Mnemonic Devices in the Early Church – Augustine and Aquinas


In the fifth century a work written by Marianus Capella, De nuptiis Philogiae et Mercurii ensured the survival of the ancient art of memory. It was a book on the seven liberal arts that contained a section on artificial memory.

Yet even without this work Christian theologians of that time, including Jerome and Augustine, would have been aware of the art of memory through the Ad Herennium as this book was known in North Africa at the time.

Memory Moves Away from Rhetoric

It is during the time of the Middle Ages that, “In the barbarised world, the voices of the orators were silenced…Learning retreated into the monasteries and the art of memory for rhetorical purposes became unnecessary…” In this time period of the Middle Ages, rhetoric was not primarily the object of memory but rather, “…the things belonging to salvation or damnation, the articles of faith, the roads to heaven through virtues and to hell through vices.” The art of memory had moved its center from rhetoric to moral theology.


As evidence of familiarity with the art of memory in the Church, we find in Ambrose’s catechesis a memory aid which helps his catechumens learn the Apostle’s Creed via a mnemonic device saying, “For just as there are twelve Apostles, so are there twelve phrases.” He also exhorts his catechumens to recite the Creed daily.

Augustine’s use of Mnemonic Devices

Likewise, Augustine used mnemonic devices that he would have known from previous rhetoric training (which included artificial memory). For instance, Augustine would use repetition of biblical phrases to pound “’….into the memory, as gravel is pounded into a path, to make sure that they do not pass out of the mind.’”

When preaching Augustine also used rhetorical devices that would help his hearers remember what he preached, “…Augustine used to make his messages memorable: metaphors, paradoxes, antitheses, puns, tongue-twisters, knotty problems, soliloquiest.” In addition, Augustine would always review key points from his previous sermon to refresh his hearers memory. Augustine also realized the power of imagery and “..focus[ed] especially on scriptural images that lay close to his hearers’ experience.” As we will see, Luther pursues the same technique in the writing of his Small Catechism.

Similar to the Jews, Augustine required his catechumens to recite back the Creed eight days before Easter, “Augustine would test them individually to see if each could recite it exactly as it had been given.”

Akin to Ambrose’s mnemonic device to aid in the learning of the Creed, Augustine would introduce a help in learning the Lord’s Prayer, “Of the seven petitions, three refer to life eternal, for to life here and now.”

Commit Scripture to Memory

In Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, he exhorts that the preachers first task is, “…to know these books [Scripture]; not necessarily to understand them but to read them so as to commit them to memory [emphasis mine]or at least make them not totally unfamiliar.”

Those who countered the arguments against developing an artificial memory were countered by arguments that the Scripture themselves contain many examples of ‘artificial memory’, “…for example, the cock-crow reminded Peter of something, and this was a ‘memory sign’” Yates comments, “…Scriptures use poetic metaphors and speak of spiritual things under the similitudes of corporeal things.”

Thomas Aquinas

One of the most prominent theological figures of the later Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, is said to have an extraordinary memory which he trained under Albertus Magnus at Cologne. Aquinas comments that it is difficult for man to remember spiritual things without images and offers advice on how to memorize in his Summa Theologiae.

In Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae he discusses memory, and offers “four aids to cultivating a good memory.” In this work Aquinas offers four observations about memory that echo the Ad Herennium.

Summa Theologiae on Memory

In Aquinas’ Summa he speaks about aids to memory, which are summarized as follows: a.) To remember, one must pick unusual images, “…because simple and spiritual ideas slip somewhat easily out of mind unless they are tied, as it were, to bodily images; human knowledge has more mastery over objects of sense.” b.) Those things which are to be remembered are to be arranged in an orderly fashion. c.) A person must diligently want to remember the material he seeks to retain, “…because the more deeply stamped they are on the mind the less likely are they to disappear.” d.) Frequent repetition or review of material that is desired to be retained in memory, “…the things we often think about are quickly recalled by a sort of instinctive process.”