Epic Storytelling and the Art of Memory

June 8th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

I recently finished Frances Yates’ book, The Art of Memory, which details the history of artificial memory from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare’s time. The basic idea of how artificial memory works is that you go to a place and memorize its layout, and then at distinct areas within, you place mental images which are linked to ideas. When you need to recall those ideas, you mentally walk through the building and find the image that is associated with the idea that you need to remember. Apparently, orators would catalogue entire speeches this way, and mentally walk through a  building as they talked, using the stored images much as people in our society use cue cards.

One of the interesting ideas in the book was that Dante’s Inferno was used as a sort of memory map to remember the multitudes of virtues and vices that were important to Christianity at the time. Interestingly, Yates never brings up the idea that other stories with vivid imagery might have been created or used in this manner. Namely, I am thinking of Homer’s epic poems, which I understad were a cornerstone of classical education. Given that they are full of striking images as well as having a structure designed to make them easy to remember (in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Weatherford asserts that the Mongolian system of laws was codified into songs, and that their accuracy was ensured by the songs’ structure), they would have been ideally suited to memorizing large bodies of knowledge.

How would such an education program work? Would students first be exposed to and then memorize epic poems, and then associate ideas with them? Or would it be more of a gradual process, associating ideas as the parts of the stories were memorized.

Obviously I am no scholar, and have no evidence for any of this, but it is an interesting idea. Something to chew on, at least.

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