Dr Kim Phillips explores the lost art of memorisation and considers what medieval memory techniques can teach us today.
Picture, in your mind’s eye, a shepherd walking up to the crest of a green hill. Walk alongside him. As you reach the top of the hill you lie down on the soft grass. You see a river below you, sparkling in the sunshine as it winds gently along. When you reach the river, you spot a footpath running alongside, and turn to follow it. The footpath turns away and starts to lead steeply downhill into a darkly wooded valley. A cloud covers the sun, and a shadowy gloom draws in. It’s cold. But the shepherd is still beside you; you hear the gentle swish and tap of his staff. He leads you into a small clearing where a table is laden with food. You sit. From the shadows at the edge of the clearing hate-filled eyes stare at you. But at the table, with the shepherd, you know you are safe. He takes a flask of scented oil and pours some over your head. He picks up a flagon of wine and fills a cup in front of you—so full that it overflows onto the table. Lifting your eyes from the cup and the table, you see that you are no longer in the dark valley, but in the shepherd’s own house.
We have just imagined our way through Psalm 23, of course. In the process, we have employed some simple memory techniques used for thousands of years to aid the process of word-for-word memorisation of long stretches of text.
Medieval memory books
The verbatim memorisation of large stretches of the biblical text is almost entirely neglected today. We might do ‘memory verses’, but what about ‘memory chapters’ or ‘memory books’? For medieval Jews and Christians, on the other hand, large-scale scripture memorisation was a vital part of spiritual formation. Could it be that this neglect, perhaps encouraged by the ready access we have to the bible via our phones, means we are missing out on a once-treasured tool for discipleship?
Large-scale text memorisation played a significant part in education and spiritual formation throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. This involved the disciplined training of one’s memory via intricate mnemonic techniques. Memorisation devices and techniques were discussed at length by various classical and medieval authors. This training aimed not at the ability merely to reel off large stretches of text parrot-fashion, but rather to encode a text in one’s memory in such a way that any part of the text could be retrieved at any point, or systematically searched. Random access, rather than sequential access, in computing terminology. Using these mnemonic tools, some scholars were able to memorise (either verbatim or at least at the level of the succession of ideas) huge numbers of texts. In what follows, however, I would like to consider a more modest target for memorisation: the 150 Psalms of the Psalter.
In historian Mary Carruthers’ fascinating study of memory in medieval culture, she notes: ‘The book which Christians, both clergy and educated laity, were sure to know by heart was the Psalms.’ In a recent study of manuscripts created as memory aids
by members of the medieval Jewish community in Egypt, I have come to similar conclusions. Among all the biblical texts, the Psalter is the most frequently memorised, and this was not merely the feat of an exceptional minority, but was attained by a range of the Jewish community. Let’s spend some time with one such manuscript, to get an idea of how it works.
The shorthand Psalter
Here is a two-page spread from a manuscript from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the city of Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. It is written on paper, rather than parchment, in this oddly long, thin format. Other manuscripts of this shape also tend towards being user-produced documents, often for personal or liturgical use. In the books we are used to today, the hinge of the book is vertical, and we turn the pages horizontally, from right to left. In this manuscript, the hinge is horizontal; you can see it halfway down the leaf, marked by six small dots where the separate leaves would have been stitched and folded together to make a set of pages known as a quire. One turns the pages of this manuscript from the bottom upwards. During the 900+ years this manuscript lay hidden in the Genizah, some of it was lost, or destroyed. Nonetheless, in its present state it contains almost all of Psalms 42–106: Books 2, 3 and 4 of the Psalter.