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The Art of Memory

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One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century In this classic study of how people learned to retain vast stores of knowledge before the invention of the printed page, Frances A. Yates traces the art of memory from its treatment by Greek orators, through its Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century In this classic study of how people learned to retain vast stores of knowledge before the invention of the printed page, Frances A. Yates traces the art of memory from its treatment by Greek orators, through its Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance, and finally to its use in the seventeenth century. This book, the first to relate the art of memory to the history of culture as a whole, was revolutionary when it first appeared and continues to mesmerize readers with its lucid and revelatory insights.


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One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century In this classic study of how people learned to retain vast stores of knowledge before the invention of the printed page, Frances A. Yates traces the art of memory from its treatment by Greek orators, through its Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century In this classic study of how people learned to retain vast stores of knowledge before the invention of the printed page, Frances A. Yates traces the art of memory from its treatment by Greek orators, through its Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance, and finally to its use in the seventeenth century. This book, the first to relate the art of memory to the history of culture as a whole, was revolutionary when it first appeared and continues to mesmerize readers with its lucid and revelatory insights.

30 review for The Art of Memory

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    I was surprised at the readability of this. But, truthfully, I read it a few months ago and forgot most of what I think about it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    One thing that is impossible to fully grasp about the past is the fact that hundreds of years ago people had significantly different mental worlds to our own. Popular histories tend to entirely sidestep this in favour of drawing parallels and contrasts with current habits of life, while more academic history often struggles with the unwieldiness of explaining it. ‘The Art of Memory’ confronts the issue head on by telling the story of memory techniques used in classical, Medieval, and Renaissance One thing that is impossible to fully grasp about the past is the fact that hundreds of years ago people had significantly different mental worlds to our own. Popular histories tend to entirely sidestep this in favour of drawing parallels and contrasts with current habits of life, while more academic history often struggles with the unwieldiness of explaining it. ‘The Art of Memory’ confronts the issue head on by telling the story of memory techniques used in classical, Medieval, and Renaissance times. The art of memory essentially consists of teaching systematic ways to improve the performance of recall. What makes this art so hard to grasp now is that memory was the main reference at the time. Before the printing press, books were scarcely available and contacting other people very time-consuming. As has been recognised since classical times, the performance of human memory is partially innate (some people have better memories ‘naturally’) and partially a matter of use and training. To veer into anecdata, the memorisation of phone numbers has become a lost art since the advent of mobile phones. If there is no active need to remember strings of eleven numbers, you’re unlikely to do so. Likewise, if you don’t need to remember entire areas of academic knowledge because you can refer to books, why would you? Academic learning in the 21st century is still about memorisation, yes, but also a substantial amount of recalling key names, locations, and signposts. You need to know where to find the details, rather than remembering them all. By contrast, the classical art of memory involved the use of places (usually buildings) and ‘corporeal similitudes’ (imagined human figures) as shortcuts to the memorisation of knowledge in great detail. The basic idea was to slowly walk around an actual building, transpose it fully into your imagination, and populate this mental construct with a carefully sequenced series of images that were stimulating enough to remember and associate with specific pieces of information. Each image in the sequence could represent a concept or, incredibly, a single word. The latter approach is admittedly acknowledged to be much more difficult. What really amazes the (post?)modern reader, though, is to contemplate the scale of these memory places. They were apparently used by practitioners of the art to memorise speeches, books, legal cases, and the like. This blew my mind in particular because I have a very visual memory. I’ve instinctively used this basic technique of remembering items in a room when doing a memory experiment for someone’s research, and it works. However, all my life I’ve relied on books, and latterly the internet, to elaborate on and confirm what’s in my memory. Having a meticulously arranged library inside your brain seems like it would change your entire mode of thought, in ways I can only speculate on. At times when reading this book I wondered if I waste my visual memory by daydreaming beautiful mansions without making any effort to store information in them. Again, though, is there any need to? There are so many external forms of memory storage these days, both more and less fragile than our brains. Yates does not broach any of these issues, though, as the book was published in 1966 and concludes with Leibniz in the seventeenth century. It divides the art of memory into three broad eras, the classical, middle ages, and Renaissance. As I’m not at all familiar with the latter two periods, I found them more challenging and the concepts quite complex. Those chapters were richly rewarding, though, and Yates’ writing style is consistently clear and thoughtful. The Medieval and Renaissance manifestations of the memory arts were intertwined with religion and magic in ways subtle and obvious. The differences between the two are neatly summarised as follows: We come back here to that basic difference between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the change in attitude to the imagination. From a lower power which may be used in memory as a concession to weak man who may use corporeal similitudes because only so can he retain his spiritual intentions to the corporeal world, it has become man’s highest power, by means of which he can grasp the intelligible world beyond appearances through laying hold of significant images. Perhaps the most striking chapters in the book concern Giordino Bruno’s extremely complex occult-suffused memory systems, which bring this mystical Renaissance tendency to apotheosis. Bruno is described by Yates as ‘the Magus of Memory’ and was eventually burnt at the stake by the Inquisition. In his many books, memory systems are a form of magic. They include concentric wheels with 150 divisions, the full meaning of which Yates believes ‘we shall never understand in detail’. Think about the effort involved in memorising such a thing - not merely as a static view of 150 images, but such that the wheels could spin and allow myriad new combinations. Moreover, the images were not literal, they represented what Bruno believed to be the fundamental elements that reality was made of. About halfway through ‘The Art of Memory’, I put it aside for a few days to read a fantasy novel called A Darker Shade of Magic. The contrast definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the latter half of this book. Consider, if you will, holding in your memory a complete visual representation of the world’s constitutive parts, which you can rearrange and manipulate at will. Is that not magic? It certainly has a strong air of the fantastical. As Yates puts it: Did [Bruno] intend that there would be formed in the memory using these ever-changing combinations of astral images some kind of alchemy of the imagination, a philosopher’s stone in the psyche through which every possible arrangement and combination of objects in the lower world - plants, animals, stones - would be perceived and remembered? And that, in accordance with the forming and reforming of the inventor’s images on the central wheel, the whole history of man would be remembered from above, as it were, all his discoveries, thoughts, philosophies, productions? Such a memory would be the memory of a divine man. [...] Magic assumes laws and forces running through the universe which the operator can use, once he knows how to capture them. [...] The Renaissance conception of an animistic universe, operated by magic, prepared the way for the conception of a mechanistic universe, operated by mathematics. This fascinating comparison brought to mind how Bruno’s systematisation of knowledge into interconnected categories prefigured the Enlightenment division of academic study into disciplines. These systems also seemed to invoke Borges - he was basically a Magus, so surely he must have been aware of them. The final chapters then turn to the association between the art of memory and theatres, notably Shakespeare’s Globe. This is especially piquant to read if you’ve visited the rebuilt Globe, which is a beautiful and evocative place. Yates asks how books on memory can help with the reconstruction of the Globe and reviews the evidence of how it looked. As I recall, the layout in the rebuilt version is very close to that arrived at. Here the book intersects with architecture, but it is fundamentally interdisciplinary, as the conclusion emphasises. Theology, pedagogy, and literature are all critical, while psychology underpins it throughout. That is part of what makes the study so elusive yet fascinating, as we can only speculate about how these memory palaces were actually experienced by their builders. I decided to read ‘The Art of Memory’ after finding an article about it online somewhere and, ironically, can’t remember where. The combination of detailed explanations and well-chosen illustrations makes for a deeply thought-provoking book, well worth lingering over.

  3. 4 out of 5

    gwayle

    This is a fascinating history of the "art of memory"--an imaginary, spatio-visual technique for storing vast amounts of information before the printed page. Imagine a building with which you are intimately familiar, with plenty of space and a logical sequence to the rooms. Now put vivid, lurid statues (preferably "corporeal similitudes" but objects also work) representing the concepts (or specifics) you want to remember in the rooms at appropriate intervals. When you want to remember something, This is a fascinating history of the "art of memory"--an imaginary, spatio-visual technique for storing vast amounts of information before the printed page. Imagine a building with which you are intimately familiar, with plenty of space and a logical sequence to the rooms. Now put vivid, lurid statues (preferably "corporeal similitudes" but objects also work) representing the concepts (or specifics) you want to remember in the rooms at appropriate intervals. When you want to remember something, walk through the "palace" in your memory and look at your sequential displays. From its roots in ancient Greece and Rome, the art underwent intriguing transformations: in the Middle Ages, it became a devotional technique for meditation on good acts and sins that will get you into various levels of hell, with their attendant punishments (Yates argues that Dante was much influenced by the art, also that all of that disturbing religious imagery of the time has everything to do with making images memorable). In its Renaissance incarnation, it melds with the Hermetic tradition to form a occultist tool for aligning yourself "magically" with the universe, thereby accessing the divine power that is the stuff of Man's pre-corporeal soul. The concluding two chapters are interesting though less convincing: the history of the art reveals the true structure of Shakespeare's Globe Theater, and it also influenced the development of the scientific method (just because Bacon and Leibniz were interested in the art and also made significant contributions to science and mathematics doesn't mean that their interest in the art had anything to do with their contributions). I came to this book after reading John Crowley's strange and memorable Little, Big ; the fascinating character Ariel Hawksquill is an adept at the art, having built vast, intricate, and magically potent memory palaces. Curiously, I've been drawn back to Crowley and his Aegypt cycle after reading this. I will definitely be reading more on this subject (hopefully nonfiction and fiction--suggestions?). In any case, apparently we all have Dame Yates to thank for any modern interest in it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    *Note: After re-reading this review, I am thoroughly unsatisfied with it. Try as I may, I cannot convey just how amazing this book is. Before reading it, I had no idea the depth and breadth of what I didn't know. It has changed the way I read classical and medieval history. This book opened up to me an understanding of an entire discipline dedicated to memory, which I had never discovered previously. I had to re-read the first three chapters after going over them once because it took awhile to ad *Note: After re-reading this review, I am thoroughly unsatisfied with it. Try as I may, I cannot convey just how amazing this book is. Before reading it, I had no idea the depth and breadth of what I didn't know. It has changed the way I read classical and medieval history. This book opened up to me an understanding of an entire discipline dedicated to memory, which I had never discovered previously. I had to re-read the first three chapters after going over them once because it took awhile to adjust my brain to Yates's pre-printing press world. Yates traces the history the art of memory as it trickles out of the ruins of the Roman Empire to the medieval monasteries of Europe and, finally for Yates, to the Renaissance. Watching the art of memory develop from a technique that appears to be cumbersome and useless to one that is sleek, efficient, and decidedly modern is fascinating. This book can be a slog. There is lots of Latin and Italian, and you're going to have to have your online dictionary or translation book handy for most chapters. It's very dense, and at times I just had to put it down because my brain had reached its limit, but the subject matter really kept me going because I found it so darn fascinating. Highly recommended. I am currently reading Gleick's The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, and there are tons of synergies with how the pre-modern thinker used his memory in an age where words and ideas existed primarily in the ether rather than on paper. The Art of Memory changed the way I'll read books in the future. For that, it's worth your time.

  5. 4 out of 5

    A.J. McMahon

    This is one of my favourite books of all time, which I have read three times by now. It tells the story of the now forgotten art of memory which was practised in ancient times from its beginnings in Ancient Greece up until round about the Enlightenment, when it fell into disuse amongst the educated elite, along with so much else of the wit and wisdom of times past. It is a great pity that we are not all taught this art of memory at school. This art of memory still forms the foundation of modern This is one of my favourite books of all time, which I have read three times by now. It tells the story of the now forgotten art of memory which was practised in ancient times from its beginnings in Ancient Greece up until round about the Enlightenment, when it fell into disuse amongst the educated elite, along with so much else of the wit and wisdom of times past. It is a great pity that we are not all taught this art of memory at school. This art of memory still forms the foundation of modern day mnemonics, such as that on show at modern memory competitions. The basic principle of it is that places and locations and images are used to associate what needs to be remembered in such a way that by mentally recalling these images the knowledge itself is recalled. The technique works brilliantly well, as I have found myself by putting it to practise. Why exactly it works no-one has ever found out, but then the nature of memory itself remains a mystery to this day. Frances Yates writes so beautifully, and the material which she deals in is so very interesting, that this book constitutes a beautiful read from cover to cover. Very highly recommended!

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tony Gualtieri

    There are enough reviews here describing the contents and quality of this book. For me, the best part was the palpable sense of discovery the author conveyed as she began to see how Simonides's artificial memory permeated Renaissance culture and became a hidden strand connecting Thomas Aquinas's Method to Raymond Llull's Art to Giordano Bruno's enigmatic Shadows and Seals and on to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz's invention of infinitesimal calculus. There are enough reviews here describing the contents and quality of this book. For me, the best part was the palpable sense of discovery the author conveyed as she began to see how Simonides's artificial memory permeated Renaissance culture and became a hidden strand connecting Thomas Aquinas's Method to Raymond Llull's Art to Giordano Bruno's enigmatic Shadows and Seals and on to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz's invention of infinitesimal calculus.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dorum

    The scope of this book is huge. One can only wonder at the years of work and study necessary to write it. From a practical stand point there is not much to be gained from this book. However, one can learn about the old way of learning without studying medieval Latin treatises or other similar things. And it contains some other incredible morsels like a reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater, or the influence of the ars memorativa on Leibniz. All in all, in my opinion, in ars memorativa the The scope of this book is huge. One can only wonder at the years of work and study necessary to write it. From a practical stand point there is not much to be gained from this book. However, one can learn about the old way of learning without studying medieval Latin treatises or other similar things. And it contains some other incredible morsels like a reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater, or the influence of the ars memorativa on Leibniz. All in all, in my opinion, in ars memorativa there are only 2 major discoveries. One is the law of association. This was known since ancient times. There are a lot of systems that use it. The second great discovery is the spaced repetition systems. These have only became feasible with the advent of computers. This book doesn't discuss this second one. It was published before the SRS systems really took off. It doesn't really matter though. It still provides a fascinating insight into the way the ancients went about this business of learning.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Vince Snow

    This review may be more autobiographical than a review, but in 2014 I was working for a summer in Kansas City and we were commuting to Topeka daily, which was about an hour and a half away. I had a lot of downtime and I came across a Wikipedia page (which I could not more highly recommend), The Method Of Loci. I was interested in how people memorized x number of digits of Pi and I got more than I bargained for. It was so fascinating to me, the idea of storing objects in a specific place in a bui This review may be more autobiographical than a review, but in 2014 I was working for a summer in Kansas City and we were commuting to Topeka daily, which was about an hour and a half away. I had a lot of downtime and I came across a Wikipedia page (which I could not more highly recommend), The Method Of Loci. I was interested in how people memorized x number of digits of Pi and I got more than I bargained for. It was so fascinating to me, the idea of storing objects in a specific place in a building in my mind. I found a reference to this book, it seemed to be everything I was looking for, it was One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century, and would tell me exactly how to practice the Art of Memory. I started reading it in mid-2014. I gave the book 2 stars. It took me years to get through. I tried for a very long time to finish it. It was meticulously researched, the writing was great, I'm sure if someone was interested in the subject matter it would have been stellar. It just was not the book I was looking for. It was much more the History of the Art of Memory rather than the Art of Memory. I barely picked it up between 2014-the end of 2017 when I decided to try in earnest to read it again. I told myself I'd keep it on my currently-reading on Goodreads until I finished it. I started giving it a real try again recently and was able to make some real progress and ultimately was able to finish it. A book that much more fit the qualifications of what I was looking for was Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. I read that a year ago and really really loved it. One of the memory principles it talks about in moonwalking with einstein is Person-Action-Object. You associate a person, an action, and an object to every number 00-99. Once you memorize that, you effectively can remember any number 0-1,000,000 (999,999). take a random number , 654,481 for example. if you break it into 3 pieces: 65-44-81, you take your 65 Person - Lady Gaga, your 44 Action - doing jumping jacks, and your 81 Object - thigh-high steel toed boots and you imagine your person doing your action to your object. So you'd think of Lady Gaga doing jumping jacks in thigh-high steel toed boots. Using this technique you can memorize large sequences of numbers with various combinations of Person-Action-Objects. In The Art Of Memory, we learn about what, as far as I could tell, was a predecessor to the Person-Action-Objects. Large circles with symbols of the gods, or the planets, or the zodiac symbols, etc. Large memory theatres which had various symbols of various meaning. I could not comprehend any meaning from the descriptions of these various historical memory techniques. I read about the various schools of Memory thought and the big names in Ancient memory. Cicero, Simonedes, Giordano Bruno, the Ad herennium, Cabalism, Hermetics, Lullism, Camillo, Robert Fludd. I could tell you at a very high level what any of these things are, but I do not feel like I am a scholar in any of them. Ironically, I can't remember much of what I read about any of them. At some point, finishing the book become more symbolic for me of overcoming some difficult task that I had personally subjected myself to and so I could not just put it away quietly without completing it. I feel accomplished, I have never had a more difficult time getting through a book. I would recommend people to read this at their own risk. I have nothing but respect for Frances Yates, who this really seemed to be her passion. She wrote other, adjacent books on the subject and important figures, I could just not catch her vision.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    One star is slightly misleading, but I couldn't justify the two. The topic of this book is endlessly intriguing, but in the hands of this author it became a Sisyphean battle. Finnegans Wake was a country stroll in comparison. Every single paragraph of the text oozes with this woman's blatant over-education. Not her fault, but neither is it mine to feel completely emotionless towards what she's trying to achieve. If you're looking for a direction in which to go about pursuing the techniques discus One star is slightly misleading, but I couldn't justify the two. The topic of this book is endlessly intriguing, but in the hands of this author it became a Sisyphean battle. Finnegans Wake was a country stroll in comparison. Every single paragraph of the text oozes with this woman's blatant over-education. Not her fault, but neither is it mine to feel completely emotionless towards what she's trying to achieve. If you're looking for a direction in which to go about pursuing the techniques discussed, find a manual instead. This author will only confuse you, and potentially make you hateful towards the subject matter. Could have used an editor as well. Could smell the glee pluming off the pages where ten words could have been made five. Took me over a month to finish. It's been about three years since that happened. Look elsewhere.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Gabriel Ògúngbadé

    Understanding memory has been one of man's greatest interest and achieving the little knowledge we know of our own mind is a great accomplishment as is. Frances A. Yates explains the history of the 'art of memory' as she calls it, starting from the master of memory himself - Simonides and the unknown author of Ad Herenium. Giving detailed descriptions of how to go abaout honing one's memory/ I went into this book as a speculator - something in the title and cover drew me in - and came out with in Understanding memory has been one of man's greatest interest and achieving the little knowledge we know of our own mind is a great accomplishment as is. Frances A. Yates explains the history of the 'art of memory' as she calls it, starting from the master of memory himself - Simonides and the unknown author of Ad Herenium. Giving detailed descriptions of how to go abaout honing one's memory/ I went into this book as a speculator - something in the title and cover drew me in - and came out with in depth knowledge of how to sharpen my memory and most importantly how to integrate it into my daily life. I'm positive in the next few years i will possess close to eidetic memory. This is hands down in the top three of my favourite books (sorry Tolstoy).

  11. 4 out of 5

    Carrie

    Really cool subject matter, I would never have thought about this subject matter as a subject matter, and even cooler is at the center of the subject matter is a mystery, and so you aren't even sure what you are reading about exactly. The beginning of a study, so much untapped into, although also, rather anglo-centric. Maybe some new academic will expand (or maybe has?)this study to include african or asian systems of memory... Really cool subject matter, I would never have thought about this subject matter as a subject matter, and even cooler is at the center of the subject matter is a mystery, and so you aren't even sure what you are reading about exactly. The beginning of a study, so much untapped into, although also, rather anglo-centric. Maybe some new academic will expand (or maybe has?)this study to include african or asian systems of memory...

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    I discovered this book when I was at university years ago and it captured my imagination completely. I loved the descriptions of the Memory Theatres in particular and I found it really well written.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Craig

    This book changed me! For the love of Christ, every Christian should read this book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mike Blackwell

    I thought this book was just going to be about how the Greeks were good at remembering things, but boy howdy, the Art of Memory really went flying off the rails pretty quickly. The Renaissance was a wild time, I tell you what! This book is loads of fun - the author has plenty of personality and helps guide you through a strange and baffling history of occult magic systems and esoteric philosophy, all based on the ideas of a few Greeks who just wanted to memorize a speech or two.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Peter Thomason

    Frances Yates is an extraordinary scholar with a dry and reserved sense of humor. This was a long slog for me but I was determined to get through it no matter how long it took. In terms of the depth of the material covered, it was like taking a 15 week doctoral course, so I treated it that way. No rushing through it; I would read a section, then re-read and underline, then re-read and summarize a paragraph or a page in the margin in my effort to retain as much as possible. In addition to her car Frances Yates is an extraordinary scholar with a dry and reserved sense of humor. This was a long slog for me but I was determined to get through it no matter how long it took. In terms of the depth of the material covered, it was like taking a 15 week doctoral course, so I treated it that way. No rushing through it; I would read a section, then re-read and underline, then re-read and summarize a paragraph or a page in the margin in my effort to retain as much as possible. In addition to her careful chronological assignment of different approaches to the art of memory to the historical period in which they developed, she gives detailed descriptions of the transformations the art went through. From its invention in classical antiquity to Cicero's refinements of it for rhetoric and oratory, to its use by Albert the Great, T. Aquinas, and Raymond Lull for religious purposes in the late Middle Ages, to occult and highly magicized versions created by Camillo and Fludd in their Renaissance memory theaters to Giordano Bruno's Hermetic memory-based religion for which he was burned at the stake in 1600, all are investigated by Yates in great detail. While this is a book in the somewhat esoteric field of the history of ideas and not a self-help book by any measure, it does, nevertheless, help the reader to identify which "systems" have stood the test of time and are practically useful for improving one's memory through the art. It is also provides a fascinating look into how the development of scientific method grew out of attempts by Renaissance thinkers to find the great key to all knowledge by blending aspects of the traditional practice of the art with magic, cabalism, astrology, neo-platonism, pseudo-science, and religion. If you have the time, this book, described as one of the greatest 100 non-fiction books of the 20th century, will provide some great background for understanding what happened in the history of ideas in 17th century Europe and the development of the modern era. As Yates says at the end of the book, "The art of memory is a clear case of a marginal subject, not recognised as belonging to any of the normal disciplines, having been omitted becasue it was no one's business. And yet it has turned out to be, in a sense, everyone's business. The history of the organization of memory touches at vital points on the history of religion and ethics, of philosophy and psychology, of art and literature, of scientific method...When we reflect on these profound affiliations of our theme it begins to seem after all not so surprising that the pursuit of it should have opened up new views of some of the greatest manifestations of our culture." Be prepared to eat slowly because there is a lot to digest. She will also expect you to know your Latin, some Italian, some French, and classical authors and history since this is aimed at a scholarly rather than a popular audience. As someone who is not a "scholar" but enjoys learning, even when it stretches me, there were parts that were daunting and felt out of my comfort zone. My French is rusty, my Latin minimal, my Italian virtually non-existent, and my knowledge of classical western antiquity and mythology just so so. Nevertheless, with the help of Google and the Internet, it's possible to make sense of most of what she has to say and her citations. In an age when discussions of memory have to do with how much you have on your device, this book is a good reminder that for most of our history, most of us, not just the educated class, learned to internalize knowledge, not by relying on the capacity of our "natural" memory but through the learned "art of memory."

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    Dame France Yates' treatise starts off innocently enough: “Orderly arrangement is essential for good memory” (Yates 17). So the ancients thought. The ars memoria by itself is neutral. Yates advances the thesis that Renaissance thinkers used it as a vehicle for the Hermetic tradition. While the medieval tradition did little to develop the art of memory, it did set the stage for Renaissance Neoplatonism, which transformed the art of memory into a hermetic and occultic doctrine (134). The memory sys Dame France Yates' treatise starts off innocently enough: “Orderly arrangement is essential for good memory” (Yates 17). So the ancients thought. The ars memoria by itself is neutral. Yates advances the thesis that Renaissance thinkers used it as a vehicle for the Hermetic tradition. While the medieval tradition did little to develop the art of memory, it did set the stage for Renaissance Neoplatonism, which transformed the art of memory into a hermetic and occultic doctrine (134). The memory system is a system of memory places and those images “are those of the planetary gods” (148). Renaissance thinkers were quick to say that “memory is organically geared to the universe” (149). As the old hermetic dictum said, “As above, so below.” Renaissance man saw man as quasi-divine and “having the powers of the star rulers” (151). Indeed, he is part “demon,” in fact a “star-demon” (Camillo, Asclepius). In short, thinkers like Camillo and Ficino turned classical memory “into an occult art” (155). How does Renaissance man “tap into this power?” We have already noted a connection between man and the stars, but what is the “middle man,” so to speak? Yates suggests a “talisman” of sorts. A talisman is any imprinted with perceived powers. Yates suggests that the talismans in this case were planetary images, perhaps the new instantiation of the imagines agentes (159). The goal of the Hermetic art of memory was the formation of the Magus (161). Raymond Lull is pivotal because he represents a medium in which Renaissance Neo-Platonists chose a medieval figure for their occultic research. Lull based his structure off of Augustinie’s trinitarian analogies. Lull also introduces the movement of ascending and descending in the Memory Art (181). Lull is a Christian form of Cabbalism, in which letters stand for divine names which (per some doctrines of simplicity), were the same thing as God (189). Giordano Bruno and the Shadows At this point in the narrative the earlier Art of Memory has become a definitive occultic art (200). For some reason Bruno was obsessed with the number 30. In many ways Bruno fine-tunes earlier mnemonic images along a more Neo-Platonic and ontological framework. The stars are now intermediaries (or rather, the spirits behind the stars). The magus will manipulate these images to unlock higher realities. As Yates notes, “the star-images are the ‘shadows of ideas,’ shadows of reality which are nearer in reality than the physical shadows of the lower world” (Yates 213). Several Hermetic Assumptions in Bruno: (1) Man’s mind is in some sense divine and connected to the “star governors” of the world (221). (2) A golden chain connects higher and lower things. Sub-conclusion: the classical art of memory has been transformed to a “vehicle for the formation of the psyche of a Hermetic mystic and magus” (225). He moves back to a “darker magic,” seeking not a Trinity but a One. Conclusion: Yates' work is both exciting and scholarly. She does assume some familiarity, if not with her earlier works, then at least with Renaissance occultism (in the academic sense). Some of the sections towards the end of the work do not always tie in neatly with her thesis, but they are informative nonetheless.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Orion

    Pretty awesome book. It's not a how-to book, but a history of people who were quite memorious and how the techniques of memory changed over time. Before the printed word, people were valued for how much they could remember. So since the Greeks, they devised ever more clever ways to remember important things. I've always been fascinated by "Renaisance Men", polymaths, and encyclopedists, but I never understood how someone could hold such vast amounts of information in their heads. Now I know. If Pretty awesome book. It's not a how-to book, but a history of people who were quite memorious and how the techniques of memory changed over time. Before the printed word, people were valued for how much they could remember. So since the Greeks, they devised ever more clever ways to remember important things. I've always been fascinated by "Renaisance Men", polymaths, and encyclopedists, but I never understood how someone could hold such vast amounts of information in their heads. Now I know. If you want to know the basics of these concepts you can get a quick reference on wikipedia or other places on the web by searching for the "art of memory" or "memory techniques". Once you know the basics you can practice them yourself, right away. This book is not that. The basics are in chapter one. The maestros of memory are the heroes of the rest of the book. Climaxing in the renaissance when forgotten monks could remember everything they read. I recommend it highly. Not many books illuminate a completely different perspective on history. Even a different view on the influence of memory on history and art.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Larry

    What a fascinating work. Groundbreaking history told with a lively voice. Yates pioneered work on the history of mnemonic techniques which were far more influential than was commonly supposed. Essentially a whole area of intellectual history had been ignored for the last three hundred years because its occult connections made it "disreputable" (it's interesting the blinders academics can wear, and always worth remembering). This book has influenced several important writers of fiction in the deca What a fascinating work. Groundbreaking history told with a lively voice. Yates pioneered work on the history of mnemonic techniques which were far more influential than was commonly supposed. Essentially a whole area of intellectual history had been ignored for the last three hundred years because its occult connections made it "disreputable" (it's interesting the blinders academics can wear, and always worth remembering). This book has influenced several important writers of fiction in the decades since it was written. John Crowley, obviously, but also Gene Wolfe and Hilary Mantel, off the top of my head.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Avery

    This is a good introduction to the subject and how widespread the art of memory was up until Leibniz. I felt it lacked a certain context linking the pre-Enlightenment world to our world. For that missing context, try Paolo Rossi's Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language. Feels kind of dumb to award it 4 stars, since the writing is far superior to most 21st century academic publications, but star ratings are always going to be a little arbitrary. This is a good introduction to the subject and how widespread the art of memory was up until Leibniz. I felt it lacked a certain context linking the pre-Enlightenment world to our world. For that missing context, try Paolo Rossi's Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language. Feels kind of dumb to award it 4 stars, since the writing is far superior to most 21st century academic publications, but star ratings are always going to be a little arbitrary.

  20. 5 out of 5

    DoctorM

    I found this book a while ago--- through the bibliography in Jonathan Spence's "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci", a book I loved (and used to assign to intro World History classes). Dame Frances Yates is a fine writer about the more esoteric side of late-Renaissance and Early Modern Europe (see her "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment"), and "The Art of Memory" is an intriguing account of both the mnemonic arts in 16th-c. Europe and of the way the era imagined ways to describe the world. A fascinati I found this book a while ago--- through the bibliography in Jonathan Spence's "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci", a book I loved (and used to assign to intro World History classes). Dame Frances Yates is a fine writer about the more esoteric side of late-Renaissance and Early Modern Europe (see her "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment"), and "The Art of Memory" is an intriguing account of both the mnemonic arts in 16th-c. Europe and of the way the era imagined ways to describe the world. A fascinating book, and an excellent look into the mind of another era.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    This amazing history of the Art of Memory, dating back into the Roman writings of an unknown writer most often associated with Cicero, was absolutely fascinating, and started me down the long and winding road of my love of Giordano Bruno (that John Crowley helped me with). This book has also led me to the wonderful works of Mary Carruthers on medieval memory.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Wesley Schantz

    I was pretty sure I saw a reference to Frances Yates in one of CS Lewis' monographs, but I haven't turned it up now that I tried to find it again, dearly as I would like to. My main reason for reading The Art of Memory, though, is that Pullman is quoted in Frost referring approvingly to Yates, and he puts it at the end of his list of reading recommendations. I'm pretty sure Yates is an influence on Crowley's Little, Big as well. Whether these are reasons you might like to read it or not, they ce I was pretty sure I saw a reference to Frances Yates in one of CS Lewis' monographs, but I haven't turned it up now that I tried to find it again, dearly as I would like to. My main reason for reading The Art of Memory, though, is that Pullman is quoted in Frost referring approvingly to Yates, and he puts it at the end of his list of reading recommendations. I'm pretty sure Yates is an influence on Crowley's Little, Big as well. Whether these are reasons you might like to read it or not, they certainly shaped my approach to the book. There are two main parts: everything up to Bruno, and everything after. In the former part, there's more historical context and more digestible information; in the latter, there's more of a sense of Yates' fascination with the material, which is complex and interesting, but which, perhaps by its esoteric nature, remains somewhat tentative and opaque. Yates' earlier book on Bruno is the next one I'll try to get a copy of. Even without more background on the Renaissance man of mystery, though, than some familiarity with his statue in the Campo dei Fiori, or perhaps the moving poem by Milosz, you get tantalizing hints in the second half of The Art of Memory of a whole obscure history of magic and idealism breathing from nearly forgotten books with titles like Shadows, Circe, and Seals, abbreviated translations of much longer titles in Latin. Yates does an admirable job weaving this unruly and wondrous Renaissance material into a larger and if possible still more audacious project of tracing memory, its theory and practice, from the classical sources to its impact on Shakespeare's Globe Theater. "The vivid story of how Simonides invented the art of memory is told by Cicero in his De oratore"; besides this primary source, which opens the book with a bang, we see related passages in Quintilian about the use of the zodiac as a mnemonic structure. These fragmentary classical origins are developed through medieval transmission by Thomas Aquinas, who draws on Aristotle and the Bible to range memory under the virtue of Prudence, and Dante, whose circles and spheres fit the ancient rhetorical-pictorial tradition, and they flower in the Renaissance in the ornate but lost "Memory Theatre" of Giulio Camillo, who aspired to a total integration of human and divine knowledge with the aid of symbolic images. Bruno's hermetic explorations follow. The microcosm of the memory artist, still more amazingly, maps onto the Shakespearean theater, with its proportions and starry canopy reimagined by Yates through her reading of Fludd, and in a compelling conclusion the powers of scientific inquiry are linked back to the imaginative memory tradition in the work of the polymath Leibniz. For Pullman, the rich atmosphere of images surrounding the Renaissance, incorporating perhaps the wheels of Lull or the living statues of Hermetic Egypt, contribute much to the speech of Dr Lanselius, the witch consul, in The Golden Compass. For the Platonist in Lewis, no doubt much of the shifting planetary systems came into his Space trilogy. Crowley's debt is obvious, in his magus Ariel Hawksquill in L,B and even a Bruno character in his Aegypt books. But beyond these influences, Yates' own storytelling is incredibly powerful as daring history and as intellectual fun.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Max Rohde

    To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of reading is that books can be the portal to aspects of the world and its history that are very unfamiliar to us. Unfortunately, a book that can teach us something new must not necessarily be easy or interesting to read. The Art of Memory definitely falls into this category for me; there was plenty to be learned for me but oftentimes reading was a very trying experience. Some key things I've learned: - I got a new understanding of the nature of the Middle To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of reading is that books can be the portal to aspects of the world and its history that are very unfamiliar to us. Unfortunately, a book that can teach us something new must not necessarily be easy or interesting to read. The Art of Memory definitely falls into this category for me; there was plenty to be learned for me but oftentimes reading was a very trying experience. Some key things I've learned: - I got a new understanding of the nature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the former, The Art of Memory really got me an appreciation of how very ingrained religion was into every aspect of life. Instead of using mnemonic techniques to remember speeches, they were used to remember the virtue and vices of Christian teachings. They were further needlessly complicated and made more obscure. I always had a quite positive view of the Renaissance but The Art of Memory here shows that there were very strong occult developments that happened during this time, very arcane, even more needlessly complicated and unscientific. - That mnemonic techniques were used with a spiritual purpose; thinking that what we remember and how we think can bring us closer to the divine. - That early Puritans were opposed to these techniques (most likely on the ground of them being interwoven with occult traditions), which is probably the cause for them not being utilised in modern education systems. - The Art of Memory also gave a very insightful example of how knowledge was passed on from the ancients, into the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. For instance key treatises about memory were attributed to the wrong authors (e.g. to Cicero) which conflated the meaning of certain texts. A very good example of how knowledge deteriorated during the Middle Ages and slowly improved in the Renaissance through better scholarship. Overall, I would not recommend this book for most. Especially if you are interested to learn about mnemonic techniques to improve your memory. The Art of Memory is interesting from a historical perspective but better practical advise can be found in other sources. I did find it inspiring though - but in the end did not have it in me to finish it. I read most of the first half and the end of the book, but the middle sections about Giordano Bruno just dragged on too much for me.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Anne-Hélène

    I did not expect to take such a liking to this book. It is both a detailed research and a pure joy to read. The history of the art of memory, from Aristotle to Leibniz, was fascinating. Yates kept my undivided attention throughout the entire book, even though her subject matter seems endless, and at time hermetic (pun intended). Nowhere did I find her insane erudition tiring - quite the contrary. I finished the book within ten days, and expect to return to it in the future for references. Should I did not expect to take such a liking to this book. It is both a detailed research and a pure joy to read. The history of the art of memory, from Aristotle to Leibniz, was fascinating. Yates kept my undivided attention throughout the entire book, even though her subject matter seems endless, and at time hermetic (pun intended). Nowhere did I find her insane erudition tiring - quite the contrary. I finished the book within ten days, and expect to return to it in the future for references. Should you be interested in reading this essay, here are a few heads up before you dive in. - You should probably have a basic understanding of the art of rhetoric. I'm glad I've begun Yates' book after reading the Ad Herennium, Cicero's De Oratio, and two lightweight contemporary books on rhetoric. The paragraphs on the "Loci" artificial memory in the Ad Herennium should be a requirement, as it will be constantly referenced. - Likewise, you should have a general idea of what hermeticism is. I was a little familiar with Giordano Bruno, Marsile Ficin, Thomas Aquinas and Pico della Mirandola. Raymond Lulle, Camillo and Ramus I knew nothing about but their names, but Yates is very didactic and I was able to follow her easily, with a very occasional wikipedia search. Still, it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of the intellectual context of the end of the Middle Age and the beginning if the Renaissance era. - This is a history book, not a self-help book teaching you how to improve your memory in ten easy steps. However, I found many fascinating insights on the way my memory works. While I do not practice the art of memory as it is explained here, I found some principles easily applicable. Do not expect to DIY your memory after reading this book, but neither is it devoid of practical applications. This essay had me frantically taking notes of books it quoted and that I now want to read. It both quenched and exacerbated my thirst for knowledge on this subject-matter. I don't think there could be a higher recommandation.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Hank

    This is a fascinating book -it is on one level a history of a particular mnemonic technique or suite of related mnemonic techniques, but at times seems more like a discussion of the politics surrounding said suite of techniques - from early writings, in which it is presented as a basic method frequently used for memorizing speeches, to the medieval period, in which it is inherently a method of meditating on virtue and sin, to the renaissance, where it is a component of esoteric and mystical thin This is a fascinating book -it is on one level a history of a particular mnemonic technique or suite of related mnemonic techniques, but at times seems more like a discussion of the politics surrounding said suite of techniques - from early writings, in which it is presented as a basic method frequently used for memorizing speeches, to the medieval period, in which it is inherently a method of meditating on virtue and sin, to the renaissance, where it is a component of esoteric and mystical thinking, a hermetic and ostensibly magical secret. The book does have its faults; it is pretty dense and difficult to wade through for a lay audience, and was pretty clearly written for fellow scholars, at least to some extent. Additionally, once things become more complicated, it is hard to tell anything about how the memory techniques of some historical figures were actually supposed to work (though in many cases, this is a fault of the originals, not that of Frances Yates). The author also has a tendency to speculate, and clearly seems to want the art of memory and major figures of hermeticism to be seen as originators or enablers of the development of the formal scientific method - and perhaps the construction of the Globe Theater. I am no historian to gainsay her, but these do not seem like the only interpretations possible from the source material. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating and well researched book on what could have been a very dry subject, and it does a remarkable job of explaining just how politically charged even memory could be.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ganesh Ubuntu

    It started off as a rather challenging read for me. English is not my first language and academic English is far from being second or even third. The first few chapters ended up being hard work where I had to check quite a few words in a dictionary and reread many paragraphs more than once, forcing my attention to do more than just sliding through the text. I did get a hang of it towards the middle of the book and by the end of it the reading process turned to be quite enjoyable. I guess it says It started off as a rather challenging read for me. English is not my first language and academic English is far from being second or even third. The first few chapters ended up being hard work where I had to check quite a few words in a dictionary and reread many paragraphs more than once, forcing my attention to do more than just sliding through the text. I did get a hang of it towards the middle of the book and by the end of it the reading process turned to be quite enjoyable. I guess it says more about myself than the book but I just wanted to give a perspective of someone who is not used to this style of writing. The book itself covers the evolution of nearly forgotten art of memory in Europe. It starts from the ancient Greece and the earliest works on the art that are known to us and finishes in the 17th century when the elements of the art, while still recognisable in human thought, have ceased to be a discipline of its own. "The Art of Memory" is a history book. As such, it doesn't go into too many details on how to practice the art itself other than the most recognisable elements. Still, it gives enough information to come up with a simple memory system by oneself. In fact, even the first few clumsy attempts to experiment with memorising relatively short shopping lists and other rather inconsequential pieces of data raised my eyebrows at how reliable my memory can be!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kuziex

    It's mostly a history of the art of memory, rather than a book that deals with all the techniques and methods and, like, a step-by-step guide to the art. It does detail the memory place method, but as it moves forward, the author explains that she is unable to explain the methods in detail, which is understandable, due to the size of the literature available, and says that one who wishes to understand the authors, like Bruno and Camilio, must turn to their works. But she did a splendid job in th It's mostly a history of the art of memory, rather than a book that deals with all the techniques and methods and, like, a step-by-step guide to the art. It does detail the memory place method, but as it moves forward, the author explains that she is unable to explain the methods in detail, which is understandable, due to the size of the literature available, and says that one who wishes to understand the authors, like Bruno and Camilio, must turn to their works. But she did a splendid job in the parts up until the Middle Ages, and I would reading it just for those parts, as those are more than enough for anyone who seeks to practice the art in its early form; but if you want to learn more, you can continue reading the book and explore the other authors in their original. It also throws a lot of (new?) light in philosophical analysis of the authors that it deals with, but I am not really very educated in that subject to say anything about it. I'm not giving it a 5, because I was expecting many variety of different methods in the art of memory, all of them being fully explained, and a little less of a history lesson; I also want to give it a 3.5, but don't see any option for it there. But, in conclusion, based are those that go by the name of Simonides of Ceos and Metrodorus of Scepsis.

  28. 4 out of 5

    James Violand

    Yates attempts the impossible. His thorough research details that once artificial memory had been practiced. Unfortunately, only references exist to this process. It depended upon one’s imagination to create rooms wherein thoughts were stored from which one would enter and extract, verbatim, the information. From Simonides (b. 556 BC) through Cicero and subsequent orators and even to Thomas Aquinas a similar method was used. Then came book publishing. With print, man no longer needed his imagina Yates attempts the impossible. His thorough research details that once artificial memory had been practiced. Unfortunately, only references exist to this process. It depended upon one’s imagination to create rooms wherein thoughts were stored from which one would enter and extract, verbatim, the information. From Simonides (b. 556 BC) through Cicero and subsequent orators and even to Thomas Aquinas a similar method was used. Then came book publishing. With print, man no longer needed his imagination to capture whole passages and instead could bring a book to bear and by rote commit perhaps a paragraph to memory instead of an entire work. We have lost much. Yet Yates shows the extremes in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to construct whole theaters of categories and tiers in vain attempts to memorize all human knowledge. Incantations, magical words, a resurgent Gnosticism were created out of these excesses. And finally, to avoid any reference to the Roman Church during the Reformation, memory by rote prevailed over the Scholastic artificial memory and the latter withered away to dust. I predict the average human will have little memory ability due to overreliance upon technology.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tait Jensen

    This is an intriguing, vastly erudite, and fastidious history of the art of memory. Yates takes us through the muck at certain points with her innumerable references to arcane Italian, French, and Latin sources, but we emerge at the end with a fascinating notion: that the development of memory was, in and of itself, a method for gathering and storing universal knowledge, thus forming a precursor to the Enlightenment era and, eventually, the invention of computing. Yates is at times discursive, g This is an intriguing, vastly erudite, and fastidious history of the art of memory. Yates takes us through the muck at certain points with her innumerable references to arcane Italian, French, and Latin sources, but we emerge at the end with a fascinating notion: that the development of memory was, in and of itself, a method for gathering and storing universal knowledge, thus forming a precursor to the Enlightenment era and, eventually, the invention of computing. Yates is at times discursive, going so far as to devote an entire chapter to her (still) inchoate theory of the Globe Theatre as the physical representation of an occult memory method developed in the 16th century. While intriguing, it is difficult to follow speculation of this sort without a firmer grasp on source material. Even still, Yates is a fine scholar worthy of commendation for attacking an untouched subject and producing a work that is both interesting and largely comprehensible.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anton

    The topic is really interesting but the presentation is poor. This would have made a nice ~150 pages book of general interest, but this reads more like a historical manuscript, with a lot of references which are probably of interest only to a very narrow circle of specialists. Also it seems like the author is constantly trying to 'up' the perceived value of the book/its topic by constantly giving praise to some famous historical personality, trying to weave them in into the fabric of the book. Th The topic is really interesting but the presentation is poor. This would have made a nice ~150 pages book of general interest, but this reads more like a historical manuscript, with a lot of references which are probably of interest only to a very narrow circle of specialists. Also it seems like the author is constantly trying to 'up' the perceived value of the book/its topic by constantly giving praise to some famous historical personality, trying to weave them in into the fabric of the book. This both wastes time and gets the reader off topic, making it harder to concentrate on the main theme of the book, which is the history of the Art of Memory. Read this only if you are REALLY interested in the history of the Art of Memory or in any of the personalities mentioned in the book, such a s Giordano Bruno, Ramon Lull, etc. Or if you are a professional historian.

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