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In this review, I intend to describe what the book is, who it is for, and its pluses and shortcomings. Then, I'd like to recommend a few companion volumes. Finally, I want to answer the complaint of one reviewer who claimed that Frances Yates book "On Memory" is better.
Mary Carruthers did the world a tremendous service by writing the book. What she does is investigate the world of pre-modern memory in 500 pages beginning with the Ancients and then using that background as a base from which to cover medieval mnemonics-which both borrowed from and added to ancient systems of memory. She also discusses the role of memory as an art and a part of virtue, how the medievals perceived it, a brief set of theories on how memory works, memory's effects on composition and books, and the like, mnemonic-architectonics (I'll explain this term in a following section), and, finally, the "end" of memory as an art. Some of the work is conjecture, but most of it is simply solid historical material, which Mrs. Carruthers carefully documents and references. The work is, for the most part, divided according to subject rather than time period. Three appendices and two indices, one general and one of the manuscripts referenced, are included as well. Several black and white plates are included as well which are generally reproductions historical examples that are examined. As for the work's physical characteristics, I have a paperbound edition, but it is still quite sturdy.
This book is useful for a variety of people. Obviously, the student of medieval thought is one target. However, for those wishing to educate themselves about a well-nigh forgotten area of knowledge, which was was considered absolutely vital, this work is a godsend. Additionally, for the person who wants to learn how to memorize things systematically, the book provides descriptions of several methods for doing so and breaks down the various systems into their common components. Of especial interest is the system of mnemonic-architectonics, in which one memorizes a physical place, such as a building (or "builds" an imaginary one in one's mind ["castles in the air", anyone?])and uses it as a place to store information in an orderly fashion. The systems described are not simple mnemonic tricks but are extraordinarily useful tools that were vital in an age before the printing press and were (and could still be) invaluable aids in composition. The authoress gives an extended description of how this was done. The copious references also make it possible to go directly to the primary sources, which is a tremendous help.
As for the work's shortcomings, there are very few, in my opinion. The biggest problem is that it is rather dry. However, this is to be expected as it is academic. However, it manages to stay on subject well and deliver a great deal of information. A few digressions into literary theory may or may not interest the reader and some of the conclusions she draws using modern literary theory are debatable. The only other difficulty is that some may disagree with a few of the conjectures of the authoress regarding memory and the medieval mind. Nevertheless, the presence of conjecture in a field that is relatively unexplored is inevitable. Other than that, it is a solid, well-documented work.
There are several works that may work as valuable accompaniments to this book. A translation of some of the primary sources referenced is available in a companion volume The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Material Texts) and another volume, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature) discusses the role of memory (in detail) in medieval rhetoric, meditation, and other areas of life, particularly in the religious communities. Frances Yates's book on memory is also useful as a sort of broad overview.
Finally, I wish to answer an unfair comparison. One previous reviewer claimed that Frances Yates's book, "The Art of Memory" is superior. It is superior only in the sense that it is more readable, at least for the majority of the work. That book is written with a broader audience in mind and has more of a conversational style for recreational reading. However, Yates's specialty in writing tends to lean towards the history of occult movements and the like, and as such, she focuses on these aspects of the history of memory and the medievals don't get all that much space, and, in the end, memory gets pushed off the the side as well. Instead, the thrust of the work is ultimately towards the history of science with a focus on modern science's gnostic and occult roots (she theorizes about the philosopher's stone being the memory, etc, etc). In the last few chapters, the work becomes nearly wholly absorbed in discussions on the hermetic tradition, occultism, and various proto-modern scientists. Yes, it's readable, but readability is not a criterion for excellence save in thrillers and yellow journalism. I didn't find the information to be nearly as valuable or as useful or even as structured as "The Book of Memory". It's not a bad book, but it is much inferior to Mary Carruther's seminal work.