Memory – a medieval perspective

I’m reading a fascinating book by Mary Curruthers, The Craft of Thought (1998). This is the beginning of my search for ways of thinking in other fields that might help to illuminate pibroch’s darker, more difficult corners. I’m guilty of spending too many hours in the pibroch echo-chamber, so this is a way of getting my head into fresh air and looking to the horizon for inspiration. Curruthers writes:

Mnemosyne, “memory,” is the mother of all the Muses … In order to create, in order to think at all, human beings require some mental tool or machine, and that “machine” lives in the intricate networks of their own memory.

… the orator’s “art of memory” was not in practice designed to let him reiterate exactly in every detail a composition he had previously fabricated. For one thing, to sound as though he were reciting from memory like a parrot was one of the worst faults a Roman orator could commit. It was also foolish, for if he were to forget his lines or if (very likely in the debates of the Republican Senate) he were flustered by some unexpected event or attack, he would have nothing to say. The goal of Roman oratory was to speak eloquently ex tempore; this was the sign of a master.

… I repeat: the goal of rhetorical mnemotechnical craft was not to give students a prodigious memory for all the information they might be asked to repeat in an examination, but to give an orator the means and wherewithal to invent his material, both beforehand and – crucially – on the spot. Memoria is most usefully thought of as a compositional art. The arts of memory are among the arts of thinking, especially involved with fostering the qualities we now revere as “imagination” and “creativity”.

As one reviewer wrote, The Craft of Thought “explores a core of medieval culture whose premises and practices were broadly pervasive, and so scholars in many different fields will benefit from it” (read the whole review).

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