Memory Culture

Natural or Artificial? Memory Enhancements in the late Middle Ages

At first glance, Hildegard von Bingen's strange allegorical images are difficult to decipher. Figures, clouds, colors, and objects blend to offer a secret message that only the narrator can convey to the audience or reader. If, however, we situate these strange symbols in relation to memory, the begin to take on new contours. This image is is a late 14th century example of another memory theater used to memorize the first chapter of the book of John.

The importance of classical knowledge in scholastic scriptoria cannot be underestimated. Cicero’s Ad Herrenium (1) offered a method to increase one’s memory artificially. This is in contrast to one’s natural memory abilities given by God. Cicero wrote, “There are, then, two kinds of memory: one natural, and the other the product of art. The natural memory is that memory which is imbedded in our minds, born simultaneously with thought. The artful memory is one in which you can improve with specific techniques that I will show you now.”

Peter Rosenheim's memory device

The techniques for creating memory artificially include using sounds, imaginary backgrounds, as well as animals and other notable images. By backgrounds, Cicero means such scenes as are naturally or artificially set off on a small scale, complete and conspicuous, so that you can grasp and embrace them easily by the natural memory—for example, a house, an interior space, a recess, an arch, or even a stage. The fountain image in Hildegard von Bingen's dream vision is one such artificial memory technique.

For Cicero, memory was like wax tablet in which an image presses itself into the mind. A memory image can be a figure, story, or portrait of the object you wish to remember. For example, if we wish to recall a short story, we could create symbolic images of a horse, a lion, or an eagle. We must place these images in a definite background or “imaginary space” in our minds. These are the “common places” used to recall difficult orations, important moral lessons, or long texts. Thereafter Cicero shows what kind of backgrounds we should invent and how we should discover the images and set them therein. Depending on one's intelligence, we could have a cutting wit, hard wit, or soft wit. (2) These adjectives are related to memory since soft and hard wits do not retain the impression in memory (too hard or soft and the memory does not stick). Too quick of wit is one with a good imagination but no access to true memory.

Camillo's memory theater (16th century)

Many authors expanded on Cicero’s memory techniques throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, especially at the university. By the 14th century, in order to receive a university degree, students were required to complete a disputation against their professors, whereby they demonstrated memorized knowledge of the seven liberal arts as well as their specific advanced topics . Ancient texts on grammar, logic, and rhetoric, as well as arithmetic, geometry, astrology, and music all had to be memorized. Grammar and logic showed the logical structure of the syllogism (minor and major premises and conclusion), which was thought to be a mirror of the mental movement from imagination, reason, and memory. Rhetoric allowed one to embellish this structure with pleasurable details, convincing images and emotion to convince the listener.

Once proper knowledge of the seven liberal arts were demonstrated, students could move to a Master’s or Doctoral degree in law, medicine, or theology. Those with naturally good memories (there are anecdotes of Saint Thomas Aquinas dictating several different books to different scribes at the same time from memory!) were praised as saints who lived in their minds, closer to angels.

Natural memory is one of the faculties of the five inner senses. In natural memory, one first sensed the world with the five external senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste). The “data” was then brought to common sense and an image was formed in imagination that judgment and reason could compare with the ideal form in memory. Beginning in the front of the head with “common sense & imagination,” the image or word moved to “judgment and reason” in the middle and finally “memory” housed in the rear of the head. Proper humoral balance ensured that the animal spirits could travel between the various cells or mental “chambers” and allowed one to think properly. The best way to improve memory naturally is through regiments of a balanced diet and purging (bloodletting, vomiting, and even blowing one’s nose). Too much of one or another of the humors caused problems in imagination, reason or memory.

In addition to natural memory, Cicero suggests that individuals who wish to improve their memory artificially should create mental loci communes (common places) that are familiar to them. To do this, they could use their temple, church, public meetinghouse, stage, or other familiar buildings. One great example can be found in Lorenz Fries’ Memory Tract (1523), which was based on Cicero's Ad Herrenium . Fries shows how to use one’s memory in a “memory theater” created in one’s mind. Though we do not need to go into detail, one can see that medieval Gothic cathedrals, with their ornate altarpieces, works of art, as well as detailed facades, became collections of symbols for an individual to make associations in their minds. To improve memory, Lorenz Fries mixes medical advice with memory tricks and moralizing anecdotes that turn the Strassburg Cathedral into an architectural memory device. (3)

Representation of one's mental space through linear perspective

As a colleague of Johannes Sturm, Headmaster of the Strassburg humanist school founded in 1538, Fries suggests that one create a mental space (background) and count ten rooms in order to remember a very long text. From the cathedral, one should then put 10 imaginary images in the memory theater to remember ten things. Each of those ten locations is given a name (i.e. alter, pew, painting, etc). These will then be the “common places.” To keep these numbers in order, Fries suggests one use a sound such as ordered vowels. Thus as the mind visits the ten images, the feet walk from place to place in the cathedral, the tongue speaks ‘A-E-I-O-U’, and one travels in one’s imagination within this internal space to remember important topics of the sermon, literary work, or biblical passage. This practice of combining walking, speaking (or mumbling), and mental images with actual visible locations helped artificially enhance memory.

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica (1493)

One added trick to this artificial memory practice was the belief that you could actually control your brain! There was believed to be small passage between the three mental chambers called the vermis (little worm). If one concentrated hard enough, one could even open and close the doors between mental chambers to keep out unwanted thoughts and let in the good thoughts (4). Thus one could voluntarily control imagination, reason, and memory. Through this pattern of using the sensible to access the memorial, students could be seen walking and talking to themselves around town to remember anything that had been properly set in order (much the same as people today listen to music or walk and talk one their phones, oblivious to the world around them). The chambers of the brain were believed to perform this process of moving from the sensible, through imagination and reason, in order to remember the intellectual truth in memory.


(1) The Ad Herrenium text had been attributed to Cicero throughout the Renaissance, but current scholarship doubts this origin.

(2) "Wit" is here related to intelligence and cleverness. There are many different definitions of "wit" throughout the renaissance and middle ages.

(3) Jean Michel Massing, "Laurent Fries et son Ars memorativa. La cathédrale de Strasbourg comme espace mnémonique," Jean Michel Massing, Studies in Imagery Vol I: Text and Images , Vol. I (Pindar, 2004).

(4) Jameson Kismet Bell, Performing the Sixteenth Century Brain. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2018.