Mental Images, Memory Storage, and Composition in the High Middle Ages

Mental Images, Memory Storage, and Composition in the High Middle Ages

By Mary J. Carruthers

Das Mittelalter Vol.13 (2008)

Introduction: This essay could be thought of as an extended meditation on the ancient myth that Mnemosyne, “memory”, is the mother of all the muses. That story places memory at the beginning, as the matrix of invention for all human arts, of all human making, including the making of ideas; it memorably encapsulates an assumption that memory and invention are, if not exactly the same, the closest thing to it. In order to create, in order to think at all, human beings require some mental tool or machine, and that machine lives in the intricate networks of their own memories.

Whereas we now tend to identify memory with reiteration and repetition, such rote memorization was regarded in the Middle Ages as puerilia, a necessary but strictly foundational structure laid down in childhood. The true power of memory lay in recollection or memoria, which was analysed as a variety of investigation, the invention and recreation of knowledge – indeed the very principle whereby new understanding is created by human minds. To achieve this power, people educated themselves to become libraries of texts. This meant mastering the basic principles of memory training: the need for divisio, the need to make a clear, distinct location for each piece of memorized content, and the need to mark items uniquely for secure recollection.

The Latin word inventio has given rise to two separate words in modern English. One is the word “inventory”. This refers to the storage of many diverse materials, but not to random storage: clothes thrown into the bottom of a closet cannot be said to be “inventoried”. Inventories must have an order. Inventoried materials are counted and placed in locations within an overall structure which allows any item to be retrieved easily and at once. This last requirement also excludes inventories that are too cumbersome or too indistinct to be useful; consider, for example, why it is so difficult to locate one’s automobile in a vast parking lot.

The other modern English word derived from Latin inventio is “invention”, meaning the “creation of something new” (or at least different). These creations can be either ideas or material objects, including works of art, music, and literature. We also speak of people having “inventive minds”, by which we mean that they have many creative ideas, and they are generally good at “making”, to use the medieval English synonym of “composition”.

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