17.04.11, Kiss, ed., The Art of Memory in Late Medieval Central Europe

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Nora Berend

The Medieval Review 17.04.11

Doležalová, Lucie, Farkas Gábor Kiss, and Rafał Wójcik . Ed. Kiss, Farkas Gábor. The Art of Memory in Late Medieval Central Europe (Czech Lands, Hungary, Poland). Paris and Budapest: L'Harmattan, 2016. pp. 350. ISBN: 978-2-343-08252-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Nora Berend
University of Cambridge

The volume consists of an introduction, three essays on the memory culture of central European lands (Bohemia-Moravia, Poland, and Hungary), and the edition of ten Latin texts from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The ars memorativa, a unified system of rules, aided the orator to memorize public speeches. Rather than a verbatim memorization of texts, it was aimed at recalling a string of ideas in a specific order that would be the basis of recreating and retelling the speech. At its core, real or imaginary places served as the organizing principle for images that would help recall the key ideas. In addition, in the later Middle Ages, a popular method to memorize the necessary elements was based on the alphabet.

There was not much interest in the art of memory in the fourteenth century, but in the fifteenth, suddenly several tracts on it appeared, in Italy and then soon across Europe. These treatises primarily focused on recalling data, and much less on composing innovative speeches on the basis of the memorized ideas or citations. With the introduction of printing, arts of memory quickly appeared in print as well, often with illustrative woodcuts and tables. Why the early fifteenth century experienced such an increase in the popularity of the art of memory has been debated. Kiss convincingly argues in the introduction that we should not be looking for a monocausal explanation, but rather, the transformation of university education, Franciscan, especially Observant preaching, and devotional practices all played a role in that surge of popularity.

The variety of associative methods used in these texts attest to the originality and imagination of average clerics and students. They used humorous and atrocious associations to help memorize key ideas. This variety and the lack of local studies on central European tracts gave the impetus to the authors of the volume to focus on this area.

Hussite Bohemia, while home to a rich Latin and vernacular text production, was preoccupied by religious controversy. It has been supposed that treatises on the art of memory were non-existent there. Lucie Dolezalová modestly calls her study a "preliminary step in researching the field" (28), but it is much more than that. She traces the transmission of foreign texts, often copied very quickly in the Czech lands after their first publication. She also lists treatises derived from such texts, and provides a thorough discussion of Czech treatises, even if they are fragmentary or produced outside of Bohemia by a Czech author. Some include theoretical discussions specific to the Czech context, others use plays on words (for example, a beam from a ship upon his neck designates Thomas Aquinas: themonem navis, with themo recalling Thomas and the water, aqua, on which a ship sails, Aquinas). Bohemian authors were also interested in medical aspects of memory: how lifestyle and medical means would improve memory. A strong critical voice also emerged; an anonymous treatise condemned the art of memory, suggesting that it was such a burden and extensive effort that those who practice it continuously become mad. In the Czech lands, the art of memory seems to have had a weaker connection to rhetoric; the link to preaching is much stronger.

As Rafal Wójcik demonstrates, the foundation of the University of Cracow was a turning point in the history of the art of memory treatises in Poland. The university and mendicant orders were the primary foyers where mnemonic treatises were used and produced, and these two were interlinked through the lectures given by Observant Franciscans. Western models and immigrants played a crucial role in the production of art of memory texts in Poland. Polish Observant authors, probably influenced by foreign treatises that were in circulation in Poland, wrote their own works. Not only foreign texts, but also foreign teachers who taught at the University of Cracow took part in influencing the creation of local treatises. Observants participated in writing works on the art of memory not only for preaching but also at University. Moreover, a very diverse and large area of cultural and religious activity was influenced by the Observant treatises in Poland: songs, versified catalogues of rulers and popes, and images in churches. There is a link between works on the art of memory and "talking images," that continued to be used well into the modern period.

Works of foreign origin are also the earliest surviving treatises on the art of memory in Hungary. The art of preaching and that of mnemonics were closely linked in this case too. It is usually impossible to measure the actual influence of mnemonic treatises on the practice of preaching, but there are some avenues to try to understand the ways in which the art of memory was used in practice. Farkas Gábor Kiss examines the possible trace of the art of memory through the use of alphabetical segmentation techniques by the popular Observant Franciscan preacher Pelbartus of Temesvár. He used for example the acronym MATRIMONIUM to memorize a sermon on marriage. The first locally produced (rather than merely copied) treatise contained vernacular Hungarian notes as well, attesting to its use c. 1500. A work using the art of memory for meditation likewise was annotated in the vernacular. The art of memory offered a way for Christians to memorize "twelve things to remember" (126), including Creation, Redemption, and the Last Judgment. There was no stable university in Hungary at the time, but itinerant humanists visited the royal court as well as the court of the archbishop of Hungary, and contributed to the spread of the art of memory in the kingdom.

After the informative overview essays, ten arts of memory are edited for the first time: an anonymous Hussite text; Mattheus Beran's Ars avitaromem; Paulerinus, an excerpt from Liber viginti arcium; Magister Hainricus, Ars memorandi; Paulinus of Skalbmierz, Populus meus captivus ductus est; Jan Szklarek, Opusculum de arte memorativa; Valentinus de Monteviridi, Praxis artis memorativae; Michael de Arce Draconis, Memorandi tractatus; an anonymous Observant friar's Modus reponendi sermones; Henricus Vibicetus and Johannes Cusanus, Tractatulus artificiose memorie. An appendix of illustrations from various mnemonic works show how images and text were laid out to help memorize ideas.

Based on extensive research in numerous libraries and archives, combined with an impressive knowledge of the literature on arts of memory across Europe, this book is an excellent resource for both those who are interested in late medieval central European society, and those who want to trace the inventiveness and local inflections of the art of memory.

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