Canadian Journal of History

ambiguities of medieval “memoria”, The

ambiguities of medieval “memoria”, The

Wallis, Faith

These four books are all by medievalists, and all are explicitly or implicitly about memory. Each in its own way is a valuable and scholarly study. Yet as each one states its particular case, one becomes increasingly aware of awkward gaps in their collective conversation, even dialogues of the deaf. Moreover, their alleged common ground–memory itself, memoria–looks increasingly like quicksand.

Jacques Le Goff’s History and Memory seems to offer a possible meeting place, for it is, quite literally, encyclopaedic. The four essays in the book, “Past/Present,” “Antique/Modern”, “Memory” and “History,” first appeared as four articles in the Italian Encyclopedia Einaudi between 1977 and 1982. Though revised for publication in book form, first in Italian and then in French (from which the present abbreviated translation was made), the limitations of their origins are plain. They were never intended to be read as a set, and hence are somewhat repetitious and discontinuous. Moreover, their mandate was to survey and synthesize, not to present a novel thesis, though in fact they are a vehicle for Le Goff’s personal views on the historian’s craft.

In the introduction to the fourth essay, Le Goff defines three connotations of the word “history”: the science or discipline of history, the past time which is the object of that discipline, and the narrative form in which accounts of past time are conveyed. Problems of the pastness of past time–history in the second sense of the term–are examined in the first two essays. “Past/Present” explores the distinction between present and past in psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and the history of European ideas. “Antique/Modern” looks at how the west deposed Antiquity from its cultural pedestal, and replaced it with a “modern” which might be synonymous either with “progress,” or merely with “the present.” The fourth and final chapter on “History” is the longest in the book, and the most personal. Here Le Goff dissects the paradoxes and ambiguities of the practice of history (at least as it is conducted in France), the history of history (again, from a Gallic perspective), and various philosophies of history (culminating in Michel Foucault).

The third essay, on “Memory,” is the one which I wish to focus on, both because its subject links it to the other volumes under consideration here, and because it juts out from the rest of Le Goff’s book. “Memory,” does not seem happily yoked to the other three chapters, nor is Le Goff completely comfortable with associating memory and history. There is something about memory which he finds disturbing, perhaps fundamentally hostile to the discipline of history. Le Goff demotes memory to “the raw material of history,” but still it is not lways submissive to the historian’s will. “Because its workings are sually unconscious, it is in reality more dangerously subject to manipulation by time and by societies given to reflection than the discipline of history itself.” (p. xii) The task of the historian is to subdue and discipline memory: he “must be there to render an account of these memories and what is forgotten, to transform them into something that can be conceived to make them knowable. To privilege memory excessively is to sink into the unconquerable flow of time” (p. xii).

Le Goff’s definition of memory is instrumental: it is “a group of psychic functions that allow us to actualize past impressions or information that we represent to ourselves as past” (p. 51). Memory is “stuff” which historians mine and consume, the primary information which history (in the first sense of the term) processes. Its sole object is the “past,” and how memory creates memories is not defined. Memory is documentation, and can be analysed in terms of documentary genres. Hence Le Goff constructs his discussion of historical memory around a distinction between societies whose social memories are “essentially oral” and those whose memories are “essentially written” (p. 54). The assumption is that orality is the opposite of literacy, and eventually replaced by literacy. The memory documents of oral societies are origin myths and encyclopaedias of technical know-how, and the “memory-men” are archivists. Ancient Greek cities designated a mnemon, someone who remembered the past for the purpose of judicial or ritual decisions, but who was “with the development of writing … transformed into [an archivist]” (p. 63). From the Renaissance onwards, the triumphal progress of written memory has been marked by new memory-documents–postage stamps, inscriptions, and public statuary, “souvenirs”–and the institutionalization of memory in archives (with their specialized training schools) and museums. The result is that, instead of memory producing history, history produces memory: a collective, commodified memory of family albums, cenotaphs, and anniversaries, the “memory places” studied by Pierra Nora. Significantly, the chapter closes with a discussion of the historiography of memory in studies such as Georges Duby’s Le dimanche de Bouvines which trace the fortunes of the historians’ event (as distinct from the historical event) in collective consciousness. But this manufactured memory poses dangers to the historian’s professional purity. It is easy to mistake memory for history, and for the historian to be co-opted by ideology. Therefore to guard his “objectivity,” the historian must constantly and consciously redefine his memory in opposition to social memories (p. 114).

Le Goff’s remarks on medieval memory depart both from his typology of oral and written, and from his chronicle of the “politics of memory.” Though his introduction to the memory chapter situates the Middle Ages as a transitional period between oral and written, he does not, in fact, address the issue of orality and literacy in medieval memory. The salient feature of medieval memory is rather its Christianization, which privatizes and internalizes the public memory embodied in liturgy, the transmission of doctrine, and the commemoration of the saints. With St. Augustine in particular, “memory sinks into the interior man, into the heart of that Christian dialectic between the inside and the outside from which will come the examination of conscience, introspection, and perhaps even psychoanalysis” (p. 71). For medieval historians “modern times” was defined as the time encompassed by private memory, that is, about one hundred years, the period one could know about from personal experience and conversing with members of older generations. Even when he attempts to generalize about memory, Le Goff is reduced to characterizing the memories of specific groups: the monk’s “circular liturgical memory,” or the knight’s genealogical memory.

What is striking about all these memories–though Le Goff does not point this out–is that they are not really memories of the past. The purpose of genealogy is to compliment the living; liturgies re-enact what is always happening, rather than merely what once happened. The unhistorical quality of medieval memory is most strikingly evident in the artes memoriae, the techniques taught in medieval schools for memorizing material by fixing it in images, and sequencing these images in mental “places.” Le Goffacknowledges that for the Middle Ages, memory was overwhelmingly associated with this art. But its practitioners saw it as the foundation of literary composition or as a method for logical investigation, not primarily as a way of storing mental documents for the sake of history. Moreover, the medieval art of memory is a personal and deliberate construction of reminiscence; it is neither the involuntary trace of “real events” which the historian can use, nor is it the collective remembrance which historians help fabricate. In short, medieval people seem to have seen memory as operating in a highly ambiguous relationship with the past, and as far more than an autonomic psychic function that represents past information.

Like Le Goff’s book, Janet Coleman’s Ancient and Medieval Memories starts from the assumption that memory denotes reconstructing the past, and therefore memory is about history. Her laboratory, however, is not historical writings, but rather ancient and medieval philosophical theories about memory. A premise of most of these theories is that one can only contact the reality of past time through linguistic and mental signs. Her axes of analysis are therefore medieval psychology and epistemology on the one hand, and the semiotics of texts on the other.

Coleman’s work is without question a rich and magisterial survey of an impressive range of medieval thinkers, many of them less well known than they deserve to be. Nonetheless, the author’s purpose is not exactly clear. This is neither a systematic history of medieval cognitive psychology, nor of medieval historiography, but a brilliant, stubborn and not always coherent attempt to wed the two. Coleman’s focus is trained on philosophical texts, of which she has a superb command, but which, in the absence of references to actual historical writing, can only tell part of the story of how medieval people linked “memory” and “the past.” More seriously, her insistence on trying to yoke medieval psychological and epistemological theories to a medieval sense of a historic past is, in medieval terms, a serious confusion of categories. As chapter after chapter of Coleman’s book makes plain, virtually no one in classical antiquity or the Middle Ages saw this connection.

A few examples will have to suffice here. For Plato, memory was the “recollecting in order” which converted opinion or true belief into knowledge; historical fact, being neither, was not the object of memory. Aristotle saw history as an extension of sense impressions, in themselves incoherent and meaningless, but capable of being articulated by creative rhetorical “reminiscence.” The ideology of the early Middle Ages saw the past, collective or individual, as something best forgotten, yet invested enormous psychological energy in the production of what they called memoria. Monastic lectio divina aimed to uproot merely personal, historical memories, and replace them with a new “memory” of “universal experience as expressed and memorized in Scripture and the fathers” (p. 166). The high-water mark of this enterprise was the Cistercian “blanched” memory: St. Bernard could preach about a highly sensual text like the Song of Songs to monks who, being adult converts, knew exactly what the words meant literally, and yet could successfully “edit out empirical fact by replacing visual and literal images with ideas” (p. 175).

Scholasticism re-introduced a sense of the particular and contextual into memory, but still privileged the interests of the present. Abelard’s concern to define the historical context of texts is limited to understanding the text itself, not the past which produced it. To be sure, medieval people knew very well that the past was different from their present; contrary to what is often claimed, they were sensitive, for instance, to the fact that people dressed differently in bygone times. However, no meaning inhered in such fact; the meaning of the past lay in what could be universalized and made exemplary for the present.

The discourse on memory in the Middle Ages culminated in a debate between exemplarism and particularism. For Duns Scotus, master of the via antiqua, the past was present and universal; William of Ockham’s via moderna claimed that it was past and particular (p. 464). In her final chapters, Coleman argues that Renaissance historians did not so much reject this late medieval dichotomy as elaborate it.

Coleman rarely alludes to the art of memory, and when she does, her remarks are frequently misleading. She seems to confuse the art of memory with natural, involuntary memory, accusing ancient rhetoricians of being insensitive to the possibility that their imaginative images might be “false” (p. 52). This is, of course, irrelevant: the mnemonic code I invent to recall my bankcard personal identification number may let me down by being faulty, but it cannot be false. Coleman likewise does not realize that when medieval people speak of res memorabilia or memoranda, they are not referring to events which stick in the mind by themselves, but to matter which deserved to be deliberately memorized. Memory as memorization, in all its richness and ubiquity, is the theme of Mary Carruthers’s The Book of Memory.

Carruthers’s extraordinary book has already been reviewed on the pages of this journal (vol. 26, August 1991, pp. 300-3), and its scope and implications are difficult to summarize. Its subject is trained or (to use the medieval term) artificial memory, and memory training as a branch of pedagogy in the liberal arts. For the Middle Ages, learning was the construction of experience and method (“art”) out of knowledge. Memory made knowledge into useful “experience,” and enabled one to combine these experiences to form ideas or “judgements.” Where we value imagination and intuition, medieval people valued memory, for it enabled one to fashion imagery and manipulate it in creative ways. There is, therefore, a strong connection between memory and literary composition. But Carruthers’s argument is more comprehensive: medieval culture as a whole was “fundamentally memorial, to the same profound degree that modern culture in the West is documentary” (p. 9). Carruthers traces this cultural praxis through its governing models (memory as wax tablets, memory as storehouse), in its relationship to medieval psychology and ethics, as a system of mnemonic training (with particular emphasis to the revival of the Rhetorica ad Herennium in the Scholastic period), and finally in relation to reading and composition.

Le Goff squeezes the art of memory rather awkwardly into his conspectus of medieval memory, and Coleman all but ignores it. Carruthers, on the other hand, examines the role of memory in medieval culture without acknowledging any connection of memory to the past. The “memory” of the arts of memory is, after all, memory for texts, not events. By means of an emotional and somatic process of repetition and dramatic identification, it aimed to steep the individual’s mind, and even his character, in a text. It is, in fact, the opposite of Coleman’s “blanched memory,” in that it replaces ideas with concrete and sensual images. These images were not involuntary impressions of historical reality, but consciously constructed puns or emblems which served to recall the words by which one had learned about that reality. Incidentally, such a practice violates neat categories of oral and written: making mental memories is a kind of writing, and writing or reading a kind of memory.

Nonetheless, the art of memory does have implications for the medieval understanding of the past. In contrast to Coleman, who sees the Cistercian “blanched” memory as a kind of holy brainwashing, Carruthers observes that in a memorial culture, personality is less important than character, and character is formed by experience, including–perhaps privileging-experience deliberately acquired through memorization (p. 179-80). Character was a florilegium of exemplary voices from the past. When the distraught Heloise took the veil at Argenteuil, she quoted Lucan, not because she was striking a literary pose, but because quotation from memory was the way learned medieval people expressed their feelings and choices. The quotation was also Heloise’s mode of communicating to her friends through a “common place.”

But Heloise’s quotation might also serve to unlock some of the meanings of the historic past for medieval people. The past was more than a wardrobe of ethical costumes to dress sermons. It was, in a real sense, memory: an acquired, artificial memory, but potentially no less vivid, personal and compelling than the involuntary memories furnished by the accidents of one’s existence. One can only regret that Carruthers did not include any histories amongst the array of literary, philosophical, and theological texts which she exploited for her study. How instructive it would be to reread Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne with an ear sensitive to the dialogue between its author’s natural memories of the emperor and his “artificial” memories of Suetonius.

Steven Kruger’s book on Dreaming in the Middle Ages seems hardly to have a place in this conversation about memory. Indeed, Kruger scarcely mentions memory at all, either in general, or with respect to the art of memory. Yet there are important connections between memory and dreams, and an examination of medieval dream theory in the light of ambiguities of memory might suggest some avenues by which these divergent voices can be harmonized. Janet Coleman, for example, points out that Averroes’s commentary on Aristotle’s Parva naturalia links cognitive psychology to both artificial memory and dreams. One can form an image of something one has never seen, for example through verbal description, but Averroes believes that this occurs only when one cogitates alone, removed from sensory distractions. “The uniting of these faculties, without the object of sense being present occurs in sleep, when the faculties will see the wonders of the world. There are mental dispositions that are akin to sleep which also produce this unity of interior faculties” (p. 401). The “mental states” to which Averroes alludes seem to be states of solitary and profound concentration, such as the authors of the treatises on the arts of memory recommend for forming and “impressing” memory images. These memory images, as Carruthers describes them, have a dreamlike, even hallucinatory quality; indeed, the more dramatic or even bizarre the image, the more memorable it would be. Medieval people in fact regarded dream imagery as analogous to the images of memory (p. 63).

Kruger points out that like memory, dreaming had a totally different cultural resonance in the Middle Ages than in our post-Freudian era. Over against the modern privatization of the dream (parallel to the privatization of memory and the loss of cultural “common places”) stands the medieval concept of the dream as a means of access to the transcendent realm. His chapter on handbooks of dream interpretation shows this access to be problematic and dangerous, but no one questioned the basic premise of its possibility. Dreams, like memories involuntary or artificial, were made of images, “like a body, but not a body.” Bridging the corporeal and spiritual worlds, dreams shared with fabula or philosophical allegory a capacity to convey profound abstract truths in a manner the human mind could grasp, and therefore remember. Like memory, dreams had a moral dimension: they might lead to knowledge of the good and of God, but might also be provoked by demons. Though he traces the fortunes of the Neo-Platonist and Patristic dream theories of late Antiquity, and the challenge posed by Aristotle’s notion of the purely somatic and psychological etiology of dreams in the scholastic period, Kruger, like Carruthers, tilts his discussion strongly in the direction of literature. If artificial memory was the “software” for medieval literary composition, dreaming was its favourite trope. Like a dream, fabula is true without being factual, an account of something which never happened, but which nonetheless conveys profound verities, wrapped in enigmatic, unforgettable images.

Medieval dream-lore has evident implications for understanding the medieval notion of the past and its uses. That Kruger, like Carruthers, bypasses this issue does not diminish the value of his book; rather, it underscores yet again the ambiguity of the medieval notion of memoria, which could be factual memory, or the act of reminiscence, or a dream, or even imagination. But memoria is even more: it is the anamnesis of the Mass, the fruit of monastic lectio divina, the basis of legal memory–all subjects which still await treatment. Medieval memoria is a constellation of overlapping connotations, where fiction bleeds into fact, the personal into the public, the psychological into the pedagogical, the past into present. As Mary Carruthers observes, medieval readers judged a book to be original and important, not if it said the last word on a subject, but rather if it inspired responses and elaborations. If the proliferation of sessions on memory at conferences of medievalists is any indication, these four pioneering studies meet that medieval standard.

Copyright Canadian Journal of History Apr 1995

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