While I regularly reference monastic composition as defined by Mary Carruthers, searching through the blog, I don’t think I’ve ever properly summarized it. Here’s my summary, taken from Ch. 2 of my dissertation:

Monastic Composition

In The Craft of Thought and elsewhere (“Late Antique Rhetoric,” “The Mystery of the Bed Chamber,” and “The Poet as Master Builder”), Carruthers argues that medieval memoria has its origins in monastic rhetoric, which, she explains, “emphasized ‘invention,’ the cognitive procedures of traditional rhetoric” (Craft of Thought 3).1  Monastic rhetoric, she argues, was “an art of composing” rather than an art of persuasion, and its practice of mediation involved the creation and use of “mental images or cognitive ‘pictures’” as the building blocks of invention. She summarizes her concept of monastic composition thusly:

The orthopraxis, or normative “way,” of monastic meditation was directed towards the vision of God by means of what amounts to a form of literary invention, using as its primary materials or res the texts of the Bible, considered not as “objects of study” in any way we would now recognize as scholarship, but as recollective “sites” for new compositions, constructed by drawing in (tractanda is a word of choice for composition) and augmenting a textual “seed” with other matters, “collected” (another favorite word) in long chains (catenae) of freely ranging associations (concatenations) on the part of the mediator. (“Late Antique Rhetoric” 241).2

While monastic in origin and originally intended for the creation of monastic art, monastic composition’s reliance upon the techniques of memoria came to be practiced outside monastic culture. For example, as Yates, Carruthers, and others have argued, poets such as Dante and Chaucer made use of these compositional practices. In “Art of Memory and the Art of Poetry in the House of Fame,” Beryl Rowland argues that medieval poets such as Chaucer took words from books, made them images in their mind, and then turned those images into new words, into new poems. Likewise, in “Bishop Bradwardine, the Artificial Memory, and the House of Fame,” Rowland argues that Chaucer’s House of Fame “may be seen as an externalization of [the] memory process” described in Bradwardine’s De Memoria Artificiali. Building upon Rowland’s arguments, Elizabeth Buckmaster argues that The House of Fame is an exploration of the practice of Prudence, the cardinal virtue intimately tied to ars memoria because it requires knowledge of the past, present, and future. Buckmaster also argues that in The House of Fame Chaucer represents this connection by presenting his knowledge of the sciences, arts, and philosophy by creating memory palaces in the poem, one for each book. The first palace represents the past, the second the present, and the third the future. She concludes that The House of Fame is an inner journey, an act of meditation such as we find in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.

Works Cited

Buckmaster, Elizabeth. “Chaucer and John of Garland: Memory and Style in the First Fragment.” Medieval Perspectives 1.1 (1986): 31-40.

—. “Meditation and Memory in Chaucer’s House of Fame.” Modern Language Studies 16.3 (1986): 279-287.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 10. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

—. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400 – 1200. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 34. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

—. “Late Antique Rhetoric, Early Monasticism, and the Revival of School Rhetoric.” Latin Grammar and Rhetoric: From Classical Theory to Medieval Practice. Ed. Carol Dana Lanham. London: Continuum, 2002. 239-257.

—. “‘The Mystery of the Bed Chamber’: Mnemotechnique and Vision in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess.” The Rhetorical Poetics of the Middle Ages: Reconstructive Polyphony: Essays in Honor of Robert O. Payne. Ed. John M. Hill and Deborah M. Sinnreich-Levi. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2000.67-87.

—. “The Poet as Master Builder: Composition and Locational Memory in the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 24 (1993): 881-904.

Rowland, Beryl. “The Art of Memory and the Art of Poetry in the House of Fame.” Revue de l’Universite d’Ottawa 51.2 (1981): 162-171.

—. “Bishop Bradwardine, the Artificial Memory, and the House of Fame.” Chaucer at Albany. Ed. Rossel Hope Robbins. New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1975. 41-62.

Yates, F.A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

  1. In “Late Antique Rhetoric,” Carruthers defines monastic rhetoric as a “shorthand phrase for a small set of terms—and rather large set of practices—that evolved especially during the fourth through the sixth centuries, roughly from the time of John Cassian (ca. 365-ca. 435) through that of Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604), during the earliest efforts to institutionalize monasticism in the West” and that many of these ideas and practices have their origins in the “Greek- and Coptic-speaking desert holy men and monks in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and other sites of the ancient eastern Mediterranean” (239). []
  2. For a more detailed account of this method of composition, see Carruthers’ The Book of Memory, 124-29. []