roman Emperors- A Tortoise Caught Cold.

This system was patronised by many of the writers about rhetoric in the ancient world- Quintilian wrote about it. The medievals even thought that the greatest ancient speaker of them all Marcus Cicero had used the same method. The idea of memorising images, as a more powerful device than a word, was common within medieval culture. One Italian handbook for religious women told them to imagine the scenes of the bible, one by one, with the faces of their friends on top of those of the apostles and Christ. Ignatius Loyola was also a stern advocate of this kind of memory training- Loyola wanted his missionaries to keep in their minds the brutal image of the suffering Christ so that they too could endure the torments of life as a missionary, as a potential martyr to the faith. Images for Loyola would be so much more effective than words at reminding the missionary of his calling. Memory skills were much prized in the middle ages- indeed one of the marks of the new science was to, as Cornelius Agrippa or Francis Bacon did, despise the tricks of mnemonic masters as just that tricks, without reason. (Remember if you have read it my last article and Hobbes's suggestion that prudence was inferior to wisdom.)

Memory was a resevoir for bringing forwards images to the mind- for nourishing spiritual resources in the great battle between Satan and Christ that dominated the medieval mind. Such nourishment of course could be dangerous- peasants were prosecuted in Italy and France for remembering too well- such a perfect memory could only be devilish. And of course, others wondered about the radical potential of memory- to divert one's gaze away from scripture to the mystical rapture of one's own mental creations. But memory was still central- especially this kind of visible memory- and central in particular to the way that the Catholic Church envisioned religion. When we look at the grotesque carvings of hell in the works of Bosche and others, it is worth remembering that we are seeing what the Medieval Catholic Church wanted all humans to carry in their heads all the time- the image of the darkness that would inevitably welcome us all but for the grace of Christ and the defiance of his Church.