Have you ever listened to a fictional story being read aloud and envisioned the characters moving around in your mind’s eye, as though within your own, interior theater? If you have, then you have experienced what medieval intellectual culture considered to be a form of memory. This kind of creative mental visualization—what those of us in the 21st century might call ‘using our imagination’—was once thought to be a kind of memory.
Borrowing from classical sources, medieval and pre-Enlightenment authors taught that memory had two parts: memoria naturalis (natural memory) and memoria artificialis (artificial memory). Natural memory was the term given to a human being’s innate ability to recall previously learned information. For example, remembering your own name would be considered natural memory. Reciting a poem verbatim would also be considered natural memory. Artificial memory, however, was only achievable with specific training. More than simple memorization or recitation, this kind of memory involved the deliberate construction of vivid imaginings that would allow the practitioner to nest memories within elaborate mental scenes. Orators would nest cues for their speeches within this kind of mental architecture.
Memory treatises, like Johann Horst von Romberch’s Congestorium artificiose memorie, shown below, were quite popular. In the chart below in Figure 2, the objects in the aula (hall), biblioteca (library), and chapella (chapel) are all imagined objects that would be found within the abatia (abbey) in Figure 1. Each invented furnishing would correspond to a particular point in an oration, and the preacher or teacher giving the address would be able to remember its content and sequence by mental ambulation through familiar spaces.
The fifteenth-century blockbook, Ars memorandi notabilis per figuras Evangelistarum (A Method for Recollecting the Gospels) uses the same underlying methodology to assist readers with the cultivation of artificial memory for the purposes of learning the order of the events of the gospels in the New Testament. Carved entirely from wooden blocks, this anonymous textbook, known as the Ars Memorandi, was likely produced in Southern Germany around 1470. The work has no title page, no colophon, and no prologue. The reader opens directly to a heavy page of text (Figure 4) that corresponds directly to the figures in the strange diagram that it faces (Figure 5).
The opening text and its corresponding images are a mnemonic device for remembering the sequence of events that occur in the first six chapters of the Gospel of John. Small figures and objects are set against the backdrop of a large, memorable eagle, the symbol of the author, John the Evangelist. Why nest these little figures in a giant eagle? Because in so doing, the disposition of the page helps the reader to remember that the images of this particular narrative sequence belong to John’s Gospel rather than that of Matthew, symbolized by an angel (Figure 6) Mark, symbolized by a lion (Figure 7), or Luke, symbolized by an ox (Figure 8).
Though difficult to read due to the crude woodcut, the text does provide the reader with hints as to what the images indicate, something like cue cards or cliff notes. The section of text corresponding to the first image, which is marked with a rough letter “1,” reads: “In the beginning was the Word… on the eternity of the Word and on the Trinity.” The image (Figure 2) shows a dove that is sitting on the head of the eagle. Two faces emerge from each side of the eagle’s feathered neck: a younger man with a brown beard, and an older man with a white beard. This clumsy representation of the Trinity (white beard = Father; brown beard = Son; dove = Holy Spirit) recalls the events described in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which focuses on the relationship of the Trinity.
The second image in the sequence, marked with a “2,” depicts a lute situated on the eagle’s chest. This image corresponds to the Wedding at Cana, as weddings in the fifteenth century would have included lute playing. Marked with a “3,” the third image in the sequence, situated by eagle’s loins, represents the event where Christ explains to Nicodemus what it means to be “born again.”
The images are playful, strange, and even a little shocking: once you see the needle sticking out of the lion’s thigh (ouch!), you are unlikely to forget the reference to the maxim in Mark’s gospel that it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God (Figure 9).
Classical mnemonic theories emphasized that students were more likely to remember strange and surprising images. Like marketers today, theorists of the past understood that memory is more easily stimulated when information is contained within an image that provokes an emotional response such as surprise, delight, or amusement. For contemporary viewers, the Ars Memorandi is a wonderful reminder that religious imagery was a symbol system, and that not every instance of it indicates that a book was created for devotional use.
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Villafana, Tana. “The Apocalypse, the Hellmouth, and Spectral Imaging.” Guardians of Memory. October 25, 2021. //blogs.loc.gov/preservation/2021/10/hellmouth-spectral-imaging/
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