Note-Taking Versus "Place Memory" from Antiquity through the Renaissance and Later

Circa 50 CE to 1700
Woodcut illustrating a method of training memory through place-based images from Johannes Romberch’s Congestorium Artifiose Memoriae (Venice, (1553).

Woodcut illustrating a method of training memory through place-based images from Johannes Romberch’s Congestorium Artifiose Memoriae (Venice, (1553).

"Frances Yates first called attention to memory practices as an object of historical inquiry with her pathbreaking study of the long reception of the ancient arts of memory [Yates, The Art of Memory (1966)]. The art of memory was designed to facilitate recall by associating the items to be remembered with vivid imagery, often related to the places in a building. Aristotle and Cicero explained the origins of this method from the story of Simonides who remembered all the guests who were killed at a banquet by the places they had occupied around the table. Today, still advice books on improving memory recommend similar techniques of association with vivid images and places. Yates's book has left the impression that place memory was the main method of recall used from antiquity through the Renaissance. Without denying that place memory was used, especially for short-term recall to memorize a speech or perform a feat of memory, I emphasize that for the long-term retention and accumulation of information, note-taking was the more common aid to memory. Note-taking is documented in antiquity (with Pliny) and can be surmised ans the principal means of composition of florilegia and large compilations in the Middle Ages. Starting in the Renaissance, note-taking can be studied from abundant surviving sources. Images were valued as mnemonic aids in manuscript and print, but repetition and copying out were the keystones of Renaissance pedagogy.

"As Yates herself notes, European pedagogues and scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were increasingly critical of place memory. Though he conceded that places could help, Erasmus maintained that 'the best memory is based on three things above all: understanding, system, and care.' The natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) complained that the investment required to learn the system of places was greater than the reward, and Gabriel Naudé (1600-53) saw it as positively pernicious because 'artifical memory spoils and perverts the natural [memory].' In the German academic world Bartholomaeus Kecermann (1571-1608) considered the arts of memory 'confused philosophically and blasphemous theologically.' Instead, these and other pedagogues in the wake of humanism advocated note-taking, which they portrayed as the best aid to memory.

"Note-taking manuals and treatises on the arts of memory formed two quite distinct traditions that made no explicit reference to one another. In practice, however, note-taking certainly did not preclude reliance on images or visual elements as mnemonic aids. For example, the abundant note-taker Conrad Gesner used an image of the hand as a mnemonic for the five Latin declensions; the hand was a widespread mnemonic image, the use of which did not involve elaborate place memory. Page layout in both manuscript and print could also facilitate recall of material from the look of the page on which it appeared...." (Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age [2010] 75-76).

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