Summer 2011

Memory by Syllables

An abbot walks into a bar holding an eel

Joshua Foer

The art of memory refers to a set of techniques developed in ancient Greece for remembering large bodies of information using visual imagery. During the middle ages, techniques originally developed as rhetorical tools for the orator were transformed into instruments of pious recollection.

The fourteenth-century English theologian and mathematician Thomas Bradwardine, who served for forty days as the Archbishop of Canterbury before dying of the plague, took this kind of memorization to its highest and most absurd level of development. In his tract De Memoria Artificiali Adquirenda (On Acquiring Trained Memory), he described a means of memoria sillabarum, or “memory by syllables,” which could be used for the verbatim memorization of prayers and sermons.

Bradwardine’s system involved breaking words into their constituent syllables and then creating a memorable image to represent each syllable based on another word that begin with that syllable. Vividly imagined in the mind’s eye, these unforgettable images could be retrieved at a later date. For example, if one wanted to remember a word that began with the syllable ab-, one would picture an abbot. For ba-, one might visualize a crossbowman (a balistarius in Latin). Alternately, Bradwardine’s system allowed that you could reverse a syllable simply by imagining an image upside-down, so ba- could also just be an abbot hanging from the ceiling. When strung together, a chain of these syllables becomes a kind of rebus puzzle. (The Swedish pop group Abba would be remembered as an abbot getting shot by a crossbow, or an abbot having a conversation with another abbot, who was hanging from the ceiling). This process of transforming words into images involves a kind of remembering by forgetting: in order to memorize a word by its sound, its meaning has to be completely dismissed. Bradwardine, who possessed a clever imagination, could translate even the most pious benediction into a series of preposterous—and unforgettable—scenes.

To demonstrate Bradwardine’s system in action, Cabinet asked artist Amy Jean Porter to illustrate a sentence he offers as an example in his tract: “Benedictus Dominus qui per regem Anglie Berwicum fortissimum et totam Scotiam subiugavit.” This translates as “Blessed be the Lord who by means of the English king subjugated the most mighty Berwick and all Scotland.” Porter’s drawings use, more or less, Bradwardine’s following suggestions for remembering the sentence:

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