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A.E. Middleton: The History of Mnemonics. 1885


This is an excerpt from "The History of Mnemonics", first published in 1885.



Owing to the fact that the faculty of memory has always been more neglected than any other, attention was from the earliest times directed to the devising of methods to assist it. As one of the earliest instances of such aids I may cite the erection of memorial stones to the children of Israel, described in Exodus xxviii, 9 to 12 verse, and in Joshua iv., 1 to 24. Others will readily occur to the Biblical student. The numerals of Pythagoras were purely mnemonical. "They were," says Porphyry, "hieroglyphical symbols, by means whereof he explained all ideas concerning the nature of all things." Among the Jews it was the practice to abbreviate words, and also to form words from the initial letters of other words, as memory-aids, as Rambam for "Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon." The Jews also made use of natural words to represent numbers, similar to the Roman numerals, and used them for the purpose of dating their Bibles. At the corner of the veil used in the Jewish synagogue during prayer were strings, each with five knots to suggest the five books of Moses, a fact which suggests the old-fashioned custom of tying a knot in a handkerchief, or a thread round the finger as a reminder. "When this you see remember me," is another memory-aid, generally used as a ring-posy, and we find it thus used in 1673, by the Rev. Giles Moore, who records in his diary the fact that he presented Ann Brett with a ring bearing this inscription. In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries the custom was also common, and it is thought to have originated with the Romans, who gave their lady-loves gems with "Remember" and other mottoes cut upon them.

The earliest attempt to assist the memory by a methodical system was made by Simonides, the Greek poet of Cos, who flourished about 500 B.C., and who invented what is termed the topical or locality memory. Simonides was engaged to recite a poem at a banquet, given by one of his patrons, and after doing so the room fell in, burying all in its debris, and disfiguring the bodies so as to render identification impossible. Simonides, however, had noted the position each guest had occupied, and was thus able to point out the remains of each. Cicero and Quintilian both refer to his system and advocate its use; and we may add that it is the basis of most modern methods. Simonides found that to fix a number of places in the mind in a certain order was a great help to the natural faculty. His plan was to form in the mind a building which was divided and subdivided into distinct parts arranged in a certain order. The order of these parts were to be thoroughly learnt. As many words as there were parts were then symbolised by the images of living creatures, and when a number of things were to be committed to memory in certain order, mental images representing them were to be placed regularly in the several parts of the building. Thus, the porch, the hall, parlour, rooms, walls, and objects in the building were arranged consecutively, and objective images, representing persons and things, were connected with them. From this systen we are said to take the phrases used in dividing a discourse – "In the first place," "in the second place," &c.

In the middle ages various attempts were made to systematise the powers of memory, the earliest being by Roger Bacon, the learned monk, who wrote a treatise on the subject. This was never published, but exists in manuscript at Oxford. The next attempt was made by Raymond Lully, the "illuminated doctor," who originated what was termed the "Lullian Method" of teaching. This method was developed in a work published at the time by Lully. By his system, "anyone was enabled mechanically to invent arguments and illustrations upon any subject." The system is described as "a general instrument for assisting invention in the study of every kind of science." For this purpose, certain general terms which are common to all the sciences, but principally those of logic, metaphysics, ethics, and theology, are collected and arranged according to the caprice of the inventor. An alphabetical table of such terms was provided; and subjects and predicates taken from these were respectively inscribed in angular spaces upon circular papers. The essences, qualities and relations of things being thus mechanically brought together, the circular papers of subjects were fixed in a frame, and those of predicates were so placed on them as to move freely, and in their revolutions to produce various combinations of subjects and predicates; whence would arise definitions, axioms, and propositions, varying infinitely, according to the different applications of general terms to particular subjects." The use of Lully's method, it is said, would enable any person to argue for a whole day upon any subject without knowing anything of it. Morhof in his dissertation on the subject gives an elaborate account of the system; Athanasius Kircher, in 1669, devoted a book of five hundred pages to an exposition of Lully's method; and a few years previously Jean Belot, in his "L'Oeuvre des Oeurves," published what purported to be an enlargement of Lully's art of memory, which was said to be superior to the original. Jordano Bruno, in 1582, attempted to perfect Lully's art, publishing several works on the subject; and in 1653 a work on memory was written by one Saunders, who dealt mainly on Lully's art. The subject is also treated in Enfield's "History of Philosophy," from which the particulars given above are taken.

Another manuscript on the art of memory was written by Thomas Bradwardin, who was proctor of Morton College, Oxford, in 1325, afterwards confessor to Edward III, and one of the most enlightened ecclesiastics of his age. His "Art of Memory" consists of three and a half small pages, and is an attempt to form a topical system The manuscript is in the Sloane collection.

About 1470, Jacobus Publicius, a Florentine, published his "Ars Memorativa incipit feliciter" and other tracts on memory. This is a curious and scarce book, and said to be the earliest with wooden cuts that was printed with moveable types. The volume consists of fourteen leaves, printed in the Gothic character, and with so many and complicated abbreviations as to make it difficult to peruse. It treated of the arrangement of places and the combination of images, several woodcuts of the most rude and grotesque description being used to represent the alphabet by symbols. This work suggested the publication of others, one being by Peter of Cologne, whose system resembles that of Publicius, and who also used woodcuts to represent images of particular objects, as a carpenter by a hammer, a cobbler by a shoe, &c.

In 1491, Peter Ravennas, a Paduan professor, termed by his contemporaries "Petrus a Memoria," published a work entitled "Fænix." In this he paid the goddess of memory (Mnemosyne, who married Jupiter, and who was the mother of the nine muses) a compliment by choosing the most beautiful maidens his mind could conceive to symbolise the alphabet. Such fair symbols, he considered, were best calculated to excite the memory. He was probably not far from wrong. About this time (1492) Conrad Celtes, a German poet, published a system in which the alphabet was substituted for the places used in the old topical method; and in 1515 two other words elaborating the system of Ravennas were published. In 1523 Laurenz Fries issued at Strasburg a German work entitled "A Short Advice: How Memory can be Wonderfully Strengthened," in which he prescribes roasted fowels, small birds or young hares, and other delicious things for dinner, with apples and nuts for dessert. The disciple is allowed to enjoy good red wine, but otherwise he must be sober and moderate.

John Romberch de Krypse, in 1533, issued "Congestorium Artificioscoe Memorioe." It abounds in woodcuts of a curious character. Taking Simonides' plan as a base, he divided a wall and a series of rooms into separate spaces, each marked with numerical, literal, and symbolical alphabets, one of the alphabets being represented entirely by birds. A figure of a naked man was used to teach grammar by symbolising the singular number, each of the cases being placed on certain parts of his body. The plural number was represented by a clothed man, the cases being similary disposed. The rooms were each devoted to gaming, explaining the application of the art to dice, cards, and chess.

Gulielmus Gratrolus published a work on the art of memory in 1555, and in 1562 an edition of it, "Englyshed by William Fulwod," and published under the title of the "Castel of Memorie," was printed in London. In the dedication and preface Fulwod drops into verse, which in the main dwells on the importance of memory, and on the merits of his book. He asks –

For what helps it good bookes to read or noble stories large:
Excepte a perfecte memorie do take thereof the charge?
What profits it most worthie thing to see, or else to heare
If that the same comes in at one and out at the other eare?

And, speaking of his book, he says–

Hee that hath lost his memorie,
By mee may it renewe;
And hee that wyll it amplifie
Shall finde instructions trewe.

The "Castel of Memorie" consists of seven chatpters dealing with what memory is, the chief causes whereby it is hurt, the principal "endamages" of the memory, particular helps, medicinal remedies for increasing its powers, rules of rememberance, and the last is devoted to local or artificial memory. In the latter he elucidates the topical system of previous writers. The translator concluded with the following admonition–

To him that would me gladly gaine
These three precepts shall not be vaine.
The first is well to understand
The thing that he doth take in hand.
The second is the same to place
In order good and formed race.
The thirde is often to repeat
The thing that he would not forgeat.
Adioning to this castell strong,
Great vertue comes er it be long.

In 1583, Thomas Watson, a London poet, published a Latin treatise on the art of memory. In it he detailed a variation of the topical method. Instead of a house he used a spacious wall, which he divided into numerous compartments, each representing a certain object. What he wished to remember he connected with the objects. He dwells strongly on the importance of "connection" or association.

1602 saw the publication of two works on memory: One, "Ars Reminiscendi," by Baptist Porta, who exchanged letters and numerals for symbols, and treated on the topical system; and another by Marafortius, who devised a system of grouping all necessary reminiscences around forty-four images associated with the backs and palms of the hands.

About this time mnemonics received an impetus by some remarkable public exhibitions in Germany by Lambert Schenkel, and a few years later a number of works were published professing to elucidate his system. The "Gazaphylacium Artis Memorieoe" was the most important of these. Schenckel is the first, of whom there is record, who succeeded in getting mnemonics recognised as a science by educational authorities. He was the original of the many "professors" who have come after him; and, if he taught what he prefessed to teach, he was certainly the best as well as the first. He travelled through Germany and France teaching his art at the universities, and winning golden opinions as to its merits from all classes. His pupils were prohibited from imparting the art under a severe penalty. One of his pupils, Martin Sommer, was authorised by Schenkel to teach his system through the continent under the same conditions. Sommer was equal to his master in elucidating the system, and in a Latin work published at Venice, in 1619, he advertises it very effectively. "A lawyer," he says, "with the assistance of my mnemonics may impress his causes so strongly on his mind that he may know how to answer each client in any order and at any hour with the same precision as if he had just perused his brief. And in pleading he will not only have all the evidence and reasonings of his own party at his finger ends, but all the grounds and refutations of his antagonist also! Let a man go into a library and read one book after another, yet shall he be able to write down every sentence of what he has read many days after at home. The proficient in this science can dictate matters of the most opposite nature to ten or thirty writers alternately! After four weeks' exercise he will be able to class twenty-five thousand disarragned protraits within the saying of a paternoster: aye, and he will do this ten times a day without extraordinary exertion, and with more precision than one ignorant of the art can do it in a year!" The course of study was completed in nine lessons of one hour each, and half-an-hours's daily exercise thereafter was enjoined. Most of Schenkel's feats consisted of repeating disconnected words, numbers, and sentences in a certain order, backwards and forward. Arnold Backhusy published details of Schenkel's system in 1643 with a key, but the latter is unintelligible except to the initiated. This key is reprinted in a work on Feinaigle's art of memory published in 1813. A German translation of Schenckel's work was published in 1604. Carl Otto, a Danish mnemonist, describes Schenkel's method as nothing but the pictorial system of the ancients.

In 1610 a work was published under the title of "Simonides Redivious," by Dr. Brux. In this he gave a mnemonical dictionary; and also devoted a good deal of space to the ars oblibionis – or the art of forgetfulness – the author rightly considering this art to be more valuable than that devoted to remembrance.

The topical system, in 1617, found another exponent in Martin Ravellin, who treated the subject in much the same way as Thomas Watson previously noticed. In the same year Fludd, the alchemist, published a volume on memory. In it he attempted to combine Lully's sytem with that of the old fashioned topical memory. Fludd's work, from the fact that it contained an excellent protrait of the great chemist, with a number of mystical woodcuts, has become extremely rare.

The following year, 1618, saw the publiction of other works on this subject, including a useful compilation of the works of previous authors by Adam Naulius, and another work by John Willis. The latter was translated into English by a bookseller named Sowersby in 1661, and it now ranks as a curious and somewhat rare book. Willis admits that he has "diligently collected" the contents of his work "out of divers learned men's writing." He commences with rules for remembering common affairs, next words, then phrases, afterwards sentences and long speeches, by means of notes and writing. In the second book he treats of remembering without writing, which, he says, consists of "reposition and deposition." As a preliminary he advises the student to first "drown all unnecessary thoughts in oblivion" – by no means an easy task. Reposition he defines as "the manner of charging the memory with noteworthy things"; and advises a thorough acquaintance with the subject to be remembered, and the observance of a perfect logical method in its treatment. "Deposition" pertains somewhat to the art of forgetting, referred to by previous writers. It is the art, says Willis, of "discharging" the mind of things with which we desire no longer to retain. Willis writes rather vaguely, but he evidently intends to convey the idea, that having once committed to memory a certain thing, further trouble need not be taken – it has been impressed on the memory, and may be recalled at any time. The mode of "reposition" is further elucidated by the suggested use of extemopore verses, and a series of twenty-two questions, which should be applied to subjects that it is desirous to remember. The questions are as follow:

If ? who ? what ? whose ? to what ? whether ? why ? about what?
How ? what fashion ? how much ? by, of, in and from what ?
How long ? how often ? how manifold ? whence came that ?
Where ? when ? how many ?

These questions are, the author says, "of excellent use to invent, retain, and also to recall to minde things of great concernment and worthy memory in urgent affairs." In the third book he elaborates a system of local memory. A building of two rooms is divided into spaces, in which he mentally places symbolic objects, their consecutive order being denoted by colour: gold, silver, black, blue, red, yellow, green, purple, white, and cinnamon, representing one to ten. By way of illustrating the use of his system Willis instances a person visiting a town who wishes to remember that he is to enquire the price of barley, engage a man as haymaker, to buy some spices, to consult a lawyer, and to buy some velvet. By the mental picturing of a man measuring barley into a bushel with gold handles, a haymaker sharpening a golden scythe on a whetstone; a grocer's shop with the articles required associated in different ways with silver; a lawyer in a black gown; and a piece of black velvet, the order of the things required are impressed on the memory. Rules are also given for the better recalling of ideas, which consist of the application of a series of questions relative to kind, subject, quantity, site, and attributes. The volume concludes with a treatise on the art of cherishing natural memory, dealing in a large measure with the questions of health, diet, and medicine.

From 1620 to 1680 a number of works were published on the art, but of these only one was published in English – that by Henry Herdson, a Cambridge professor, it is entitled, "Ars Memorioe: the art of memory made plaine." Fernaigle's (sp) compiler describes this as scarce and rare, and reprints it. His method partakes to a great extent of the topical arrangements advocated by Willis and other earlier authors. Consecutiveness in the arrangement, and the remembrance of figures were obtained by placing in position symbols representing numerals, and he suggests "for 1 a candle, a fish, a staf, a dart, &c; for 2, a swan, a duck, a goose, a serpent; for 3, a triangle, a trident, or anything with three legs; for 4, a quadrangle, a dice, or any four-square thing; for 5, a foot of a man, an hand, a glove, a sickle, a piercer, a shoemaker's knife; for 6, a tobacco pipe; for 7, a carpenter's iron square, a raizer bent thus 7; for 8, a pair of spectacles, a sea crab, twin apples, &c; for 9, a burning glass, a riding stick (twisted at the upper end thus 9), long peares &c; 10, 20, 30, &c., to a thousand, may be formed from these figures, taking anything round for the ciphers 000, as an orange, a ball, &c; for a candle run through an orange is ten, a swan with an orange in her mouth is twenty." In a brief chapter devoted to "shorthand writing," he details an ingenious method of reading by ideas, although it would be difficult to imagine the utility of it. "There is," he says, "a kind of Short-hand writing in this Art, by the Ideas of letters objected to the sight of the bodily eye. Now for brevity sake, using colours instead of vowels, the eye of a nimble fancy will read anything by Ideas thus figured, as readily as if it were written in a book, and will retain what thus is written. Now the Ideas of this Alphabet be these, and such like as your fancy best pleaseth to make choice of; A, a pair of Compasses so made; b, a Lute, B a Bow, bent with an arrow in it; C, an Horn, &c., and so in like manner take instruments or any kind of Ideas for the rest of the letters which be like the letters; and instead of vowels use these colours – A for white, for E blew or green, for I red, for O black, for U yellow." The volume is a small one, and nothing but the barest suggestions of the system are given. As, however, he advertised that he might be consulted on the subject "at the Green Dragon, over against Saint Antholm's Church, in London," he probably had good reason for his brevity.

A further attempt to facilitate the rememberance of numerals was made in 1684 (Krill's note: this is a typographical error – the correct date is 1648), by Stanislaus Mink von Wenusheim, or Winckelmann, who published at Marburg in a paper entitled "Parnassus" the particulars of a new art of memory. Besides using the pictures and localities of his predecessors, he gave as a "most fertile secret" a method of combining letters with figures to express numbers by words. As this is the earliest record of what now forms the bases of most modern system, Winckelmann's key will be read with interest. It is as follows:– 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

The vowels and aspirate were used to form words – the words "apeo imo agor" denoting 1648. I may mention as an interesting fact that out of twenty-four systems published since 1830, the keys of eighteen are merely re-arrangements of Winckelmann's alphabet given above.

Leibnitz, the great German philosopher, also wrote on mnemonics, a manuscript by him being preserved in the Library of Hanover. The manuscript claims to reveal a secret how numbers, especially those of chronology, &c., can be conveyed to the memory so as never to be forgotten. His method was virtually the same as Winckelmann's, the keys being alike. Consonants represented numerals, and were, with the vowels, used to form words.

Another work was published in English in 1683, entitled "The Divine Art of Memory; or, the Sun of the Holy Scriptures Delivered in Acrostic Verse," being a translation by Simon Wastel, a Northhampton schoolmaster, of the Latin work of the Rev. John Shaw, at one time vicar of Woking. The Bible is here epitomised in a series of verses, the first letter of each verse running alphabetically. The following is a specimen:–

ABRAHAM sends; the Servant prays,
Asks Water of the Maid:
Gives gifts, brings home to Isaac her,
On whom his love is staid.

BY Ketur Abraham: had more Sons:
He dies, and Isaac prays:
Two twins do strive: Birthright is sold,
And Jacob Pottage pays.

CAANAN promised, Famine sent,
His wife he sister calls:
The King reproves, he rich, digs wells:
Sons Wives him grieves and galls.

Another curious work, of which a second-hand copy may at the present day be occasionally picked up, was published in 1697. It is entitled "The Art of Memory A Treatise useful to all, especially such as are to speak in Publick," by Marius D'Assigny. The book, which is dedicated to the "young students of both Universities," smacks of the pulpit and is rather heavy reading. Twenty-two pages are devoted to the dedication; eighteen more to a disquisition on the soul or spirit of man; and about seventy pages to the subject proper, the major portion of which is abstracted from the "Castel of Memorie," previously noticed. A chapter is devoted to particulars of things likely to assist in comforting the memory. These things are liniments, ointment, sneezing powders, and plasters. D'Assigny, like many other old writers, dwells largely upon the ill effects of "the ill fumes of the stomach" ascending to the brain to memory's detriment, and the object of all the nostrums described appear to be to prevent this. Here is what he pleases to term an "experiment":– "Take the seed of Orminium, and reduce it to Powder, and every Morning take a small quantity in a Glass of Wine. And they say that the Shavings or Powder of Ivory produce the same Effect, namely, the corroborating of the Brain and Memory; as likewise a Grain of white Frankincense taken in a Draught of Liquor when we go to Bed, dries up the offensive Humors of the Brain. And it hath been observed, that the Application of Gold to that Sutura which divides the Seat of Memory from the other Closets of the Brain, strengthens the Weakness of the Head, drives away all Pain,and hath a wonderful Effect upon the Faculty of Memory." The most valuable part of the work is the following rules for aiding the memory:–

"1.– Mind the order in which those things were first entered into our memories; for the things that precede will oblige us to think upon those that followed, and the consequences of things will refresh in our fancies that which went before. It becomes us, therefore, to record them in order with a connexion and a mutual dependence, and this order will direct our memories, and help them to find out such things as were lost and defaced by forgetfulness.

"2.– For the better remembering of things, we ought to compare them with those things with which we are familiar, or best acquatined, and that have a resemblance with them, either in syllables, in quantity, in office, employment, &c. For this similitude will certainly imprint the thing or person so in our mind, that if we do casually forget, we shall the more easily recover the lost idea.

"3.– We may imprint in our minds, and fix things in memory by thinking upon their contraries or opposites. He that remembers Hector cannot forget Achilles; he that thinks upon a Goliath will also mind a David.

"4.– If we desire to mind things of importance, we ought to imprint all the circumstances in our memories of time, place, persons, causes, &c. And such circumstances will scarce be effaced if they are recorded in our memories by the assistance of the eyes.

"5.– We may think upon things and remember them by their properties and qualifications. A gross and fat man may be rememberd by thinking of King Dionysius."

Rule 6 is a repetition of the fourth rule, rule 7 running as follows:-
"If we have several things to record in our memory, note exactly the number of them, with the first letter of every such thing which may casually make up some name or word, which, being fixed in our mind, will quickly direct us to every particular thing that we design not to forget. For example, I desire to remember sugar, almonds, prunes, oil, and raisins, I will, therefore, take the first letter of each word, and I find they make *sapor, which, being fixed n the mind, will direct me the sooner to the things which I design to remember."

D'Assigny also advocates careful repetition and frequent meditation. After alluding to the topical system of previous authors he describes the following adaptations of the topical plan:-

"Others have chosen such beasts as answer to all the alphabetical letters in the Latin tongue, and instead of rooms have assigned their several members for our fancy to fix our ideas there, and place them for our better remembrance. These are the names of the beasts – Asmus, Basiliseus, Canis, Draco, Elephas, Faunus, Gryfus, Hircus, Juvencus, Leo, Mulus, Noctua, Ovis, Panthera, Qualea, Rhineroceron, Simia, Taurus, Ursus, Xystus, Hyena, Zacheus. Every one of these they divide into five parts or places, into head, fore-feet, belly, hinder-feet, and tail, for this is the order that nature itself directs, neither can our imagination be disordered in reckoning or telling them over. So that by this means the fancy may have one hundred and fifteen places to imprint the images of memorable things. . . . . . . . .But if this way of remembrance be beneficial, 'tis best when the places where we design to leave and commit our ideas be more known and familiar to us; as for example the town where we live, or the city that we are best acquainted with; our mind must, as it were, enter by the gate and proceed to the several streets and quarters of the city, marking the publick places, churches, friends' houses, &c., by this means we may have an infinite number of places to commit our ideas."

The volume concludes with a series of rules for the symbolising of ideas and things, and to facilitate their association with a series of consecutively arranged places, natural association and vivid mental picturing being advocated.

In 1719 a work on Artificial Memory applied to History was published in Paris, the author being Claude de Buffier. Dialogue and verse were employed by the author to aid the memory. The following is a specimen of his versification:-

Le petit fils de Cam et qui fut fils de chus
Est prince à Babilone et Nembrod dit Belus,
Quand se forme sous lui l'état de l'-assirie,
Vienent ceux des Chinois d'Egipte et de Scithie.
Nineve avantdeux mille est en Assur fondeé,
Et pur roi Sicion choisit Egialeé.

Besides history and chronology, the author dealt with geography. A second volume was devoted to this subject, verses being employed to simplify the system.

In 1730 Grey published his "Memoria Technica," the only work out of the many published previously to 1800 that has been re-published and extensively used. As an edition of this book was published as recently as 1880, it may be noticed with other modern mnemonical works.

In 1747, a work by Morhoff, a German professor, was published dealing with Lully's art of memory; and in 1781 Feyjoo, a Spaniard, issued a work on the subject, the topical system and medicinal aids to memory being fully treated.

In this historical sketch of old works on memory reference has only been made to those possessing more than ordinary interest. Most of these old works show little originality, the greater part being reprints or adaptation of the better known works, and of others little beyond the titles is now known.

Since 1800 the following systems, arranged as near as possible chronologically, have been published:– Feinaigle, Coglan, M. Aimé Paris, Gouraud, Benoiwski, Brayshaw, Pliny Miles, Day, Fairchild, sen., Stokes, Pick, Bacon, Mackay, Maclaren, Hill, Krikman, Crowther, Sambrook, Sayer, Dalziel, Noble, Appleby, Head, and Loisette.