Mnemonic Devices and Memory Treatises in the Medieval Church


Moving into scholastic theology, there was an increased need for the art of memory as knowledge increased. The schemes of moral theology became more complex and more rules were placed upon man for salvation in the Medieval Church which placed a new emphasis on memory. Yates comments, “…the principles of artificial memory, as understood in the Middle Ages, would stimulate the intense visualization of many similitudes in the intense effort to hold in memory the scheme of salvation, and the complex network of virtues and vices and their rewards and punishments…”

Psalms Required

At this time, monks in the monastery were required to learn, by heart, all the Psalms, as evidenced by The Rule of Ferreolus. This task, “…commonly took two to three years, though gifted individuals could manage it in six months.”

Some of the art coming out of this period may be the result of the mnemonic principle to devise images that are shocking or unusual, such as Dante’s Inferno. It is an interesting proposition to consider that memory plays a role in, “…the strange figures to be seen on the pages of manuscripts and in all forms of mediaeval art [are] not so much the revelation of a tortured psychology as evidence that the Middle Ages, when men had to remember, followed classical rules for making memorable images…”

The Dominican Monks

The greatest proponents for a trained memory at this time would be the Order of Preachers – the Dominicans. As the art of memory originated with rhetoric, it had now again come full circle for preaching. The Dominicans realized that, “To make people remember things, preach them to them in ‘unusual’ similitudes for these will stick better in the memory than the spiritual intentions will do, unless clothed in such similitudes.”

It is during this time period that memory treatises began to be written in the common language and not in Latin, “This suggests that the artificial memory was coming out into the world, was being recommended to laymen as a devotional exercise.”

The Phoenix

The Phoenix, written by Peter of Ravenna in Venice, 1491 was a memory book for the laity. “Peter laicized and popularized memory and emphasized the purely mnemotechnical side.”

This book became, “…the most universally know of all the memory text books,” in his time. His method is based upon fixing loci (such as found in the Ad Herennium) , using a familiar place, like a frequented church, and committing the places to memory, “He chooses his first place near the door; the next, five or six feet further in; and so on.” He then places images of the things he desires to remember upon those loci.

Visual Alphabets

Another notable mnemonic development of this age was the ‘visual alphabets’, “Visual alphabets are ways of representing letters of the alphabet by images…The visual alphabet probably comes out of endeavours to understand Ad Herennium on how proficients in artificial memory write in images in their memories. According to the general principles of artificial memory we should put everything that we want to fix in memory into an image.”

A further development of these ‘visual alphabets’ is in placing images for words to be recalled upon the original image or more images ontop of the original image to help recall more specifics. An example of this is found in an anonymous blockbook published in South Germany in 1470 entitled, “A Method for Recollecting the Gospels” In this book traditional graphic representations of the Gospels are given with additional images placed ontop in order to help the reader recall important information about each Gospel book.

Forgetting the Art of Memory

Yet, by the sixteenth century, the art of memory seems to be “…dwindling into curious memory games. Modern trends in humanist scholarship and education are luke warm about the classical art, or increasing hostile to it.” In fact, “Melanchthon forbids students to use any mnemotechnical devices and enjoins learning by heart in the normal was as the sole art of memory.”