Beasts and Buildings: Religious Symbolism and Medieval Memory

Beasts and Buildings: Religious Symbolism and Medieval Memory

By Brendan P. Newlon

Published Online

Introduction: It is not difficult to take it for granted when a monk quotes a passage from scripture, but attention is deserved when they can quote huge passages of scripture and a seemingly endless supply of writings from religious commentators, philosophers, theologians and others. William of Baskerville is not the only monk in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose who demonstrates an incredible memory. In fact, Eco gives the impression that most of the monks in his story are similarly endowed with incredible memories. Although the modern reader may be very impressed by the mental abilities of these old monks, the author does not acknowledge that anything is unusual, and all the monks behave as though having such powers of memory is absolutely normal. Some investigation can prove that such an attitude toward education and memory is an accurate depiction of medieval scholasticism. Medieval scholarly monks like William “knew about and applied trained-memory techniques,” which used symbolic imagery and real or imaginary spaces to store vast quantities of information in the mind. Far from being a rare or special practice, the use of this mnemonic system was the universal foundation of medieval monastic education.

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