Douwe Draaisma - Metaphors of Memory
A History of Ideas About the Mind
In her introduction to her 1990 study The Book of Memory, Mary Carruthers juxtaposes two of the greatest intellects in history, Thomas Aquinas and Albert Einstein. Or rather, she quotes two writers very close to Thomas and Einstein respectively, who try to sum up in retrospect the source of their greatness. What links the two descriptions is an intense admiration, but that admiration focuses on qualities which, as a pattern, are virtually each other's opposites. What is praised in Einstein is his originality and creativity. Einstein, we read, had 'tremendous imagination', let intuition take him into 'unexplored regions', steered clear of convention and in his desire for independence preferred to take lonely pathways'. The revolution he brought about was due to his ability to avoid the paths that others had trod.
Shortly after the death of Thomas Aquinas in 1274 the hearings began which were the customary first step in the procedure of canonisation. The praise showered on Thomas in the testimony of the fellow-members of his order were completely different in character from that lavished on Einstein seven centuries later. Thomas also possessed a luminous and original intellect, but he is praised first and foremost for his memory. We are told how he had made a compilation of commentaries on the four gospels for Pope Urban IV and had relied on his memory for texts that he had written and memorised during his time in other monasteries. His memory was extraordinarily rich and retentive: 'whatever he had once read and grasped he never forgot'.
His pupils testified to the fact that Thomas would sometimes dictate to three of four secretaries at once, on different subjects, from memory, effortlessly: 'he seemed simply to let his memory pour out its treasures'. When confronted with a difficulty he turned inward in prayer, after which he returned to the writing table and 'was accustomed to find that his thought had become so clear that it seemed to show him inwardly, as in a book, the words he needed'. With this prodigious memory, which seemed incapable of forgetting, 'it was as if knowledge were ever increasing in his soul, as page is added to page in the writing of a book.'

Shifting values

What strikes Carruthers in these two descriptions is a contrast that can be summarised, in medieval fashion, as that between imaginatio and memoria. Einstein's genius is attributed to intuition and imaginative power, qualities that allowed him to break free of what had been thought before him. Thomas' genius in contrast seemed to be based on a majestic memory in which knowledge was garnered in a slow and cumulative process. In the thirteenth century compared with our own age, it seems that people had a completely different attitude to the value of memory as an instrument of thought. There has been a complete reversal in attitudes: whereas in the Middle Ages memoria was seen as the soul's highest ability and hence as located deep in the brain, in the third venticle, in our age the greatest value is attached to the imagination, the capacity that medieval commentators situated in the foremost ventricle, immediately behind the senses.
But equally important--and parallel to Carruthers's commentary--is the persistence with which witnesses return to the book as an image for Thomas's memory. Naturally the members of his order knew Thomas as a man of books, reading, writing, dictating, as a scholar for whom each meal was an annoying interruption of his studies in his cell, the library or the scriptorium. Yet one suspects that the stubbornness of book metaphors was more than simply an elegant attempt to describe someone in terms of the world in which he moved. Calling Thomas's memory a book was equally an expression of the high regard in which the book was held in the Middle Ages. It was books which enabled the peripatetic Thomas to fill his memory with what previous generations of thinkers had produced; it was books which gave the dictating Thomas the opportunity to set down what his own judgement had to add. Books stood at the beginning and end of his memory. The fact that this memory finally itself became a metaphorical book, constantly filling and enriching itself, 'as page is added to page', was a tribute not only to Thomas, but also to the book.

The Middle Ages

Even without its association with Holy Scripture, the Book of Books, the prestige of the book in the Middle Ages is only too easy to understand. In an age where personal life was precarious and uncertain and it was the exception to live to experience the birth of one's grandchildren, the book embraced the experience of scores of generations. What had been entrusted to parchment, whatever had been transferred from the memory of an individual human being into the domain of the written word, escaped transience. Whatever had been set down in a book could be consulted by others, it became public, it could be passed on, transported, translated, exchanged, copied, disseminated, the text had in a sense been made secure.
One can also see the importance of conservation from medieval manuscripts and incunabula. Scribes and copyists in their scriptoria tried to achieve a harmony of content and execution, that is: sacred texts, recorded in a book made to last for eternity. The care with which books were manufactured, the marginal decorations, the quality of the parchment, everything was designed to contribute to this same impression: here lies a written memory, of a more permanent kind than is afforded human beings. That impression is not without foundation if one reflects that many of the monasteries where books were produced, with their walls many feet thick, no longer exist, having fallen into decline during the Reformation, burned to the ground or demolished, while the books, apparently so much more vulnerable, survive unharmed in libraries.
The dissemination of the book meant not only an expansion of the written word but also an expansion of the image. For a long time the view persisted that medieval laymen had to rely on visual representations, such as images of saints, paintings, frescoes and allegorical prints, and that cathedrals were Bibles of stone and glass for the illiterate, but this interpretation fails to explain the abundance of 'picturae' in books specially aimed at a select circle of scholars. Miniatures and marginal drawings were more than a simple alternative for words; they were intended to do what is implicit in the etymology of 'illustration', illuminate the text, so that it could find its way more easily into memory. When in AD 600 Bishop Serenus of Marseilles had all the images in his church destroyed, for fear that his congregation would lapse into idolatry, Gregory the Great reminded him that the memory had two main gates, hearing and sight, and that access to the memory could therefore be gained in two ways--by word and image. Hence, in Gregory's view, churches and books should in fact be decorated with images and paintings of saints.

The monastic tradition

Nevertheless it would be a mistake to think that in antiquity and in the Middle Ages the book came to be regarded as an alternative to human memory, as a means of unburdening by recording in writing what would otherwise have to be memorised. In the monastic tradition, the book was intended as an aid to memory, its purpose was precisely to facilitate memorising. Carruthers has argued that this way of treating the written word differs from the present relationship between writing and memory. Whereas in our age we say to ourselves, I must remember this until I can write it down', our medieval ancestors thought, I must write this down so that I can remember it better.'
When on the borderline of antiquity and the Middle Ages, St Jerome tells himself, 'By careful reading and daily meditation my heart should build a library for Christ' it is in his heart, the centre of the individual experience of faith, in which he gathers knowledge, not in the book or in the monastery library. What was written in books must eventually find its way into the personal memory. This relationship between writing and memory is perhaps expressed most beautifully in Gregory the Great's story about Abbot Equitius. This Equitius was in the habit of travelling around with leather sacculi slung from his left and right sides, filled with sacred codices. He would stop anyone he met, writes Gregory, and then produce a codex and 'would tap the fountain of Scripture and water the meadows of their memories' (quoted in M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 39). Once again: this stream flowed from codex to memory, not the other way round.
As a rule, what was recorded in codices or books was of religious origin. Psalms, gospels, liturgies--whatever was worth preserving in a written memory, coincided with what issued from the Scriptures. As a result the book, being read or written, became the fixed attribute of prophets and evangelists, Church Fathers and saints in Christian iconography.

Food for thought

The monastic custom of listening to readings at meals, quenching one's thirst from the Scriptures, taking nourishment from God's Word, led automatically to the metaphor of the memory as stomach. Partaking of God's Word like food had its origins in the Old Testament. In his vision revealing his vocation the prophet Ezekiel saw the Lord holding out a hand with a scroll for him to eat.
And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe. Moreover, he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll. And he said unto me. Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then I did eat it: and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness. (Ezekiel 2:10--3:3)
Readings at meals were part of a tradition in which words were not only tasted but chewed upon: many medieval manuscripts contain initials which are being gnawed, chewed or bitten, as if to urge the reader on to sink his teeth into the text. Study must be taken in portions, over-eating was harmful to good digestion. Meditating on what one had read by recalling it, was like rumination.

Students and scholars

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a scholastic tradition gradually evolved alongside the monastic one. The increasingly prominent position of theological studies, no longer in monasteries but at the first universities, gave the book a new status. An academic course in theology could not offer the lifelong acquaintance with texts (read aloud) that was possible in a monastery: time was limited and during lectures several copies of the same book were required for students.
In the thirteenth century, thanks to smaller script and thinner parchment, the Bible became a portable, single-volume book, which enabled travelling students and lecturers to take their own copy with them. In theological studies the need arose for compendia, reference works and collections of commentaries. In about 1250 the concordance to the Bible appeared, followed by indexes to the works of the Church Fathers, books which were not intended for reading, but for looking things up in.
This new function--as an aid to accessing the external memory--required a new kind of presentation and classification. After the concordance the first books appeared with a list of contents and an alphabetical subject index. Finding specific passages was made easier by section headings, key words in the margin, red and blue initials, cross-referencing, references to quotations, proper names in red ink to catch the eye. In textbooks a new order was created, and to an increasing extent with an alphabetical arrangement of entries.
The advantages of statim invenire, being able to find something on the spot, was at odds with the conventions of the monastic tradition. In a universe ordered by the coherence of hierarchy and chronology, alphabetical order could scarcely be regarded as an order at all. The alphabet conflicted with the familiar principles of harmony and coherence. The rise of the book that was consulted instead of read proceeded in fits and starts and did not immediately displace the monastic approach to books. The book as a storehouse of information was restricted to a limited circle of scholars. Included in individual collections, collected in chests and cupboards, books for study formed still-life-like groups in formal portraits of theologians, which towards the end of the Middle Ages gradually moved from the background to the foreground.

Marginal ideas

In the margins of the traditional book, geared to the personal memory, there were no directives such as those which characterised the scholastic tradition, instead, there were allusions to the retention of what one had read. In books of hours miniaturists drew coins or jewels or other valuables that could be saved. Flowers and beehives are also found: what was reading if not collecting nectar from flowers to be stored in the honeycombs of our memory? Equally popular were hunting scenes, referring to a metaphor of Quintilian's: in a trained memory the capacity to remember is like a hunter familiar with the habits of game who knows exactly where to find his prey. In the Middle Ages Albertus Magnus used the same metaphor: 'Remembering is nothing but tracking down what is concealed in the memory' (M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory, p. 247). Traces are 'vestigia', (foot)prints; remembering is a process of investigatio. A book of hours produced in Utrecht in 1440 for Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Gelderland, contains a series of marginal decorations, visual metaphors for the memory to which the text had to be committed (figures 1 and 2).

Changing perceptions

Books of hours like this appeared at a time when the regard in which books were held was at its peak, at the beginning of the fifteenth century. But even before the invention of printing, in around 1440, there were the first signs of a sea change. In order to meet the increasing demand, outside church and monastery, books of lesser quality and less exalted content, produced by second-rate copyists, were put on the market. As early as the end of the fifteenth century, some fifty years after the invention of printing, the collecting of books in a private library is ridiculed as human vanity. In the very first chapter of Das Narrenschiff of 1494 by Sebastian Brant, we see a conceited, bespectacled scholar, the type that is found to this day in cartoons, surrounded by what the caption describes as 'useless books'.
The reverence for the written word, which in the Middle Ages was given such intense iconographical expression, began to wane, a development perhaps not caused but certainly accelerated by the invention of printing and the increased proportion of secular literature. The century from 1500 to 1600 saw a doubling of the population, but a fourteen-fold increase in book production. From being something unique, the book became a mass-produced item. Large print runs became common, from the mid-fifteenth century onwards and books were more often printed on paper rather than parchment. Slowly but surely, books turned from a rarity into an everyday practical tool, which like other utilitarian objects had a limited life-span.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century the decline in prestige was complete. 'As already, we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning,' wrote Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). As a result the book gradually acquired a different metaphorical meaning. Books were no longer associated with permanence, with a memory that keeps transience at bay, but with the finite, the vanity and futility of earthly things. Books became a vanitas symbol. In the anonymous Spanish 'Still Life with Books' the decline is visible: the books are worn out, the leather bindings are creased and have shrunk and can no longer protect the paper, a worn-out goose quill and an hourglass accentuate the transience of the book.
Scores of seventeenth-century still lifes feature chaotic piles of books, like displays of fruit, flowers or game, as a topos of transience. Skulls were placed among the books, hourglasses, snuffed-out candles, wine glasses that have been knocked over, but also lutes and violins, because music, in those days, was still the most transitory of all the arts. Surrounded by everything that was transient and inconstant, the book appeared as the opposite of what it had symbolised in antiquity and in the Middle Ages.
Only one book escaped this reversal (figure 3). At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Dutch Pietist poet Jan Luyken wrote the lines:

Eén Boek, gedrukt in 't Hert als was
Is meer als duizend in de kas[t]

(One Book, printed in the Heart's own wax
Is worth a thousand in the stacks)

Thus Plato's wax and Aristotle's heart were combined with Dutch piety and the Book of Books at least remained linked with memory.


Translated by Paul Vincent

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The English translation is available at the
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