Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book review: The Art of Memory by Frances A Yates

Frances Amelia Yates was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire on 28th November 1899, the daughter of a naval engineer.   She was initially educated at home by her mother before attending Birkenstead High School and later received her MA in 1926 from the University of London.  Following a number of years as a private scholar, Yates was appointed Editor of Publications at the Warburg Institute at the University of London in the early 1940s before successively becoming a Lecturer and Reader.  Yates was created OBE in 1972 and DBE in 1977.  Upon her retirement in 1967, she was made an Honorary Fellow until her death, aged 81, following a short illness. 

Yates’ most well-read and possibly significant work is Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, which discussed and emphasised the importance the role of Hermeticism played in the formation and its underlying influence upon Renaissance and its culture.  Yates' belief was that much of magic, mysticism, and Gnostic thoughts and teachings, despite attempts at repression, had survived the Dark Ages and subsequent religious purges of the mediaeval era.  However, her most controversial suggestion put forward the idea that Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600), an Italian friar, philosopher, mathematician and scholar, had embraced Hermetic thought and tradition and that this had been a significant factor in his downfall and burning at the stake.

Before his arrest and imprisonment in 1592, Bruno had written numerous works, spoken out against Catholic Ministers, and had been employed as a spy in Elizabethan England by Queen’s “spy-master” Francis Walsingham.  It is reported that Bruno's opinions questioned the divinity of Christ, the virginity of his mother, Mary,  as well as that of of the heavenly Incarnation, and the Trinity.  He was accused of employing magic and sorcery.  He echoed Copernicus’ still unpopular doctrine, extolling the belief that the Sun was a star, and the Earth and other planets orbited it.  This doctrine stood in stark contrast to the beliefs championed by Ptolemy in the third century AD, and ultimately held by the Church itself.  Bruno took the theories of Copernicus further, believing that there were other stars circled by other worlds much like our own.  After seven years of imprisonment, Bruno was made to stand trial.  The Pope, Clement VII, declared Bruno a heretic, and the Inquisition sentenced him to death.  Soon after he was burnt to death for his beliefs in the Campo de' Fiori in Rome.  His ashes were thrown into the Tiber and his works placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum soon afterwards.  In Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Yates expressed the belief that it was owing to Bruno’s espousal of Hermetic thought, and not (solely) his unorthodox beliefs that went against those of the Catholic Church which were ultimately responsible for his condemnation and execution.

Yates’ The Art of Memory tackles a rather complicated (and some might say convoluted) subject; i.e. memory techniques, as well as explaining their methodology, and historical context.  It also discusses some of the thinkers who chose to use these complicated methods to pioneer the art further.  Yates researched and wrote a thorough history which dated from Classical Antiquity (Ancient Greece and Egypt) to the dawn of the Enlightenment.   Her book draws upon her interpretations and understanding of the minds and thoughts of individuals, rather than basing its conclusions upon specific, tangible evidence, archaeological or written.   The mastering of this art of memory, writes Yates, was deemed an important skill in these times, both by those teaching and those learning.  It was judged to be as important an art-form as that of, say, rhetoric or poetry.  It also formed an integral, important part of the the learning process undertaken by educated Western Europeans.  Hesiod's Theogeny tells that the goddess Mnemosyne (Memory) was the mother of the Nine Muses after coupling with Zeus, therefore making Memory partially responsible for the birth and creation of the arts.  

The “art” itself appears to have started in Greece with Simonides of Ceos and his creation of the loci method of mnemonics.  The loci method relies upon the memorising of spatial relationships so as to structure, order, and recollect the required subject or content.  This method is now referred to as the  mental walk, using visualisation to organise and recall specific information.  Furthermore, the Greeks also believed that the memory was integral to the soul as well as the imagination.  This art was incorporated into Hermetic teaching and thought.  

Yates discusses how memory went on to form part of the teachings of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and a discusses a memory theatre set up by Camillo.   The "art of memory" was undertaken by the likes of Giordano Bruno, Ramon Lull, and others, and during this period it adopted a more occult aspect, ultimately leading to to its condemnation by the Church as being heretical in nature.  Despite this further attempt at suppression of the teaching, Hermetic thought was not eradicated, but merely driven underground.  Later Hermetic thought was considered to be one of the building blocks for the growth of modern science.

Hermetic teaching resurfaced in the Renaissance together with the embrace of classical poetry, literature and motifs no longer being dismissed as pagan but also a thirst for knowledge, together with an understanding of Neoplatonist ideas and Humanist thought.  This cultural growth led directly to the search for method adopted by philosophers such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes.   Even following Bruno's death and condemnation of his teachings, Hermeticism appears to have segued into Robert Fludd’s idea for a memory theatre which in turn might have had influence on the building of the Globe Theatre.  Yates concludes her splendid work of research with Liebniz and his endeavors to create a scientific method which combined memory to devise a solution to any problem.  Regrettably however, Leibniz died before he was able to complete his work.

For the non academic reader of history, approaching The Art of Memory will be more challenging than her work on Giordano Bruno, which remains an excellent introduction to understanding Yates’ theories and ideas, especially on the important role that Hermetica has held in history.  The work under review is at times repetitive and reiterates a number of the motifs which Yates discusses in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age.  These themes include magic, religion, and knowledge, and how they are interlinked.  Occultism during the Middle Ages remained an important backbone to the theories behind Yates’ thoroughly researched writings, and The Art of Memory is no exception.  Yates believed that these magical systems found their basis in three sources in Classical literature; Cicero and his De Oratoria, the Institutio oratia of Quintullian, and the anonymous Ad Herennium (believed at one point to have been written by Cicero).   

The Art of Memory covers a wide-ranging period of history; studying of a series of contributing events and thoughts which feed into an overall “idea”.  The book is not there with the intention of telling its readers how to memorise and employ mnemonics in order that they might improve their own memories by employing the methodologies in Hermetic thought from the ancients onwards.  Yates’ work will certainly inspire readers to contemplate, consider , and encourage the inquisitive to question the thinking behind the various arts and thought processes developed throughout the historical timescale covered in this work.  Whether memory is an art which everyone can achieve is left an open and unanswered question.  The reader is left to decide for themselves whether this “art” was an acquired skill that could be learned by students, or whether it was due to the intelligence and thought process in the brains blessed to be able to demonstrate an excellent aptitude for it.  The reader is asked to determine whether those who had an ability to attune their memories should be considered to be on a par with other trained artists such as musicians, writers, painters and linguists. 

Although the book was first published in 1966, it remains an important text and a classic, on a similar level to that of the timeless E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture. It should be still considered essential in the understanding of the development of the human mind in history and an excellent piece of thorough historical scholarship, despite having been written over forty years ago.  Over the passage of time as with most all historical interpretation and theories, not all of Yates’ theories and ideas are not agreed upon by each and every contemporary scholastic circle.  There have been various academics who have dismissed her work as having an overly Jungian slant and nature about it, suggesting Yates placed an over emphasis upon the import of the esoteric and occult aspect as found in her research.  Nonetheless, despite these misgivings by some, The Art of Memory remains an important study in the human mental phenomenon.  It proposes fascinating and illuminating theories as to how ancient and mediaeval teachers and thinkers believed that we, as humans, used our minds.  An excellent, involving and fascinating journey into the minds of our ancestors with ideas still relevant to the 21st century scholar today.

The Art of Memory
Frances A. Yates
Pimlico (New Edition) 1992
ISBN - 13: 978-0712655453

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