Medieval art as mnemonic

Mary Carruthers talks about the way Medieval bestiaries, illuminated manuscripts and some art work done in a grid layout were done that way for mnemonic purposes.

I am not finding complete understanding of what she writes easy, but finding the struggle well worth it. I want to try some of these systems.

Has anyone tried them?

Has anyone found any other reference on medieval art and the link to mnemonic systems?

I am suddenly really intrigued by the art of the Middle Ages. Just bought some books on medieval calligraphy!



Should have said: From Mary Carruthers: The Book of Memory: A study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Especially chapter 4: The Arts of Memory.

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Hi Lynne. I found something about medieval mnemonics Here. It involves using a pillar and 3 people to create lots of loci, it’s not about art but I thought you might find it interesting.

Also, have you seen this post? The original poster seems interested in a phD thesis on memory, and I think you completed one.


HI Bateman,

Thank you so much for the reply. I am very interested in all mnemonic technologies, especially the Middle Ages, because that’s the chapter of my next book that I am working on at the moment. And it’s a new field for me because I barely mentioned the Middle Ages in my PhD thesis.

I am really keen to know about the pillar and 3 people - totally intrigued - but I don’t speak Spanish. I think that’s the language the link was in. Do you know of anything in English about this?

Thanks again,


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Hi Lynne

Just use Google Translate to translate the whole web page. It will certainly give you the main gist of the article.


Thank you, gavino. I have only used Google Translate for little things before. I didn’t think of it for a whole article. Silly me.

That just makes it more interesting. But I want to confirm it as a valid source. If I can’t find anything in English - and I haven’t managed to with a quick google search - I’ll get one of the librarians at uni on confirming it. Carruthers doesn’t mention it at all, and she is supposedly the leading authority on medieval mnemonics. This is really interesting.

Thank you, Bateman and gavino. Much appreciated.


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My bad. Forgot that it was translated from spanish, my browser does it automatically.

No problem and good luck.


Hi. On the same website there is a new article with notes on sex in ancient mnemonics, can also be interesting:
Sexo y mnemotecnia

Hi Lynne!
I happen to be a visiting professor of medieval history (who is also a budding mnemonist), so I can really relate to your interest! I am currently compiling material for a course on Medieval mnemonics (including some really interesting Hebrew-Jewish adaptations of the Pseudo-Ciceronian “Rhetorica ad Herennium”). I’d like to suggest the wonderful anthology (also by Carruthers of course, with Jan M. Ziolkowski) called “The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures”. In it you’ll finds several less-well-known medieval texts on mnemonics which use different techniques including the use of graphics for the memorization of the Gospels. I found it a bit more ‘useful’ than the more theoretical Book of Memory.

Hi Diagoras,

I am so pleased to hear from you. I have a number of things I’d like to talk about, but it is very later at night here in Australia, so I just want to make a start.

I have “The Medieval Craft of Memory” but have not read it all. I got diverted to writing a different chapter of my book for reasons which don’t matter here. I would really appreciate your recommendations from that book.

I read your profile. I am also interested in remembering names. I’m attempting to create a grid of images, four to a page, to do with the way the layout is claimed to aid memory. I am using animals linked to names - Curruthers (I think that’s where i got it) talks about bestiaries being used as mnemonic devices. Do you think people in the Middle Ages believed all the animals were real, or that some just fitted the Ad Herennium rules for making ‘locations’ (or animal loci) more memorable? I am working on an art work consisting of 160 post card sized images. Should take me a good few years, but I have a sketchbook of the planned layout and contents and have started implementing the system.

As for history, it is one of my most successful journeys to date. But I don’t do it as discrete locations. Time isn’t discontinuous. I have taken the paths that I walk (with the dog) and allocated time to them. For one walk we do, I start at 1000 BC at home, and reach 0 AD by the next intersection. From there I walk around a fairly large block. The first three sides are 500 years each. The last is 1500 to 1800. I then go to 1900 on the way home. From 1900 on, I do each year as a normal set of loci around the house and garden, one location per year.

So Mount Vesuvius erupts at 79 AD. That is around the end of the first garden. The large tree there is now Vesuvius. For all events I can get within 10 years, often less - I have subdivided each section down to 25 year lengths. For some events I memorise the exact year, but for most I am happy with a 10 year maximum leniency. By using a continuous path, I can add anything I want into it. By using the Great Outdoors, there are a huge number of objects to associate events with at every possible date.

I can watch the Pueblo Revolt happening at the same time as the Manchu Dynasty, with the Great Fire of London smouldering behind and the Georges going to hit the British throne just ahead. The Ottoman Empire runs parallel to the West and so on.

If I walk a different block, I start at 4,000 million years ago and walk through prehistory until 1000 BC. That requires more variation in the time scales on each side of the rectangular block. For some reason, the dog refuses to walk through the Jurassic and will not behave again until we are through the Cretaceous.

The walk around the garden and house, then to the shops and back encodes all the countries of the world in population order. So I have all of time and earth-space hooked into a physical location. I find it invaluable and add to it every day as I walk around, or just in my imagination.

My academic interest is in primary orality (my PhD, ongoing research and and forthcoming book - I am a full time writer). It’s all about the way non-literate cultures encode information and, in particular, how they use memory methods and link to the landscape. So I use a whole range of interlocking methods which doesn’t cause any confusion at all. So Vesuvius is on the History Block but Italy is on the Countries Walk - details could be in either location, or both.

I also use handheld mnemonic devices like the African lukasa or the Australian churinga, but that’s another whole story.

It is all infinitely expandable. Is that making any sense? I love this stuff!



Hi Lynne,

Your last comment reminded me the Polish system, is a method “loci” alternative for the history, primarily known in the nineteenth century (see the book Exposé général de la méthode mnémonique Polonaise, perfectionnée a Paris by Jozef Bem).

My english is very bad and I can’t explain it, but if you’re interested, you can read the english version written by Elizabeth Peabody (see en google books).

Best regard.

Hi Yo,

Your English is excellent! Thank you so much for this. I have found the article in English. It is an intriguing method requiring huge sheets of cloth and a colour scheme in a huge matrix. All very interesting!

Thank you so much for the link.



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Hi Lynne!

Do you think this will aid in remembering names, or do I misunderstand and this is a different project? I always simply connect the first association I have when hearing the name and seeing the face (I only have a problem remembering faces of people I meet, never of abstract/historical persona). I never tried to create a list of names and associations beforehand. Sounds interesting. I did use imagery (drawings I did) when learning Latin years ago. I made a drawing of all 3rd declension neutral nouns, one for all the masculine and one for all the feminine. I was very very useful. That’s the closest I got to using drawings (not counting the blueprints I make while constructing my memory palace).

I am not sure what you mean by “Do you think people in the Middle Ages believed all the animals were real”. It is hard to make a generalization on “medieval people” - there were just so many of them :). Joking aside, what I mean is that a Frankish peasant in 510 did not believe the same things as a Sicilian in 1367, a professor at Paris in 1221 did not believe the same as a knight in York in the very same year - and needless to say peoples beliefs, knowledge and gullibility varied even within the same time, place and class (just ask ten modern Americans if they believe in alien abductions). That being said, many many people believed animals like unicorns and the phoenix were quite real and practically everyone believed stuff such as that precious stones have magical powers.

This is an amazing feat! I am nowhere close to that.
I decided not to put everything on the same timeline, as I have a greater interest in certain periods and certain aspects of them and I wanted to be able to zoom in and see more detailed data. I also find that this kind of mega-list might not be as useful for someone looking at processes rather than events. For example I am not sure it would be economic to put a person’s birth at the entrance to the park and his death a few steps away by the bench with all his contributions in between. It would make more sense to have the person standing with representations of all the relevant info on him and interacting with other figures that related to him. But this would be difficult if all the leaders, warlords, philosophers, saints, volcanic eruptions, plagues, technological advancements and works of literature would have to fit that space. I am not sure if I am clear (English is not my mother language either). I am less interested in history as a string of dates (usually battles) - which is the way we all learn history in school. I am interested in the way it is taught and learned in university - as a more organic representation of many many subject matters and their evolution (economics, philosophy and ideas, wars, but also literature etc.) I need to see trends rather than parallelisms` and I should probably also note that I don’t feel a great need for one mega-list (which would reveal the parallelisms between subjects) because I generally have a good feel for what came before what, which is good enough for my current needs.
I thus divided my memory palace into subjects. For example I have a philosophers’-scientists’ list (loci) that includes not only their dates of birth and death, but also their major works, their main contribution and the way they effected each other. I have 148 persona in that list at the moment (not including the info on each). This is hardly a great feat considering the stuff people in this forum are capable of, but I am a beginner in mnemonics. Technically I too can see the eruption of Vesuvius by going to Pliny (both the young and old), but this is more of an intellectual history list (so it has technological and scientific advances thrown in). I also placed stone pillars for the CE centuries for easy navigation (the list is strictly chronological by year of birth).
I find the journey is useful for the memorization (retention) of the material, but that when I need to extract info that I have direct access to whatever info I need not matter where it is and its all there. Usually I need the info of a certain person - this means I don’t have to mentally walk the part of the park where all the details of his life are spread - they are already piled with him in his single distinct locus. I am not sure this is the best system for what I need - but I decided to start with it and see if it works. I do enjoy adding wings (military history, religious history etc) to it.

This sounds awesome. How do the lukasa and chringa work? And please let me know when your book is published.

Dziękuję bardzo Yo! (moi dziadkowie byli obywatelami polskimi, ale nie znam ani pisać język)
I had a look at the book you suggested. It sounds like a very interesting system, I might try it on a small scale. I wonder if it ever succeeded as an educational tool (the way the English translator intended it to). I wish mnemonics were part of first grade it would have made things so much easier. I have already decided that I am going to teach my son basic mnemonics when he’s old enough. :slight_smile:

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I will look forward to hearing how you go with your son. I think it should be taught in schools and will be arguing that when my next book comes out and in articles I will write.


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There is so much that I want to reply to here that it can’t be done quickly and I haven’t got time right now. This quick reply is just to assure you that I REALLY appreciate your response and questions and will reply very soon.


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Same project. I just didn’t explain properly.

I have made a list of the few hundred most popular names and then reduced that to 160 - 26 = 134 male names and 134 female names and allocated letters. Lots more for s, for example, than for y. 160 because I am using two hand made photo albums which each take 80 photos. So that’s the size I am doing the drawings. This is partly because I wanted an art project and am learning watercolour to go with my old love of calligraphy.

I then paired the male and female. For example, I put Abigail and Adam together - always the same starting letter. Sometimes for a linked reason - male and female versions of the same name, for example, but mostly just alphabetical.

The 26 left over are to give one animal each for all the names which aren’t in the list but start with that letter. I find most people I meet are in the list. That at least gives me the starting letter for their name and I have to work harder. I have ways of dealing with diminutives as well, but that’s another story.

I then allocated one animal according to the starting letter, again alphabetical with some rigging where there was an obvious link. 160 animals. I am then making up little rhymes, clever ideas, weird, quirky, silly … all the things the Ad Herennium recommends. I am designing drawings using illuminated lettering inspired from Medieval manuscripts.

So I meet a Sarah. The animal is the seahorse. So I link that Sarah to a seahorse somehow. One I met was fairly masculine, so I imagined her being the male pregnant, as is the way with seahorses. Another was very elegant, so I linked her way of holding her head with the elegance of a seahorse.

I am years off finishing the art works. I have only done one! But I have a sketch book which I have divided up into 40 pages of grids of four to sketch my plans and help me memorise the animals and names. That is only half done, but every cell is named, so I am well on the way to committing them to memory and using them.

Does that make sense?

You are so right! I put that badly. I meant the writers of the bestiaries. Were they intended to be taken literally or used as mnemonic and fun as well as some legitimate animals?

I have thrown in some mythological animals as well as real ones, thinking that may reflect Medieval bestiaries, but I am not sure if that is accurate. It is amusing me though!

This is another massive topic and one I would like to understand better. My area of expertise academically is primary orality and the way fully non-literate cultures use mnemonics to retain vast amounts of information, a large proportion of which is pragmatic. They don’t live in the fog of superstition as so often portrayed. Mythology is a version of vivid and highly memorable story telling. As to how much is literally believed is a very sensitive topic, especially as I am dealing with existing cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal and Native American cultures. So far, my ideas have been very well received by indigenous cultures when I talk about their oral tradition being so intertwined with mnemonic technologies.

I am convinced that within indigenous groups of people you have the same range of literal belief to sceptical rationality as with literate cultures. All human!

Time to change to a new response.



A REALLY important point. I am finding it hard to explain what happens in my head. That is why I yelled the REALLY. I am implementing my mnemonics more along the lines of the indigenous cultures I am studying than the less complex methods of the Greeks and modern memory champions. Indigenous cultures use a complex of integrated methods which is so far from linear that it is impossible to describe in writing. Or in linear speech. The difficulties I am having explaining to you reflects what one of my Aboriginal colleagues told me when we were talking about how this works for his people. I understand his frustration! Thank you!

In the history block, I would only have one date per person. I only want the general idea. So if it is a ruler, I’m only going to put in the date of the start of their reign. The end will be indicated by the start of the next. I won’t put in births and deaths.

If I want more complexity, then it may be that I use another device in association, or a longer story or a song. As I walk the history block, I would not reel off everything stored or I would end up walking at a crawl and my mind gets overwhelmed. I select. I now understand things said by indigenous people about recalling. We ask them questions our way: what do you know about kangaroos? They then extract from all sorts of sources to answer. The answer will often include performance. Australian Aboriginal people work more by space, so they will tell you all the knowledge associated with one location in Country. They extract the information they need at any given time. It would not be everything they need on a given animal, say.

So if I happen to be really interested in Jane Austen, then my knowledge of her will be in the History walk, but also associated with other systems I have going, including sets of cards representing characters, like the mythological characters which form the stories of indigenous cultures. I then would add layer upon layer to my Jane Austen character. She might also be in England in the country walk. So I have linked her the set of steps which is the UK. I don’t extract all of the Brits every time I go past the steps, but if I want to know where Jane Austen lived, I get the steps from the Jane Austen character mnemonics and then that gives me England. I have no idea if this makes any sense at all. It has all become so complicated because all my different systems interlink.

I need to do it this way to try and understand the way indigenous cultures work and thus the application to archaeology.

It sounds complex, but I don’t have any system about what I memorise on any day. I have lots of little bits of paper with all the different things I want to commit to memory and do whatever suits my daily activities. If something comes up on the news about a country I know little about which gets my attention then I already have the hook for that country so I’ll add the news item and then possibly look it up and add more about the country to that location. My general knowledge used to be appallingly bad, but I am adding so much as part of ordinary life because of all the mnemonic technologies I now have in play.

I will lose things which don’t get repeated. That is very much the way oral tradition works - important information is repeated, that which loses relevance is lost, new information is added, interpretations are adjusted to the current social needs.


I would never have suspected English was not your first language. Everything you are saying makes very good sense. I think that I am seeing trends and parallelisms, but not as much as I would like. My background is not history, or even Arts, but engineering and mathematics / science teaching, IT and so on. I moved into the humanities for my PhD as a science writer. So I haven’t been thinking about these ideas for long enough yet. What you are saying is really intriguing and will take a lot more thinking before I can give a meaningful reply.

I’m impressed! Like me, you don’t seem to be going for speed or competitiveness but permanent memory of stuff you will use.

What you describe resonates with what I think I am doing, but I am also new to mnemonics - well, about 6 years of research into indigenous methods, but I have only been implementing it for about two years. I am also still experimenting. I am using decks of cards as characters, much as you have loci for your 148. I am struggling with 52! I am using a tarot deck for archaeological sites, which then cross references to the prehistory and history walks, but it is all done only partly, some barely started, so I am only glimpsing what might be possible. I’d love to spend more time on it!

I need to read what you have written a good few more times and adjust my methods from that too!

Lukasa is a wooden board with carving or beads on it used by the Luba people in Central Africa.

The churinga serves the same purpose in some Australian cultures:

The churinga should not be photographed for cultural reasons, but is an incised wooden or stone object, usually larger than a lukasa but still easily portable and hand held. I think of them as miniature memory spaces, miniature memory palaces. In both cases they are held and the user points to a location on then, singing or reciting the information associated with the location.

I use a lukasa-like memory board with 100 or so beads on it which encodes the 405 birds found in my state, Victoria. The beads represent the 82 families, and their scientific names, I then use songs or stories to recall the birds in each family. If there are more than four, then I also use a set of physical loci to remember the birds in the family. There are 36 honeyeaters, for example, so I have encoded them into the set of loci around the house which also holds countries and 20th century history. It is just all woven in together, but still works fine. I know my lukasa so well that I can reel off all the birds without it physically in my hand, just by imagining it.

I am now adding more data about each of the birds to the stories linked to each bead. Interestingly, as I get to know the bird species I am getting a funny kind of morphing happening in my mind between the bird and the human characters in the stories. It is amazingly like so many indigenous stories and just happened naturally.

The book will be published by Cambridge University Press as “Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture” in Fall (US) 2015. We have just gone into the production phase.

Thank you for giving me so much to think about and for forcing me to try and explain what I am doing. It helps my writing!



Hello LynneKelly,

the old decan descriptions (liber hermetis, holy book - hermes at asklepios, picatrix, etc.) often deal with mixed animals
not so in later descriptions (agrippa nettesheim - de occult philosophia)

grotesque hideous ridiculous pictures (mixed animals) works well as a reminder
the 36 decans are a part of an astrological (mnemonic) system that consists to the elementary theory (fire, water, air, earth), the grotesque pictures show the interaction of the elements

maybe medieval bestiaries works similarly or is based on them? :hatching_chick:

frances yates: art of memory
wilhelm gundel: dekane und sternbilder


Hi lynnekell food concerned with memory I think.
Because my friend suggeste take(smoke) marijuana some days and your memory will be increase (his lie ).my experience hard to memories new and old verse .

Food really matter