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Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Abstract and Keywords

In one of the most moving acts of his reign, when Charlemagne decided to collect a great library to build up the palace school of his court in Aachen, he did so first by bringing over from England a person, Alcuin of York. Alcuin in turn collected a group of scholars about him, to form the palace school and thus to create the palace library. Of course they brought books with them, but mostly they brought their learning, stored away in the treasuries of their memories. In doing so, Charlemagne, wittingly or not, was realizing an antique and early Christian trope (and reality) that one finds articulated in Jerome and in Cassiodorus, among others — that of the learned person as a living library, one who makes for him- or herself a mental chest of memorized texts and materials, which are then always ready as a reference and meditation tool. Two questions at once present themselves. Most intriguing perhaps is how one might go about making oneself into a library (whether of Christ or not). But this question depends on a prior one: why would want to make oneself into a library? The bulk of this article is concerned with the question of how, but it first addresses the question of why. A common explanation of ‘why>’ is that oral societies rely on memory because they lack access to writing and written sources.

Keywords: Charlemagne, Alcuin of York, library, Jerome, Cassiodorus

In one of the most moving acts of his reign, when Charlemagne decided to collect a great library to build up the palace school of his court in Aachen, he did so first by bringing over from England a person, Alcuin of York. Alcuin in turn collected a group of scholars about him, to form the palace school and thus to create the palace library. Of course they brought books with them, but mostly they brought their learning, stored away in the treasuries of their memories. In doing so, Charlemagne, wittingly or not, was realizing an antique and early Christian trope (and reality) that one finds articulated in Jerome and in Cassiodorus, among others—that of the learned person as a living library, one who makes for him‐ or herself a mental chest of memorized texts and materials, which are then always ready as a reference and meditation tool.

(p. 215) In his sixtieth epistle, Jerome wrote how ‘by constant reading and [continual] meditation,’ a young cleric ‘had made his mind a library of Christ’ (Letter 60.10).1 Two centuries later Cassiodorus described a blind Greek scholar named Eusebius, who had come to the monastery at Vivarium at Cassiodorus' invitation. This Eusebius had been blind since childhood, yet ‘he had hidden away in the library of his memory (in memoriae suae bibliotheca) so many authors, so many books, that he could assuredly tell others who were reading in what part of a codex they might find of what he had spoken’ (Cassiodorus, Institutiones 1.5.2). Another example known to Cassiodorus was that of the scriptural expositor Didymus of Alexandria, a man whose commentaries were renowned for their comprehensiveness and subtlety, yet who had been blind from birth and thus could read only by means of his memory. There are also examples of scholars from the later Middle Ages, including Aquinas, Ockham, Wyclif, and Petrarch, whose reading and compositional habits make clear that the goal of making a library of one's memory was by no means dimmed in an age when written books were far more plentiful, at least to scholars.

Two questions at once present themselves. Most intriguing perhaps is how one might go about making oneself into a library (whether of Christ or not). But this question depends on a prior one: why would want to make oneself into a library? The bulk of this chapter will be concerned with the question of how, but only after we have addressed the question of why. A common explanation of ‘why’ is that oral societies rely on memory because they lack access to writing and written sources. But this is not the case in Mediterranean antiquity, for scrolls and codices were not particularly scarce in those societies, and learned authors had plentiful access to books. It is Didymus' profession of commentator which provides us with the correct answer. Didymus had made himself into a library not because he was blind and could not see to read, but because he was a composer of new thoughts and learning about the biblical text. Many scholars with normal vision also made themselves into libraries, because doing so enables the kind of richly concording and paralleling style of interpretation that we associate particularly with patristic and medieval exegesis.

Here is an example, from a text typical not only in its formal properties but also in having an uncertain author. It is part of a commentary on the Penitential Psalms attributed to Pope Gregory I in some early editions of his work. No scholar that I know of now accepts it as authentic, mainly because Gregory nowhere mentions commenting on these Psalms in his extensive letters. Yet the style of this commentary is of a piece with that in Gregory's authentic work. And indeed, what is important in the context of my chapter is not who wrote it but its very conventionality as a piece of ‘Gregorian’ commentary (his text is Ps. 50:1):

(p. 216) Let us place before the eyes of our mind someone gravely wounded and scarcely drawing his last gasps of vital air, who both lies naked on a dungheap [cf. Job 2:8; Ps. 112:7], and displays a wound not yet dressed, is overwhelmed by desire for the coming of a physician and when recognized, begs that he take pity on him. For his wound is the sin of his soul, concerning which is said: ‘wounds and bruises and swelling sores: they are not bound up, nor dressed, nor fomented with oil’ (Is. 1:6). O wounded man, acknowledge inwardly your physician, and reveal to him the wounds of your sins. Let him hear the groan of your heart, to whom the secret of your thought lies entirely open. Let your tears move him, and with some importunity seeking him, always bring forth to him deep sighs from the bottom of your heart; let your grief penetrate to him, that it may be said also to you: ‘The Lord also hath taken away thy sin’ (2 Kings [2 Sam.] 12:13). Cry out with David; see (vide) what he said: Miserere mei Deus secundam magnam misericordiam tuam. As though he should say: I am in danger from a mighty wound, such that none of the physicians has the power to cure, unless that physician who is omnipotent gives prompt aid. Indeed to the omnipotent physician nothing is incurable; who, as he heals without a fee, so restores health with his word. I should despair therefore of my wound, did I not count on his omnipotence. Miserere mei Deus secundam magnam misericordiam tuam. Let them seek mercy who ignorantly incur guilt. But as I have gravely fallen, so too I knowingly sinned. But you, omnipotent physician, correct those who are contemptuous, you instruct those who are ignorant, and you forgive those who confess. Lord Jesus, would that you, moved by your mercy, should deign to come to me, who going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, that is to say rushing from the heights to the deep, from health to sickness, have fallen among the angels of darkness, who not only have taken away from me my garment of spiritual grace, but indeed beaten me and left me half‐alive [cf. Luke 10:30]. Would that you should bind up the wounds of my sins, and give me assurance of recovering my well‐being, lest they rage more savagely if they despair of being healed. Would that you should apply to me the oil of remission, and pour out the wine of your compunction [cf. Luke 10:34; Ps. 22]. But if you place me on your beast of burden (iumentum) [Luke 10:34], you will raise up the needy man from the earth, the poor man from the dunghill [Ps. 112:7]. For it is you who have borne away our sins, who have paid for what you had not snatched off [1 Pet. 2:24; 2 Kgs 12:13; Ps. 68:5]. If you lead me into the stable (stabulum) [Luke 10:34] of your Church, you will feed me with the refreshment of your body and blood. If you will take care of me, I will neither neglect your commandments, nor incur the rage of roaring beasts. I stand in need of your protection for as long as I carry this corruptible flesh. Wherefore hear me, O Samaritan, robbed and wounded, weeping and groaning, calling on you, and with David, crying out: Miserere mei Deus secundam magnam misericordiam tuam. ([Gregory the Great], PL 79.582–3)2

This is not what we would call the exposition of a text; indeed it is quite the opposite of our standard of neutral, factual scholarship. We might call it a (p. 217) ‘meditation’, and expect it in a sermon. Yet its mode of discourse is a blend we find curious now, of the intimate, the exemplary, and the instructional. It focuses on Luke 10, the Good Samaritan parable, without ever citing it directly; evidently the composer of these words saw no need for that with the audience he had in mind. The type of analysis practised is what came to be called tropological, an interpretation of the literal words that ‘turns’ their sense towards the ethical and psychological situation of a listener, and also invites that listener to make more turns upon the literal words, in an exercise of spiritual invention that is grounded in basic rhetorical method, as its designation conveys.

The listener is required to experience the scene in a way deliberately engaging imagination, emotion, memory, and rational investigation. The verse in Psalm 50 is encountered not as words but as a picture placed before the eyes of the mind. The invitation to place something that is conceptual and verbal as though it were instead an image or a picture before the eyes of the mind, or of the heart, or even the eye of cogitation is a common idiom in patristic and later exegesis. Being required to make a mental picture immediately engages the listener in a rational activity. Sometimes, when the text itself is a verbal picture, an ekphrasis, mental painting augments the words: this is common in exegesis of the great biblical ekphrases, such as the Ark, the Tabernacle, the Temple and its vessels, Aaron's breastplate, the prophetic sights of Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation. Mental picturing in these cases becomes itself an elaborate exercise in composing, for in rhetoric artful augmentation (dilatatio or copia dicendi) is a fundamental method of invention. The meticulously experienced imagining of the Passion and related matters is a similarly elaborated mental discipline. Because these pictures are elaborated from texts (though later in the Middle Ages of course also from material images), they have often been explained as illustrations or mental aids, pictures of the words they serve, addressed mainly to the ‘illiterate’.

But in this case, the picture asked for is not an illustration or representation of the literal content of Psalm 50:1, of the sort which might help an illiterate or ignorant person to grasp words he cannot otherwise read. It is a vigorous and quite unexpected picture of a man lying in a dungheap, seriously wounded and begging for a physician. Nothing in the actual words of Psalm 50:1 suggests such a figure. What the image does in its deliberately considered way is to link the psalm text with the exegesis to come in a manner that requires the full attention of the listener, not only imaginatively but intellectually. This mental image is the basis of the commentary to follow, and unless one undertakes the exercise of making the image for oneself, one will be unable to comprehend the rest of the commentary, because the incident of the Samaritan is never quoted from specifically in the text. Even less identified is the story of Job on his dungheap (Job 2:8) and the story of David confessing his sin to Nathan (2 Kgs 12:13). And yet this whole passage is as much commentary on these incidents, though especially of course the Samaritan story, as it is exegesis of Psalm 50. The mental picture which one is asked to make (p. 218) brings these three texts together in a single site. It is not an illustration deriving from something else, it is the essential commentary itself.

In the language of that contemplative discipline which the monks called mneme theou or memoria spiritalis—remembering God—such an image was regarded as an imago agens, an agent image. It fulfils the basic requirements for mnemonically successful images described in connection with the memoria of rhetoric by a well‐known ancient handbook, the Rhetorica ad Herennium (c.85 bce), but the practice was by no means confined to ancient schools of rhetoric. Its practical function in this psalm commentary is not to recall the main points of a speech one needs to give, but rather to initiate meditation on a particular text. Yet the two activities are not so dissimilar. Rhetorical memoria was learned and practised as a device of composition, the basis for someone speaking extemporaneously to recollect the subject‐matters he would need to develop whilst he spoke. The function of this image is also inventive, to start off a meditative composition upon the theme text.

And the textual ex‐position is conceived of strictly as a com‐position, bringing together materials into one place, according to the method taught in ancient schools. The foundational text, incorporated and given form in a vividly active image taken from a completely different and uncited pair of texts, is then made into a gathering‐place for many other materials, some directly quoted, most not. In this brief section of commentary on the single verse of a psalm, over a dozen other biblical texts and episodes are alluded to or paraphrased, often only by a word or two or a shared image (Job, for example, is linked solely by the image of one naked on a dungheap, nudus in sterquilinio). Sterquilinius in turn calls in Psalm 112:7, ‘suscitans a terra inopem, et de stercore erigens pauperem’, though this verse, never directly quoted or identified, is not alluded to until much later in the composition. The goal is not to clarify or define the meaning of the words of Psalm 50, but to produce a cornucopia of allusions, like a net or web collecting up ever‐greater numbers of matters, and inviting a listener to supply yet more than those given, supplementing and augmenting the bones supplied by the bit of text. The listener is required to be the active agent of this commentary (‘ponamus’), not a passive receptacle into which material is poured. Creating this tissue of allusions is a rich mental game, for none is identified by the author, whoever he was: yet we are plainly being invited to play the game as well, as we recognize the texts and images used, and augment them ourselves. Such commentary is designed to draw us in.

It is common to say that such a procedure makes the texts present to the listener. Yet this is not really so. Nor can one say that the reader is carried away from his or her actual moment into a transcendent moment. The reasoned, deliberate experience of making the commentary up as one is thinking, gathering texts together in the accretive method so typical of medieval commentary certainly occurs in present time. But the traditional authority of the text is not compromised by an effort to make it ‘relevant to me’ (as is now so frequently the case). Rather, the listener is invited to participate in the constantly creative dialogue with the basic text. Psalm (p. 219) 50:1 is repeated several times in this brief paragraph, each time in a somewhat different context, rather like a refrain in poetry. The creative aspect of the exercise lies precisely in this procedure of finding new contexts by making new links among a great variety of materials. And the intellectual agents for doing this are recollection and imagination, working with a well‐stocked memory. The procedure assumes that new thoughts are created from the materials of old ones, held most conveniently and usefully in the thinker's own prepared mind.

The mnemonic range and flexibility expected of orators (and ideally bestowed on anyone completing a proper education) is characterized many times in antiquity. One of best is Augustine's discussion of memory in Book 10 of his Confessions. Master of rhetoric as he was, Augustine knew the procedures of the schools perhaps even better than what he had read in his Platonic books, and not all of his discussion of memory is grandly theoretical. His description of recollection is a case in point:

Sojourning there [in my memory] I command something I want to present itself, and immediately certain things emerge, while others have to be pursued for some time and dug out from remote crannies. Others again come tumbling out in disorderly profusion, and leap into prominence as though asking, ‘Are we what you want?’ when it is something different that I am asking for and trying to recall. With my mental hand I push them out of the way of my effort to remember, until what I want becomes clear and breaks from cover [like a hunted rabbit]. Then, there are remembered items that come to hand easily and in orderly sequence as soon as they are summoned, the earlier members giving way to those that follow and returning to their storage‐places, ready to be retrieved next time I need them. All of which happens when I relate (narro) anything from memory. (Confessions 10.12–13)

What Augustine's analysis stresses is memory as techne, the procedures and processes of recollection, and not the truth‐content or accuracy of its images. As an art of invention, memoria artificialis was cast in the Middle Ages as a procedure of reasoning with links as close to dialectic's task of ‘inventing arguments’ as to rhetoric's task of composing. When the ancient texts of the Rhetorica ad Herennium (and somewhat later Aristotle's De memoria treatise) came to be taught in the twelfth century, they seemed to confirm and deepen an understanding that was already present in monastic schools, which regarded recollection as rational investigation with procedures and methods akin to those of dialectic. The purpose of such memory‐craft is primarily invention, enabling the activities designated by both English words which derive from Latin inventio: making and stocking an ‘inventory’ of materials, and with it creating newly composed ‘inventions’. Both senses are germane to the role played by mnemonic structures, often architectural in form, as primary instruments for inventing new work.

And how did medieval scholars manage such memories? It is clear that, while the accomplishment of men like Didymus and Eusebius is the occasion of near‐incredulity for Cassiodorus, it is not the fact of their having vast memories that amazes him, but that they accomplished this feat without eyes to see their books. (p. 220) And yet the blind Eusebius was able to tell a questioner precisely where in a codex to locate the text he desired. This seemingly pointless accomplishment indicates to us in fact the key to Eusebius's success. His memory was designed in accordance with those basic principles of locational memory taught in ancient schools, and augmented in the practices of monastic meditation.

In the arts curriculum, rote memorization was particularly associated with initial schooling in reading, the curriculum of ‘language arts’, as this is now called. It was instilled through the common exercise of recitatio or ‘recitation’, as indeed it is to this day. Memoria rerum, or compositional memory, was learned in the two more advanced paths of study: dialectic, or the study of the topics and seats of argument and the relationships of propositions; and especially, the study of rhetoric, the invention of new compositions. It was especially to the investigative and inventive tasks of dialectic and rhetoric that mnemonic art was addressed. Thus, as grammar provided the foundation upon which the trivium built, so memorized texts were thought to provide the exemplars and the materials for new composition. Because memoria is to such an important extent the basis of an art of composition, the primary goals when preparing material for memory are flexibility, security, and ease of recombining matters into new patterns and forms. Basic to this are the paired tasks of division and collection.

As conceived in rhetoric, to divide up complex material into summary packages (called distinctiones or divisiones), in order to preach or prepare other compositions, is not so much a method for classification as a means for easily mixing and mingling a variety of matters, and to be able to know where you are in your composition. A simple, rigorous ordering scheme is critical to the practice of oratory, for it cues the route (itinerarium, via) of a speaker's principle points, in a manner similar to that of any outline, but with the greater flexibility needed for oral performance. It enables a speaker readily to enlarge a point, to digress, and to make spur‐of‐the‐moment rhetorical side trips of all sorts, because one can always be sure of where one is in the composition—not in the manner of a parrot (which, reciting mindlessly, has no need to know where it is), but in the manner of a pilot who understands his location relative to his goal from distinctive markers in the water and on the horizon.

 Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Fig. 15.1(a). The ‘heavenly hand’ used to calculate the liturgical calendar; redrawn from Oxford, St John's College MS 17, fol.98v (after F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time).

Figure 15.1 shows some uses of the original digital computer, the hand. These drawings of a left hand (right hands are sometimes also drawn, but far less often) diagram how to compute solutions to three entirely different problems. One is the liturgical calendar: how to reckon moveable feasts throughout the year (fig. 15.1a). One is for learning and recalling musical relationships (though of what sort we remain unsure), including melodies unheard before (fig. 15.1b). And one is for a meditation on penance, sin, and virtue (fig. 15.1c): it alone is usually diagrammed on both hands, one for night‐time (sins) and one for morning (blessings). The methods diagrammed on these various hands are complex, and no one to my (p. 221) knowledge has quite worked every system out (even though they sometimes came with an instruction manual).

 Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Fig. 15.1(b). The Guidonian hand; redrawn from Ghent, University Library MS 70 (71), fol.108v (after K. Berger, ‘The Guidonian Hand’).

 Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Fig. 15.1(c). The ‘hand of meditation’ (for examination of conscience): British Library MS. Harley 273, fol. 111. Photo ©The British Library Board.

These calculation hands share certain basic characteristics. The thumb is in each case drawn with three segments, but a human thumb has two. So none of these figures should properly be termed drawings of a hand; rather, each is conceived as a schematic for making particular sets of calculations. Each diagram makes use of (p. 222) nineteen locations projected onto the hand, three on the thumb and four on each finger. These same nineteen places are drawn for the penitential hand as well, though it does not appear that there is any numerical need for nineteen dictated by the content being displayed. So these various hands employ a basic scheme adapted to a variety of content and uses, rather than something designed uniquely for each task. Instead of thinking of such a diagram simply as the representation of some other and prior content, or as a substitute ‘calculator’ in our sense, we should conceive of it as a highly versatile locating tool. There are three sections on the thumb because three places are needed there for calculating something's position, just as in our own base‐ten algorithmic scheme only nine digits can go into a single column of places—when filled up, each ten then ‘carries over’ into the next column (p. 223) to the left. Calculation performed on the hand is visual and tactile, but most important it is spatial. Each of those numbers, for the purposes of a calculation, occupies one of the locations that we imagine as though having spatial characteristics and boundaries.

When content is conceived in this way it can be moved about, like a counter, within the calculation grid. Rather than being affixed like a label, a counter can (p. 224) operate in a variety of mnemonic and investigative contexts. One can move in several directions from each place, or skip around, or go backwards, not just in one way. Locational schemes like this build such flexibility into themselves. They are random‐access, or multiple‐access, schemes.

In both antiquity and the Middle Ages, the commonest model for human memory likened it to a tablet or a parchment page, upon which a person writes. This model is extremely old and widespread, and it is very interesting that even in antiquity, when actual books were written in rolls, the model for memory is that of a flat, rectangular surface which can be taken in with a single mental ‘look.’ This page can become quite complex. Figure 15.2 reproduces one such page of memory, in this case a Psalter with several commentaries. The mise‐en‐page of this book illustrates many basic principles of the arts of memory. The Psalms was one of the fundamental texts of medieval culture, one book every educated person learned by heart as an aspect of learning to read. It was considered foundational not just to literacy and moral character but to rational thought itself. Scholars like Hugh of St Victor thought by means of the Psalms.

In order to memorize such a long work, it was cut up into brief segments, and then ‘placed’ mentally into an orderly scheme. This order could be anything, so long as it was clear and readily recoverable. Numbers and the alphabet were two obvious schemes that fit these requirements, although there were others in use as well. The scheme of divisions into chapters and verses imposed on the Bible today was largely in place by the fourth century, even though it was not fully written out in books until the sixteenth century. Figure 15.2 shows the textual divisions of Psalm 58 written in a large script. Each is marked by a painted initial and written in a large script. By building chains of such segments in one's memory, a very long work—such as all of the Psalms or the whole Aeneid—can readily be retained and securely recovered, either in its original order or rearranged and extracted to suit a new composition, simply by rehearsing various numerical sequences. Each division of the main text is treated as though it were a separate place in the order, and the commentary is then written into the margins, in a different and smaller script. The segments of commentary are linked to the main text to which they refer by a common initial or, in some cases, a shared figural drawing. Surrounding the main commentaries are margins containing yet other commentary, and in the outermost margins brackets indicate the sources of the texts: Augustine, Cassiodorus, Jerome, and others. They also indicate correction and disagreement: in the lower left ‘Augustinus’ points to commentary and says ‘non ego’.

 Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Fig. 15.2. Glossed Psalter of Herbert of Bosham, Psalm 58 (Cambridge Trinity College Library, B. 5.4, fols. 146v–147). Photo reproduced with permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

The page shown here was intended for study and meditation: it was not to be used by beginning readers. Indeed, this manuscript is not a single work but a whole library of materials, an encyclopedia of related knowledge gathered into its pages. Its locations are conceived and used like boxes or rooms, cells like those in a (p. 225) (p. 226) beehive. This page is indeed an early version of ‘hypertext’, its links and networks securely fashioned for ready reference and recollection.

The locational schemes used in monastic contexts to organize memory varied greatly. One could choose among using an architecturally modelled plan and section of a large though entirely literary building (for example Noah's ark); the feathers on the six wings of a seraphic angel; a five‐storey, five‐room section of a house; the stones in the wall of a turreted castle tower; the rungs of ladders;—or a world map. Gardens were also popular, the medieval sort of garden, with orderly beds of medicinal plants and fruit trees, separated by grass and surrounded by a wall. We now would never think to organize an encyclopedia of knowledge on a world map, but for a clerical audience to whom this picture was as familiar as the order of the alphabet is to us—why not? It provides a simple, clearly arranged composition site, containing many useful compartments with multiple routes among them, and thus can serve as a foundational map to use in arranging one's subjects and materials, gathering them into the location of a new composition from the networks of one's prior experiences, including of course all one's experiences of books, music, and other arts. Thus, in the course of an ideal medieval education, in addition to acquiring a great many segments of scriptural and classical texts, one also would acquire an extensive repertoire of picture‐schemes in which to put them, both ‘to lay them away’ and ‘to collect them’ in new arrangements on later occasions.

Perhaps the best‐known medieval recollective schemes involve architecture, imagining a building in one's mind. The ancient auctor ad Herennium is quite specific about what sort this should be: a Roman house or an arcade, with recesses and niches. One should pick a place that is familiar and can often be revisited to refresh its details. Into the compartments formed by such features one places those vivid agent images, the notationes, that are linked to specific material. The images are made and erased according to each new task, but the backgrounds are stable and lasting. The analogy the auctor makes is to writing on a wax tablet, for the images are like the letters which one erases after each use, but the backgrounds are like the supporting surface of the waxed tablet. It is clear from what the author says here that he is thinking of a situation of frequent new composition, not one of stable, archival storage; we should not confuse these two tasks.

More standard advice was given about the mnemonic places: they must always have a coherent, easily recognized order among themselves; that is, a mnemonic background is always conceived in relation to other backgrounds, and not by itself. Placing memories also spatializes them; they occupy relative locations. And these places have other characteristics that make them distinct. They have a clear internal order: for example, every fifth or tenth place might be specially marked. In the preface to his chronicle of biblical history, Hugh of St Victor takes pains to caution that each mental location containing the text of a psalm should carry its number (p. 227) prominently as well as its incipit, rather as though one were looking at the shelf‐marks and titles of books in a library case.3 The backgrounds must be immediately visible: they must be moderately lighted, not too dim nor too bright for the eye of the mind to perceive them in one conspectus. ‘Crowding’ a location is a fault producing recollective confusion, so not only must there be no more images in any single place than one can readily and distinctly take in as a group, there must be space between the locations as well, optimally (it was said, by Peter of Ravenna)4 five or six feet. And how long would six mental feet be? Far enough that one can actually walk in imagination from one place to another. The places must also be three‐dimensional, like a box or a room, and moderate in size: Peter of Ravenna says that a grown man stretching out his arms should be able to touch the ceiling and the sides. Most earlier writers, including the auctor ad Herennium, do not imagine themselves in their mental rooms but standing before them and gazing from a distance of about thirty feet.

Roman Republican architecture is the one most often associated now with mnemonic techne, but a far more lastingly influential architecture for memory work developed in the meditational practices of classical Judaism and Christian monasticism. This was based on an ideal architecture, those great buildings described, often in elaborately measured detail, in the Bible: Noah's ark, the Tabernacle of Exodus 25 ff., the temple built by Solomon in 1 Kings, the great visionary re‐creation of the temple complex in Ezekiel 40 ff., the Heavenly City imagined by John as measured out in Revelation 20. These structures served as the basis of meditations themselves and also as ordering devices for other compositions, in the manner of the memoria rerum scenes counselled in ancient rhetoric for the situation of ex tempore speaking, but differently, more encyclopedically imagined.

Hugh of St Victor composed an ekphrastic reconstruction of Noah's ark, the Libellus de formatione arche. He requires his readers to use this descriptio (the Latin translation of ekphrasis) in ways that fully realize the imaginative potential of this rhetorical figure as an engine of invention. He begins:

First, in order, to show in a figure the religious meanings of Noah's Ark, I find the center of the plane on which to depict the Ark and there I fix a point. Around this point I make a small square, which is like the cubit by which the Ark is measured out. And around this square I draw another one, slightly bigger.…I paint a cross in the inner square, so that its arms touch each side of the square, and I paint over it in gold.…And in the middle of the golden cross which I made, I paint a yearling lamb standing upright. (Weiss 2002: 45)

(p. 228) A great many other figures and devices are imagined by Hugh in this diagram as his description proceeds, so many that they cannot all be encompassed in a single, manuscript‐sized drawing. Moreover, at one point Hugh says that the whole plan must be imagined as elevated, the square with the cross being drawn upwards in the mind's eye so that it forms a central column of the ark. In fact it is clear that this ekphrasis is of an imaginary construction, for all the verbs Hugh used are in the present tense, pingo, depingo, and fingo, verbs used also in medieval advice about making imagines agentes for use in memory work. The various diagrams and figures which Hugh places in his ark—genealogies, histories, a Bible catalogue, a mappamundi, trees of vices and virtues, a geographia, a cosmologia, an angelology, and many others—form an encyclopedia of images that mark content pertinent to all aspects of monastic virtue and contemplative life. Hugh's imaginary picture of the ark is like nothing so much as the complex sculptural programmes of a major cathedral—one perhaps like St Denis, with whose encyclopedic programme Hugh is thought by some historians to have been associated.

But, unlike the pictures which accompany the exegesis of Ezekiel composed by his contemporary at St Victor, Richard, no pictures accompany Hugh's book. Others of his works do have diagrams, faithfully copied; notably the diagram Hugh made for his universal chronicle of biblical history. The lack of illustration in the many manuscripts of De formatione arche is telling evidence that the picture of the ark which Hugh paints is a rhetorical ekphrasis, not the description of an actual object. It is designed to raise up pictures for the eyes of the mind, pictures of a highly rationalized sort. Hugh's ‘ark’ is not a representation but a schematic library of the whole Church, its doctrine, its history, its present and future.

It was composed as a picture summatim, ‘in summary fashion’, the last section of a much longer moral treatise that Hugh composed on the ark of Noah. The two works, separated in Migne's Patrologia Latina, belong together, and they have at last been published that way in the Corpus Christianorum edition. A paragraph joins them, as follows: ‘Now I will offer an exemplar of our own Ark, as I have promised. I depict as though it were an actual object, so that you may learn outwardly what you should do inwardly, and so that, once you imprint the form of this example in your heart, you will be glad that the house of God has been built inside of you’ (Weiss 2002: 45).5 Complex as this mental picture is, it recognizably uses the method of collecting vivid images linked to various content into structured sets of places that is the hallmark of memoria rerum.

The meditation on imaginary biblical edifices is an exercise commonly performed throughout the Middle Ages. Jerome's commentary on Ezekiel is filled with ekphrastic amplification of the visionary ‘pictures’, and he incorporated earlier (p. 229) commentary by Origen. Bede commented on the Temple and its furniture; Gregory the Great composed a set of sermons on Ezekiel that moralize the structures of the Temple vision; Adam Scot of Dryburgh, a contemporary of the great Victorines, commented on the Tabernacle, including an ekphrastic picture as part of his commentary. In this very long tradition the structures tend to be conflated, conceived as exemplars of one another; as indeed the Bible itself presents the sequence of Noah's ark, the Tabernacle, First Temple, the imaginary Ezekiel Temple‐in‐exile, the Heavenly City. The exemplary nature of the biblical structures is always stressed, but so is the merit of ‘measuring’ them precisely, seeing them inwardly in full detail. Measuring the Temple in Ezekiel is presented specifically as a penitential exercise; this also carried over into monastic traditions.

The famous Carolingian drawing (fig. 15.3) known as the Plan of St‐Gall (somewhat misleadingly, as it wasn't made at St‐Gall, and it isn't a plan of the actual abbey at all) comes out of this tradition of meditation. Some architecture historians have thought it was offered as the plan for a real monastery, but most now believe it was not—that it was what its composer said it was, a device for meditation. Abbot Heito of Reichenau wrote to Gozbert of St‐Gall: ‘I have sent you, Gozbert my dearest son, these few designs (exemplata) for the lay‐out of a monastery (de positione officinarum), by means of which you may exercise your wits…[D]o not think that I have elaborated it because we considered that you need our instructions, but believe that it was drawn in God's love for you alone to scrutinize’ (Braunfels 1972: 46).

As Wolfgang Braunfels commented, ‘the Plan is to promote meditation upon the meaning and worth of the monastic life’ (ibid.).6 By calling it a plan for the disposition of the various buildings of monastic life and the services (officinae) performed within them, Heito would seem to be emphasizing its idealized and moralized function, the role played by the Temple in Gregorian meditations on Ezekiel 40 ff., as affording the dispositio, the structure, of the composition and thus also the ways through which one might make one's intellectual journey. Later in the ninth century a commentator labelled the church in this drawing the templum. This is not an unusual usage when referring to churches, but in this particular context it does have some added significance. The entrance‐way, which is also the route into all the officinae of monastic life, was given the legend: ‘This is the way (via) to the holy Temple for the multitudes, by means of which they conduct their prayers and return in joy.’ All architecture implies movement. Notice how the drawing includes indications of doorways—one must imagine not just a material construction but the routes created through it.

 Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Fig. 15.3. ‘The Plan of St Gall’, redrawn from stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen, cod. Sangalensis 1092 (after W. Braunfels, The Monasteries of Western Europe).

(p. 230) (p. 231) In a letter to Bishop Paulinus of Nola, St Jerome listed the most difficult parts of the Bible, properly to be studied only by those over 30 who by then have acquired the learning and experience to do so. These include the last chapters of Ezekiel, with related visions in Isaiah and Daniel, and the Apocalypse (Letter 53). It is noteworthy that these are also parts of the Bible which attracted some of the earliest known Christian painted pictures, from the time of Constantine. These pictures were not made primarily as helps for the ignorant and illiterate. Figure 16.4 shows a representative page from a manuscript of the Apocalypse now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. This book was made by a northern Spanish monk named Maius sometime about 945. The text is the commentary made by Beatus of Libana in 776, also in northern Spain. Maius comments on the role of the pictures in his book, and his reasons for making them, in language that clearly indicates their purpose. Maius' colophon reads: ‘Part of its ornamental order are the picture‐making words of its stories, which I have painted in their order [in the text], so that they may inspire fear of the coming of the future judgment at the world's end for those who are learned (scientibus)’ (Williams and Shailor 1991: fol. 293). In a tradition going back at least to Augustine, meditation begins most effectively with the emotion of fear—the chilling terror that raises prickles on our flesh to make us stick tight when we throw ourselves upon the redeeming cross (Augustine, De doctrina christiana 2.7.9). Augustine and Maius both wrote for the learned, scientes, ‘those who have knowledge’.

Maius says he painted the pictures which are in the words of the storiae, as Beatus called the sections, each a few verses long, into which he divided the narrative of St John's vision. Verba mirifica are words which make images to be looked at in the mind: they are marvellous, but what makes them so are the wonderful sights, the imaginings (mir‐, ‘gaze with wonder’) which they fashion (fac‐, the root of fica). These are what Maius says he has depicted. In medieval Latin, pingere is commonly used for the scribal task of lettering (Carruthers 2008: 224–6). The verb depingere, an intensive form, serves a dual purpose in this sentence, for it refers to both the letters of the verba which Maius wrote and also to the mirifica pictures which these words raise up in his mind and, through his brush, are translated as paintings to the book.

 Memory, Imagination, and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Middle Ages

Fig. 15.4. The ‘Morgan Beatus’, sixth angel: J. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 644, fol. 190v. Photo reproduced with permission, ©The Morgan Library and Museum.

The union of words and pictures is apparent in the layout of the Beatus commentary. Figure 15.4. shows the section of the text which describes the sixth angel pouring out his bowl. Notice that the complete book chapter is comprised of the storia, a short segment of Revelation (16:12, in this case), written immediately under the ‘incipit’ in the left‐hand column. As one reads the chapter from beginning to end, one then must immediately continue on to the picture of the sixth angel, pouring his vial into the River Euphrates so that it dried up. This picture is framed, a device that seems to be Maius' contribution to the Beatus tradition (Williams 1994–2003: 1. 77–8). And it has a title which identifies the scene, written in the right‐hand part of the L‐shaped frame. The commentary on the (p. 232) Apocalypse text is then written within the frame below the picture. Notice that it begins in the right‐hand column, following directly upon the picture. And notice particularly that it is introduced as ‘the explanation of the above‐written storia’. A reader must proceed through both the written Bible verse and the picture in order to get to their gloss, or explanatio. One historian has characterized these (p. 233) pictures as ‘a surrogate’ for the text, mediating ‘between the text and the reader's imagination’ (Williams 1992: 227). Another has called them a translation of the literal text into ‘a dense sequence’ of equally literal ‘tableaux’ (Werckmeister 1978: 169). I would go further than either of these statements to suggest that word and picture together make up, equally, the subject of meditative reading. Neither surrogate nor translation, word and picture equally and together constitute ‘the above‐written storia’. Together they make up the marvellous‐picture‐forming words of the stories (uerba mirifica storiarum) which Maius has painted in full, a concept emphasized by the frame Maius has painted around it. The ornaments of Maius, like the words of Beatus, can be dilated and expanded in the ways verbal texts can be, by procedures of shuffling, collating, gathering in—devising and composing meditation.

An influential medieval manual of rhetorical composition, Poetria nova, written by the Parisian master Geoffrey of Vinsauf (c.1210), proposes three models for the activity of composing: architect, mapmaker, and conjurer—praestigiatrix, someone who juggles and practices sleight‐of‐hand. The artist plays with his material, moving it about, changing it around, constantly inventing during the procedure of disposing its various parts. Geoffrey describes it as a kind of game‐playing, mental calculating of a sort that involves shifting counters from one place to another, and thereby ‘causes the last to be first, the future to be present, the oblique to be straight, the remote to be near; what is rustic becomes urbane, what is old becomes new’ (ll. 121–5). Medieval invention is thought of in part as placement and re‐placement of materials, collection and recollection of subject‐matters, all enabled by the spatial and locational nature of investigative memoria and vivid imagination, its primary engines.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Augustine, St. The Confessions, trans. M. Boulding. Hyde Park, NY, 1997.Find this resource:

    —— De doctrina christiana (Teaching Christianity), trans. E. Hill. Hyde Park, NY, 1996.Find this resource:

      Berger, Karol, ‘The Guidonian Hand’, in M. Carruthers and J. Ziolkowski (eds.), The Medieval Craft of Memory. Philadelphia, 2002, pp. 71–82.Find this resource:

        Braunfels, Wolfgang, Monasteries of Western Europe: The Architecture of the Orders, trans. A. Laing. London, 1972.Find this resource:

          Carruthers, Mary, The Book of Memory, 2nd edn. Cambridge, 2008.Find this resource:

            —— The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images 400–1200. Cambridge, 1998.Find this resource:

              Cassiodorus, Institutiones I. 5. 2, ed. R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, 1937; trans. L. W. Jones, An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings, New York, 1946.Find this resource:

                Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria nova, trans. M. F. Nims. Toronto, 1967.Find this resource:

                  (p. 234) [Gregory the Great], Expositio psalmi quarti poenitentialis. Patrologia Latina 79, cols. 582–583.Find this resource:

                    Jerome, St. ‘Letter 60’, trans. F. A. Wright, Jerome: Selected Letters. Loeb Classical Library. London, 1963.Find this resource:

                      —— ‘Letter 53’, ed. I. Hilberg. Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 54 (corrected edition). Vienna, 1910, 1996.Find this resource:

                        Lieb, Michael, The Visionary Mode: Biblical Prophecy, Hermeneutics, and Cultural Change. Ithaca, NY, 1991.Find this resource:

                          Massing, Jean Michel, ‘Laurent Fries et son “ars memorativa”: la cathédrale de Strasbourg comme espace mnemonique’, Bulletin de la Cathédrale de Strasbourg, 16 (1984), 69–78.Find this resource:

                            Sicard, Patrice (ed.), Hugonis de Sancto Victore de Archa Noe and Libellus de formatione arche. Corpus Christianorum continuatio medievalis 176–76A. Turnhout, 2001.Find this resource:

                              Wallis, Faith, Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool, 1999.Find this resource:

                                Weiss, Jessica (trans.), ‘Hugh of St. Victor: Constructing Noah's Ark ’, in M. Carruthers and J. Ziolkowski (eds.), The Medieval Craft of Memory. Philadelphia, 2002, pp. 41–70.Find this resource:

                                  Werckmeister, O. K., ‘The First Romanesque Beatus Manuscripts’, Actas del Simposio para el Estudio de los codices del ‘Comentario al Apocalypsis’ de Beato de Liébana, 3 vols. Madrid, 1978: vol. 2, pp. 167–200.Find this resource:

                                    Williams, John. The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, 5 vols. London, 1994–2003.Find this resource:

                                      —— ‘Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liébana’, in R. K. Emmerson and B. McGinn (eds.), The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY, 1992: 217–33.Find this resource:

                                        —— and Barbara Shailor (eds.), A Spanish Apocalypse: The Morgan Beatus Manuscript. New York, 1991.Find this resource:

                                          Further Reading

                                          Clanchy, Michael T., From Memory to Written Record, England 1066–1307, 2nd edn. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.Find this resource:

                                            Coolman, Boyd, T., The Theology of Hugh St. Victor: An Interpretation. Cambridge, 2010.Find this resource:

                                              Emmerson, Richard K. and Bernard McGinn (eds.), The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY, 1992.Find this resource:

                                                Gavrilov, A. K., ‘Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity’, trans. with a postscript by M. F. Burnyeat, Classical Quarterly, 47 (1997), 56–76.Find this resource:

                                                  Knox, Bernard. ‘Silent Reading in Antiquity’, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 9 (1968), 421–35.Find this resource:

                                                    Kovacs, Judith and C. Rowland, Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Blackwell Biblical Commentaries. Oxford, 2004.Find this resource:

                                                      Rowland, Christopher, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity. London, 1982.Find this resource:

                                                        Thomas, Rosalind, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece. Cambridge, 1992.Find this resource:


                                                          (1) The letter is Jerome's eulogy for the young priest and bishop, Nepotian, addressed to his ‘episcopal uncle’, Jerome's great friend Heliodorus.

                                                          (2) The work is printed with others of uncertain Gregorian authorship. I have given references for only some of the more obvious allusions made in this passage; there are others. The frementium rabies bestiarum, ‘rage of roaring beasts’, is only indirectly biblical; a search of the online Patrologia Latina reveals the same phrase (with an appropriate change of case) in a sermon of Leo the Great (d. 461), in reference to Daniel in the den of lions. Searches of other words in this Gregorian text would undoubtedly reveal many more such allusions.

                                                          (3) Hugh makes a point of using the psalms' numbers in his mental scheme, though few Bible manuscripts at this time included them, and the psalms were most commonly referenced by incipit only (Carruthers 2008: 106–35).

                                                          (4) Peter of Ravenna (also called Petrus Tommai) was a master of law and author of a popular memory treatise, Fenix, published in 1491, with many Latin reprintings, and translations into vernacular languages including, eventually, English.

                                                          (5) The Libellus is called De arca Noe mystice in PL; the longer piece, there called De arca Noe morali has been retitled De Archa Noe and shown to be the work for which the Libellus was intended: see the introduction to Sicard's edition.

                                                          (6) In 1523 a physician from Strasbourg, Laurent Fries, counselled using Strasbourg Cathedral for an invention device, placing subject‐matters on locations within it and mentally walking through them (Massing 1984; also Carruthers 1998: 228–54).