Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, July 11, 2011



The Art of Memory
by Frances A. Yates
University of Chicago Press
p. 1966

   I purchased The Art of Memory in January 2010, so it was what you could call a "slow burner."  Basically, I bought it, read 20 pages and then put it on a book shelf for 18 month in order to occasionally look at it and go, "Nope."  However, my attitude was changed when I read Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, earlier this year.  Grimoires spurred me to think about the relation of magic and occult knowledge to the transition from the religion centered European Middle Ages to the Scientific/Mathematical based present.

    Understanding the relationship between Magic and Modernity requires a great deal of context.  Specifically, the mind-set or "mentalites" of people living back then, and how what we think today could possibly be related to how they thought then.

    The fulcrum point of this transition from "Middle Ages" to "Modernity"  was the Renaissance:  It was a point where old non Christian/Religious ideas were rediscovered AND new bodies of knowledge or "disciplines"  (or, if you are really lame "discourses.") were combined with the existing religious mentalite of the folks living in France, Spain, Italy and Germany (not England.)

   The Art of Memory was an aspect of Rhetoric, and as such had a "place" in the medieval scheme of 'higher education.'  Specifically, Rhetoric was a part of monastic scholars called the "trivium." (the other members were grammar and logic.)  The Trivium was a medieval equivalent of our modern "reading, writing and 'rithmatic."   Rhetoric, then, was "the study of the use of language with persuasive effect." (Wiki)

   An element of this study was the "Art of Memory."  In the ancient, classic sense, the Art of Memory basically consisted of memorizing a specific impressive place/location, identifying the distinguishing points of interest inside the building and attaching the parts of your speech to those features to cue your memory during the speech you are no doubt giving.

  Basically, what happened in the Renaissance is that people started building out this "art of memory" and turned it into something much more complicated and interesting by adding levels of detail and incorporating different influences "into the mix" as it were.   You could think of it like a modern musical category like rock music with all it's divergent paths, except here it's "types of art of memory."

   Over the course of the 16th and 17th century, the embellished Renaissance era rhetorical tradition went "psych,"  it went "straight" and it went "dark."   The Renaissance twist on Rhetoric didn't each England until well into the 17th century/Elizabethan era, so most of the Art of Memory takes place on the continent, with the area of interest shifting from Italy (first), to France and Spain and then to England and Germany.

     The psych tradition of Rhetoric incorporated Kabbalistic letter study, psuedo-Classical Egyptian Style Occultism and Astrology into the mix.  Readers, who were undoubtedly either Italian noblemen, Artists or Students or Parisian Students, were treated to convoluted metaphysical speculation and complex circular charts with wheels inside wheels.  This psych twist was to maintain the ability to inspire right down into the modern period.  In one of The Art of Memory's pay-off chapters, Yates makes the (convincing) argument that the Masonic Imagery of buildings and occultism descends from the last remnants of this psych Rhetoric style, specifically the writings Giordano Bruno.  Bruno was an author who was super obscure and elaborate, and he operated at the end of the period surveyed in France, England and Germany.  Yates makes the case that it is plausible that he could have been responsible for inspiring Shakespearean drama in England the Masonic movement in Germany.

  I think he makes a good case in that regard, and I think Modern Library agrees because it was named "One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century."

     The "straight" tradition of Rhetoric represented the integration first of the religious philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, including his neo-platonism.  One of the main differences in the beginning of the split of Rhetoric between "psych" and "straight" is the effort to maintain and amplify the complexity of the art of memory while stripping it of it's more visual elements.  What starts in the Catholic church continues through the Reformation. Yates points out that the move by "straight" Rhetoricians to elaborate their own "Art of Memory" has an analog in the icon smashing paroxysms of the Reformation.   This branch of Rhetoric influenced early Modern Philosophers and Science, and was quite crucial in the crystallization of the idea of "Method" (as used in "THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD") in addition to being the obvious point of departure for modern Philosophy.

         The "dark" tradition of Rhetoric is largely ignored by Yates, but if you are interested in that wing, check out Davies Grimoires: A History of Magic Books.  I think that it's quite clear that modern ideas of witchcraft, devil worship, magic spells, witches etc is largely bound up in this "dark wing" of Rhetoric.  The overlap between the "psych" wing and the "dark" wing is substantial, but obviously the dark stuff was more controversial, and psych stuff was itself suspect because it incorporated occult materials via classical or pseudo-classical sources.

      All of these areas seem like fertile fields for inspiration, since they hover right at the edge of mentality, like a barely remembered folk tale.  The imagery itself is quite elaborate and the source material is not accessible to the general public.

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