Origins of Masonic Memory Part I

Pre-History

Since Ancient times, every society developed specialized or esoteric knowledge.

This knowledge, whether it was medical, scientific, mathematical, and/or religious, was usually in quantities large enough to fill several books.  Many of these cultures did not have a formal writing system, so they developed various methods of preserving and communicating the secrets of their crafts.

Select individuals (we will refer to them as ritualist) in each field of knowledge studied not only their particular subjects, but also the way their memory worked.

They became living libraries and achieved high status in their respective society, for their seemingly magical ability. Throughout time having a powerful memory was considered a superpower, and a mark of genius.

In Ancient Greek and Roman times, memory was highly esteemed. The concept became deified into Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory. Ancient Greeks involved in the performing arts would invoke Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory, whenever they had need for remembering or recalling their works. In the myths, Mnemosyne birthed 9 daughters called Muses, each representing an art or science. It was thought that when she blessed someone, it would move them to performance beyond what could ordinarily be accomplished by human effort alone.

Socrates himself is noted as sharing a story that decry the use of writing as a substitute for memory. He said it would not improve memory but improve forgetting. (Ironically this is now known as the google effect).

The advent of writing didn’t reduce the importance of memorization. In ancient Greece students memorize the great epics twice. First word for word by rote, secondly to understand. Many of the orators at that time developed special aides for their memory called mnemonics. These helped them remember hard to remember information.

In Ancient Rome where Memory was defined as one of the 5ive parts of rhetoric, we find Memory training described in three Roman works on Rhetoric. One written by the legendary Roman Orator Cicero, another by esteemed Orator Quintilian, and one by an unknown author. In it they tell of the legend of an ancient greek poet by the name of Simonides who accidentally discovered a new principle of memory. Its defining feature was the storing of mental images in certain locations of a pre-remembered building. This was known as Memoria (rerum et verbatim). But became popularly known as the Art of Memory.

In the Middle ages, there existed a literary Trope/concept of the Master Builder. The Master Builder was a metaphor for using your memory to compose creative works of art – a poem, prayer, painting, book or architecture. This metaphor was particularly cultivated in Monasteries. Monks at that time were looking to create a mystical union with their God through interpretation, meditation, and preaching of the Sacred Word. Their Artificial Memory machines consisted of constructing structures depicted in the Bible (Tabernacle, Noahs Ark, Solomons temple), and filling it with symbols that represented the ideas they constructed from their meditation/contemplation. These new ideas became the material of their meditations, sermons and prayers.

During this period, concepts of memory was heavily influenced by the works of Aristotle, medical doctors from the middle east and the works of monks. The dominate view of memory was based on what was known as Faculty Psychology. The basic idea was that certain of our cognitive faculties were actual organs located in the brain, called “Wits or the Inner Wits”, and that certain activities like the study of the 7 Liberal Arts and sciences exercised and improved the functioning of these organs, Grammar was said to improve memory, and geometry perfected the reason. Memory was usually considered the chief or one of the chief wits, because it was the storehouse of all that one learned. His Treasury, without which learning would be useless. Recipes for memory improvement include suggestions for diet, time of day to memorize, temperature, and even your mood. Spiritually, there was debate about what memory was, and if it was part of the sensitive or active part of ones soul. That is a too long of a discussion to address now. It is believed that Masons adapted the mode of symbolic instruction at this point as well. Stories, and allegories that conveyed the fundamental principles of their craft were employed to teach apprentices. Yes the use of symbols is a memory technique. This was the ancient method of instruction known around the world. But this was not the only use of memorization during this period.

The masons of the era created special documents we now call the Gothic Charges; these were documents which were mostly similar with the oldest one (the Regius Poem) being the most different. But they basically began with a prayer thanking god, praised The lIberal Arts and sciences Geometry most of all, gave a legendary history of the creation and spread of masonry, and then ended with a list of Rules and Regulations for how Masons should work, behave, and be paid. At that time, it is believed there was only one ceremony, and that was for the admission of a Brother to be a fellow of the craft. A portion of the legendary history was memorized and then recited to the Brother. Here we find the origin of memorizing ritual.

The Regius is of particular interest because it contains numerous references to the Wits, and includes as one of its regulations, that “No work could be done at night, except it be for the practicing of wit”. This is a direct medieval reference to medieval cognitive training. The practice of Wit would have at its goal, not the learning of new knowledge, even though that could/would definitely happen, but it would be the improvement of the mental faculties, especially memory. Unfortunately, that is as far as we can take our inquiry. The next manuscript also mentions the wits, especially in the opening prayer where they are seen as gifts that allow people to create different arts and crafts. So at its foundations we see Masonic memorycraft consisted of a method of education and instruction, a part of initiation and admission, and finally a prized faculty that need to be trained and maintained.

It was in this meliu of culture, that the Art of Memory made a revival in Medieval Europe. Now it was being promoted by the Top Theologians at the time, men like Albert Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas. They believed that having a good memory was an ethical imperative, and that memory training was a type of spiritual discipline that help them become more virtuous and prudent. The Dominican monks of who Aquinas was a member, became masters of the art of memory, and gave birth to the famous/infamous Giordano Bruno.