Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archive

The Canon of Memory in the Middle Ages Bibliography

     [Note: This bibliography was complied in 2002 ad has not been updated.] In “Memory Issues in Composition Studies,” John Frederick Reynolds argues for a reclaiming of the rhetorical canon of memory from the dustbin of history, a process that began with Peter Ramus and ended with current-traditional rhetoric. Memory's dismissal had been so effective that even Edward Corbett, in his Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, wrote it off as pure memorization and, therefore, unnecessary in the post-printing era (4-5). The contemporary study of rhetorical memory largely began with Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, which gave one of the first and still most detailed accounts of the classical system of artificial memory as described in the Rhetorica ad Herennium. Yates demonstrated, he notes, that “Memory was the loci of the topoi for Aristotle (31), and the connection to the divinity of the soul for Plato (36, 37). Memory was the custodian of all the parts of rhetoric to the author of the Ad Herennium (5), proof of the soul’s divinity to Cicero (45), the source of oratory’s power to Quintilian (43), the ‘groundwork of the whole’ to Plato (37), and the key to invention to Aristotle (34)” (5-6). The middle ages, Reynolds notes, not only carried on but also expanded the classical tradition of memory.

     For the purposes of contemporary composition, Reynolds suggests we explore four aspects of rhetorical memory: memory as mnemonics, memory as memorableness, memory as databases, and memory as psychology (7-13). For the purposes of rhetorical theory, however, I, as well as others, suggest we expand our notion of memory even farther so that it includes memory as history and memory as culture. This bibliography, in an attempt to explore rhetorical memory in its myriad forms, is divided into four sections: 1) memory theory, which covers both primary and secondary studies of the theory of memory during the middle ages; 2) practices and uses of memory, which examines how memory and memory theory was used and practiced during the middle ages (unlike the first section, this includes both medieval and modern memory theory); 3) memory, orality, and literacy, which explores memory within the context of orality and literacy studies; and 4) ars memoria et ars poetica, which covers works that specifically discuss the intersection between (literate) poetic practice and artificial memory.

Memory Theory

Augustine. Confessions. Tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin, 1961.
In Books X and XI of his Confessions, Augustine, who taught rhetoric professionally before his conversion, discusses memory. According to Augustine, memory is what we learn (it is not only what we experience, but what we hear from others), it is an active process (recall), it allows us to remember the past truly through words that are imprinted into our minds via images gathered through sensory experience, and it always exists in the present (memory works in the present as it accesses images of the past).
Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 10. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
The Book of Memory is, in many ways, the continued study of memoria that Francis Yates called for in her The Art of Memory. The Book of Memory is the study of medieval memory training and its relation to literacy. In it, Carruthers posits that medieval culture was itself a “memorial” culture, one that makes “present the voices of what is past, not to entomb either the past or the present, but to give them life in a place common to both in memory” (260). Carruthers argues that memory was the chief faculty of the mind, the primary canon of rhetoric, the most important branch of education, and the foundation of all composing. Moreover, she argues that memory was believed to be central to ethical living. The book considers medieval memory from a variety of perspectives: models for thinking about memory (wax tablets and storehouses); psychological and medical theories of memory, mnemonic systems used to train memory, memory arts in the tradition of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, memory and its role in composing and reading, memory and its role in education, and books as memorial objects. Carruthers also includes translations of three little known memory treatises Hugh of St. Victor’s “De Tribus Maximis Circumstantiis Gestorum,” Albertus Magnus’s De bono, Tractatus IV, Quaestio 11 “De Partibus Prudentia,” and Thomas Bradwardine’s “De Memoria Artificiali,” the third of which has already been translated by Beryl Rowland.
Coleman, Janet. Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Janet Coleman’s work on ancient and medieval memory, which she describes as a series of interrelated studies of “the range of views on memory and its uses during the middle ages” (3), is a study of memory as psychology and epistemology. This work, in which she argues that theories of remembering in the middle ages is in part theories of signs, of language, and the relationship of language to thinking, shows that many of the questions and answers we are struggling with today, are really just reformulations of medieval discussions. “Most of us,” she states, “remain unaware that modern science, some modern history and modern philosophy have inherited from the Renaissance a trivialization of over 1,000 years of previous history” (xvii).

Coleman’s study begins with Plato and culminates with John Duns Scotas and William of Ockham. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the past was believed to be knowable, even “intelligible in light of the present” and the debate between Ockham and Scotas was not over whether the past was knowable, but whether it was “present and universal” or “past and particular” (464). This comprehensive study is divided into five sections: “The Critical Texts of Antiquity,” “The Practice of Memory During the Period of Transition from Classical Antiquity to the Christian Monastic Centuries,” “The Beginnings of the Scholastic Understanding of Memory,” “Aristotle Neo-Platonized: The Revival of Aristotle and the Development of the Scholastic Understanding of Memory,” and “Later Medieval Theories of Memory: The via antiqua and the via moderna.”

Rowland, Beryl. “The Artificial Memory, Chaucer, and Modern Scholars.” Poetica 37 (1993): 1-14.
Written as a response to Mary Carruthers’s The Book of Memory, Rowland briefly explains the term artificial memory as an architectural type of mnemonic system which makes use of images and places. Rowland notes that Francis Yates’s study was one of the earliest and the first in English, and is still the best starting point for anyone interested in the art of memory in the classical and medieval period. After Yates, Rowland says, one should then take up Mary Carruthers’s more recent study. While Rowland believes Carruthers’s work is both important and detailed, he is troubled by the modern scholarship, including his own which he goes into in some detail, which she has left out. Rowland then concludes that there is much left to learn about the art of memory and many treatises left untranscribed.
Wallis, Faith. “The Ambiguities of Medieval ‘Memoria’.” Canadian Journal of History / Annales canadiennes d’histoire 20 (1995): 77-83.
This essay examines and comments upon four works of scholarship: Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past by Janet Coleman, The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers, Dreaming in the Middle Ages by Steven F. Kruger, and History and Memory by Jaques Le Geoff, which, respectively, explore memory as psychology and epistemology, memory training as a branch of pedagogy, memory imagery and its similarity to dream imagery, and memory in the service of history. In comparing these four works, Wallis demonstrates that medieval memoria is a complex concept that is made up of “a complex constellation of overlapping connotations, where fiction bleeds into fact, the personal into the public, the psychological into the pedagogical, and the past into the present” (83).
Yates, F.A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1966.
The first five chapters of Yates’s The Art of Memory, which was the first modern English work to tackle the subject, explains the classical and medieval practice of an architectural type of mnemonic system that makes use of places and images, of which the Rhetorica ad Herennium has the best know discussion. Yates’s study was so influential that when scholars refer to “artificial memory” or “the art of memory,” they are more often than not referring specifically to this system Yates describes, though recent work, particularly that of Mary Carruthers, is demonstrating that this system was but one subset of “locational” mnemonic systems. Despite this, for what it is, Yates’s work is still considered the best study of its kind and is highly recommended as a starting point for any study of artificial memory. For a further description of this work, see the introduction above.

Practices and Uses of Memory

Berlin, Gail Ivy. “Memorization in Anglo-Saxon England: Some Case Studies.” Oral Tradition in the Middle Ages. Ed. W.F.H. Nicolaisen. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 112. Binghamton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, 1995. 97-113.
Berlin begins her study of memorization in Anglo-Saxon England by noting that after Christianization there would be at least two possible memory systems: that of the native oral tradition and that of literate monastic practice. Making use of written accounts, Berlin provides some case studies of both “lettered” and “unlettered” accounts of memorization. From the available evidence, Berlin makes the following observations: precision in memorization depended upon the purpose, that memorization often engaged both the eye and the ear, that some form of vocalization was used in memorizing, and that all accounts of memorization in Anglo-Saxon England included a written text as a first step towards memorizing.
Burke, Peter. “History as Social Memory.” Memory: History, Culture, and the Mind. Ed. T. Butler. Wolfson College Lectures 1988. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. 97-113.
This essay discusses how social memory functions in relation to history. Specifically, it looks at how social memory is transmitted, how social memory is used, and how social amnesia is used. Social memory is transmitted via: oral transmission; memoirs and other written records, which “are not innocent acts of memory, but rather attempts to persuade, to shape the memories of others” (101); images such as pictures, tombstones, statues, and medals; actions, in particular ritual actions which “are reenactments of the past, acts of memory, but they are also attempts to impose interpretations of the past, to shape memory” (101); and space (the Catholic church, for instance, would restructure the lay out of villages after they converted indigenous peoples). Social memory itself, Burke argues, is often consciously used by those who don’t have solid cultural roots. While the victors may write history, he suggests, they’re also the ones likely to forget it. He points to the Irish people’s continued grievances against events that took place during the Elizabethan period as one such example. Lastly, Burke notes that cultures forget, even destroy, documents that “become awkward and embarrassing” (110).
Coleman, Janet. “Late Scholastic memoria et reminiscentia; Its Uses and Abuses.” Intellectuals and Writers in Fourteenth-Century Europe. Ed. Piero Boitani and Anna Torti. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 1986. 22-44.
Late scholastic thought as represented by John Duns Scotas, according to Coleman, believed that everything a mind could think of was part of memory, of memoria. To Scotas, memory was understanding, not recollection, reminiscentia, and, to him, perfect memory was not the recollection of individual experience but the understanding of what you know. In this essay, Coleman discusses the ramifications of memoria as understanding and uses Jean Froissart’s chronicle of the Hundred Years War as a case study. “Froissart,” she explains, “wants to retell rather than verify” (44). According to scholastic thought, Froissart, who relies heavily upon oral testimony as well as written documents, “is, like any knower, an omnipresent witness to the declarative knowledge which corresponds to perfect memory where what is hidden in our memories is actualized and revealed” (44).
Fentress, James, and Chris Wickham. Social Memory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
One of the best studies of social memory available, this work is written by two medievalists who, while not limiting themselves to medieval memory, do draw heavily upon medieval sources and scholarship throughout their work. Social memory, which Fentress and Wickham have renamed from Maurice Halbwach’s collective memory, is to differentiate it from both history and individual memory, is interested in commemoration and formal reenactment. Like individual memory, and unlike history, social memory is has no pretensions to objectivity or truth. It is what is “believed, at least at some level — for one should not neglect folk-tales, which are commemorations of the past as well, although they are often not even told as strictly believable” (xi). Chapter one is an excellent introduction to social memory and its relationship to history, myth, literature, and rhetoric, and chapter four deals specifically with social memory in the middle ages.
Geary, Patrick. J. Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.
In this study of the history of memory, Geary examines the three regions of the former Carolingian Empire during the Eleventh Century to examine how memory of the past was recollected, transformed, and used. Geary argues that scholars have put too much emphasis on the dichotomy between individual and social memory and on the differences between oral and written history because one individual could shape social memory just as much as social memory could shape the memory of one individual and that during this period many written documents came to be because of oral tradition. After presenting a series of case studies, Geary makes the following observations: our knowledge of the early Middle Ages was determined by people of the Eleventh Century found useful, what they wanted their contemporaries to know and not know; that these processes took place at local levels for specific purposes but had broad and long-lasting effects; that the “raw materials” of the past were either transformed to conform with the present or were lost when this was not possible; and that the shift to written records makes this period particularly important.
Mostert, Marco, ed. New Approaches to Medieval Communication. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 1. Turnhout: Brepolis: 1999.
Part I of this work provides a good survey of the state of Medieval communication scholarship. Part II contains five essays, my favorite of which, and the one which is most related to memory, is “’Send More Socks’: On Mentality and the Preservation Context of Medieval Letters” which tries to suggest what might have been lost based upon what has been found, such as wooden tablet birthday invitation found in British Roman ruins; a rune stick asking a husband to come home, found in the ruins of a Norwegian tavern; love letters written on wax tablets; and a birch bark “haven’t heard from you lately, please write and let me know how you’re doing” letter in Novgorad. Part III, which is the real important section of this work, is a 104-page bibliography on Medieval communication (divided into 16 sections and 75 subsections!), which includes “non-verbal communication,” “ritual,” and eight pages on “oral and written memory.” A most useful book indeed.
Rowland, Beryl. The Art of Memory and the Bestiary.” Beasts and Birds of the Middle Ages: The Bestiary and its Legacy. Ed. Willene B. Clark and M.T. McMunn. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1989. 12-25.
Bestiaries, Rowland argues, like stained-glass windows and medieval sermons, worked to provide moral and scriptural instruction through creating memorable images, thereby imprinting their lessons into the minds of even those without trained memories. To this end, bestiaries used both illustrations and text and often co-opted secular tradition to further their instructional aims. Among Rowland’s many examples of how bestiaries blending secular and religious/moral traditions is that of the beaver. Beavers, whose testicles were believed to be medicinal had the Latin name castor, derived from castrando so tradition tells us, because when it is chased by hunters, it will castrate itself and throw its testicles at its pursuers. The Christian message that regularly accompanies this entry tells us that we should live chastely and cast off our sins and throw them to the Devil.
Scherb, Victor I. “Setting and Cultural Memory in Part II of Beowulf.” English Studies. 79.2 (1998): 109-119.
Victor Scherb argues that the audience of Beowulf, as is common with all audiences of traditional oral poetry, was familiar with “Beowulf’s narratives” and, therefore, what they were interested in was not the plot but the way in which the poet could revive a “large number of dormant memorial strands” to quote Scherb quoting Wald Godzich (110). The Beowulf poet chief technique for doing this, Scherb argues, was in his use of setting and symbol to “evoke a large number of memoria” in such a way as to “comment upon the dynamics of cultural memory within Germanic society” (110). After discussing what has been previously said by others, Scherb examines the poem’s less studied second half, in particular, the poet’s juxtaposition of the dragon’s barrow and Beowulf’s mound, focusing on two symbolic functions. First, Scherb notes that while the dragon’s burrow symbolizes the conventionalized ruin, Beowulf’s burial mound serves as a beacon, as a marker. He notes that Anglo-Saxon roads made use of crosses and pre-existing burial mounds as signposts and comments: “Just as Anglo-Saxon road markers and crosses were employed to recall ‘wanders’ to the right path, so Beowulf’s monument serves as a similar orienting and memorial function” (115). Scherb then describes the dragon’s barrow as the antithesis of heroic Anglo-Saxon culture. The barrow is full of treasure and armor that lies unused. Absent from the barrow is heroism and human culture. Beowulf’s monument, on the other hand, Scherb argues, stands as a symbol of Beowulf’s heroism and his glory. Beowulf’s mound “will continue to evoke associations of uprightness, heroism, and enduring glory; conversely, the dragon’s mound will carry with it associations of physical destruction, hoarding, and absence” (119). The poet’s use of settings, Scherb concludes, is, in part mnemonic device, but also serves “to create an ‘idea-complex’ which addresses the issues of memory in an oral culture” (119).

Memory, Orality, and Literacy


Ars Memoria et Ars Poetica


Last Modified: 6 November 2005
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