99.07.04, Carruthers, Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200

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Jocelyn Penny Small

The Medieval Review baj9928.9907.004


Carruthers, Mary. Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xvii, 399. ISBN: 0-521-58232-6.

Reviewed by:
Jocelyn Penny Small
Department of Art History, Rutgers University

This book is a companion volume to Mary Carruthers' (MC) earlier book, The Book of Memory. Here she focuses less on the systems of remembering and more on how they were used as a means not just for organizing thought, but for the process of thinking itself. "Images" in the title refers not just to actual pictorial images, but also to mental ones. In particular, she "insist[s] that all medieval arts were conceived and perceived essentially as rhetoric, whether they took the form of poems or paintings or buildings or music." (223)

Please note that I have reviewed this book from two points of view: that of a classicist and that of someone who is well- versed in studies by cognitive scientists on how memory works. (For those interested in pursuing the cognitive aspect more, I recommend a general book on memory by a cognitive psychologist, Alan Baddeley, now in its third edition, or the extensive references in my own book.) With respect to these two areas, and especially the cognitive, I find much of her discussion muddy and, at times, simply wrong. I limit myself to a few examples.

"Memory" is a word that covers a lot of ground and has many meanings. I am never quite sure which one MC means. For example (55), she speaks of religious processions in which she confuses "memory for" with "memory how" -- that is, those who study memory today, at the very minimum, distinguish between episodic memory for things and facts -- siren in the classical sense -- and procedural memory, such as how you drive a car or play a piano. Similarly, MC plays around with "commonplace" and "common place" to the confusion of both (36-38, 44-46). I question her casual sprinkling of terms like "cognitive" and "cognition" where other words like "mental" and "understanding" or "thought" would often be clearer and more accurate.

The art of memory consisted of a number of different techniques that were selected to fit what needed to be remembered and, importantly, the ability and temperament of the memorizer. One of the major methods -- the one most people think of, when referring to mnemotechnics -- is the system of the loci in its Roman incarnation, as explained by the Auctor ad Herennium (3.16.29-3.19.32). Three characteristics of the system are crucial and always part of the system. First, you use the same "setting" -- whether a building, a city, a plan, a drawing, whether real or imaginary -- that has a number of locations or places [loci] to which you may attach different sets of things you want to remember. Second, you use that set of places in the same order each time. You do not randomly go back and forth between the places. Taking such a course destroys the system, but such a course does reflect another method of recall, associative memory. The two would never have been mixed by anyone schooled in the art of memory. (Compare Small, Chapters 7-9, 81-137.) Three, the same set of places is used over and over again for all the sets of things you want to recall. Unfortunately, MC ignores these three points for most of her discussion and considers all the methods she discusses as examples of the system of loci, when a number of different techniques were used. I give two instances.

In her second chapter (especially 46-57) MC maintains that the system of the loci explains how pagan monuments became Christian ones, but her theory is valid only if it has nothing to do with the system of loci. Remember that the whole point of the system of the loci is to use the same set of places again and again and again to recall different sets of things. Hence you can easily store five grocery lists and two sets of religious symbols, one pagan and one Christian, in the same set of places. One does not block the other. One does not crowd out the other. They all peacefully coexist, each in their own mental space in much the same way that exemplary waiters can remember separate orders for separate tables at the same time.

MC goes further astray in this section by considering Christian "interpretations" of Roman monuments as a function of forgetting. To introduce how the phenomenon works she cites the wonderful book by A.R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist, about S who used the system of the loci, which he independently "discovered." With his infallible memory S faced the rather unusual problem of trying to forget, especially trying to forget previous sets of numbers from an earlier performance of his mnemonic skills in the same evening (68). Consider what Luria says (70-71):

[S] went further and started to discard and then burn the slips of paper on which he had jotted down things he wished to forget. . . . The "magical art of burning" he tried proved of no use to him. And after he had burned a piece of paper with some numbers he wanted to forget and discovered he could still see traces of the numbers on the charred embers, he was desperate. Not even fire could wipe out the traces he wanted to obliterate!
Now I give what MC says about the passage (52): "he [S] had first tried in his mind seeing them written out on a piece of paper and then imagining the paper burning up. But this did not make him forget. What it did was to make him remember the materials as burned up [sic]." Two things, as you can immediately see, are wrong. First, S wrote the things down physically on paper and not in his mind. That was the whole point of this method of forgetting, for he said: "Writing something down means I'll know I won't have to remember it." Second, he did not remember the numbers "as burned up," but rather he still remembered the numbers on the paper, which was burned up.

MC uses this anecdote to "prove" (52) that

The key to 'forgetting' Apollo in this incident [Babylas and Apollo at Daphne by Antioch on the Orontes at the time of Julian, as described by Chrysostom] is not to destroy his temple but to re-position [sic] it and remember it, in a different, though closely related, 'story.'...[54] 'communal forgetting' was also mastered by the Christians -- not through some variety of amnesia, but by applying carefully the mnemotechnical principles of blocking one pattern of memories by another, through 'crowding' or overlay, and by intentional mnemonic replacement.
But that was the crux of S's problem: he simply couldn't block an old set of numbers with a new set. He tried that method and it failed, as surely as did the physical burning of the scraps of papers. And how did S forget? He simply decided that the previous chart of numbers would not appear, because "I don't want it to! Aha! That means if I don't want the chart to show up it won't. And all it took was for me to realize this!" (Luria 71) There is no blocking, no crowding, just an act of mental will. It is perplexing to note that MC elsewhere seemingly does understand how S forgot, because she cites precisely this point later (97-98).

In another case, MC rightly considers enargeia, vivid imagery, as a means of recall and memory. It is, however, not the system of the loci. When she discusses Prudentius' Dittocheon, a retelling of biblical stories with vivid pictorial images, she says (138) "This location [the burial field Aceldama] is treated by Prudentius like a memory place, whether or not his verses initially described some actual painting." In this case, if you don't use this particular description of Prudentius as your own imaginary picture by which you remember diverse sets of things, then you are not dealing with a "memory place," as MC calls it. Instead Prudentius offers a series of tales in a vivid form to make them memorable in and of themselves. If you then use those tales, as a point of departure for meditation or invention or creation of something new, you still are not using them as a memory place, but rather as memory primes for associative memory. That associative memory is meant is clear from Carruthers' own discussion (146-147) when she refers to "This kind of ' chain-making' or catena . . . Intricate chains of stories, woven together in the activities of memory, are a characteristic medieval habit of mind . . ."

For a different kind of example of MC's misunderstanding of memory and how it works, consider what she writes about the Batman logo and how she interpreted it differently (45-46):

Where . . . one was supposed to see this shape a bat, some people . . . saw a set of Rolling-Stones-style teeth surrounding an open mouth, and only with conscious effort were we able to see what we were supposed to. . . . [58] Eventually . . . [sic for her dots] well, when I now see the yellow circle with the jagged black center, I instantly see a black bat, and must willfully struggle to see golden teeth again (and I have begun to wonder how I ever thought the circle enclosed a picture of teeth at all).
The phenomenon MC describes has nothing to do with memory, and everything to do with visual illusions, such as the goblet, which "contains" two profile faces, the rabbit that melds into a duck, or the Necker cube. (Gregory; Hoffman). Such images are not the same as the Pantheon, an example she uses (56), becoming the church of Santa Maria ad Martyres. In that case, the same structure is viewed as the same structure, but now has a new use or "interpretation." The other phenomena are never stable, but constantly switch back and forth visually. The image is neither a duck nor a rabbit, neither a goblet nor two faces. They are always both. It is not a matter of memory or of interpretation. It is an illusion, which the Pantheon never was, whether as temple or as church.

She misuses the word "synaesthetic" (139): "Each scene has at least one image given the stylistic quality known as enargeia, vivid visual and indeed synaesthetic description that paints it before the mind's senses." Further on, she says (148): "And those [images] one has must be extreme, "eye-catching" of course, but also fully synaesthetic, a fully realized sensory experience that includes recreated sound (the screams and cries and battle trumpets) and taste (chiefly of blood and crushed bone) and odor (vomit and blood but also crushed violets) and touch (chiefly pain)." "Synaesthesia," however, is not the evocation of one or more of the five senses, but rather the mixing or substitution of one sense for another. If you believe your chicken tastes pointy, or, like "S," you can't remember a telephone number until you've tasted it (Luria 134), then you have synaesthesia. (Cytowic)

MC doesn't just muddy the modern terminology used for memory, she also knowingly misconstrues modern critical terms. Some will wince at the phrase "an ekphrasis in paint" (151) which she uses to refer to real pictures of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yes, her point is valid that "there is no reason why a word picture and a painting cannot both 'paint pictures in the mind,' and more to the point, function in similar ways as meditative ' gathering' sites." Nonetheless, an ekphrasis always consists of words, because the whole point of the word "ekphrasis" is that it conveys the idea of a picture within a verbal, generally textual, description.

MC's knowledge of classics and classical antiquity could be stronger. She retains the misleading translation of Harry Caplan of the Auctor ad Herennium, published in the Loeb Classical Library in 1954, where "locus" is rendered as "background" rather than "place," which leads to major misconceptions as to how the system works. She has, fortunately, ceased referring to the Auctor ad Herennium as "Tully," as she did in her earlier book on memory. Occasionally, she has minor bloopers like referring to Germanicus as an emperor (285 n. 49). She says (291n. 102) that the "theater of memory" is ancient, when it is not. Just because Giulio Camillo's memory theater is based on the theater described by Vitruvius (5.6) does not mean that the Romans similarly used Vitruvius' theater (Yates, 129-159, especially 137). Be aware that "classical" often means "pagan" to MC rather than something that occurred or was written during the "conventional" classical era that ends with Constantine's conversion to Christianity. Hence Martianus Capellus in the fifth century A.D. is classical (294 n. 6). She (201-202) seems unaware of the fact that the Iliac Tablet in the Capitoline Museum also has scenes that are not from the Iliad and, indeed, according to its inscription the main scene is supposed to be the "Iliupersis according to Stesichorus." (Compare Horsfall) She doesn't always give the necessary page references (285 notes 50 and 54).

In short, MC is well-grounded in medieval studies, less so in classics, and only very superficially in modern research on how memory works. Hence as a study of how memory was viewed in medieval times, the book is worth reading. As a study that bridges the two worlds of modern and medieval memory, it leaves much to be desired. Read it for its copious citations of medieval texts, for its take on the medieval mind. Look elsewhere for how the technical underpinnings of human memory are reflected in culture.


Baddeley, Alan D. Human Memory: Theory and Practice, Revised Edition, Boston, etc.: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Cytowicz, Richard E., The Man Who Tasted Shapes, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1993.

Gregory, Richard L., Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, 5th Edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Chapter 10 "Illusions," 194-243 with 205 = Necker Cube and 207 = Duck-Rabbit.

Hoffman, Donald D., Visual Intelligence. How We Create What We See, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Chapter 4 "Spontaneous Morphing," 79-105 with 90-91 = batman- like symbols, 92, 99 = face-goblet, 95 = duck-rabbit; and 19-25 for the Necker cube.

Horsfall, Nicholas, "Stesichorus at Bovillae?," JHS 99 (1979) 26-48.

Luria, A. R., The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory, translated by Lynn Solotaroff, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Small, Jocelyn Penny, Wax Tablets of the Mind: Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jocelyn Penny Small

Department of Art History, Rutgers University