BMCR 1998.10.19

Wax Tablets of the Mind: Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity


Recent developments in computer technology and the growth of the Web and Internet, all offering the ability to follow “threads” from one location to another, have focused attention on questions of memory. Studies have dealt with memory in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern period. The present book, the work of an art historian, currently Professor in the Department of Art History and the Library at Rutgers and Director of the US Center of the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, addresses memory and much more in classical antiquity. Regarding written texts as external storage for memory, S. takes up the organization and retrieval of words, as well as the techniques of reading and writing and scholarly work.

The author notes that the idea for this book arose from her thinking of writing a “conventional art historical book on time and space in pictorial narrative in classical antiquity” (xi), and soon realized that Aristotle’s observation that one can have no idea of time without memory was to lead her back to a consideration of the relationships between literacy and orality and memory. As she says, “Literacy and orality are an exchange that uses the currency of memory” (xiv).

The book focuses on individuals who are closely involved in the production and use of texts, what she calls “the highly literate,” who not only had a problem with the retrieval of information, but also, and most importantly for the modern historian of the subject, offered the most evidence we have, particularly for the Romans, on how they themselves worked. In brief, our information comes mainly from ancient writers, who both comment on their own work and needs, and often, too, are the subjects of anecdotes (xv).

This S. regards as the philological part of her work, which she attempts to illuminate by means of cognitive psychology “with its interest in how and why people think as they do.” Fortunately, this dubious approach is of little importance in her discussion, since we have no idea at all of how and why the Greeks and Romans thought as they did.

The book is divided into three sections and a conclusion. The first chapter looks at the technological difficulties resulting from the creation of the written word in classical antiquity, especially the lack of devices to enable one to retrieve a text. One of the ways is discussed in the second chapter, where she remarks that “critical marks or symbols in papyri and MSS refer to content. They are not aids to guide the reader like punctuation marks do today” (14). In an informative aside (a common feature of the book) she reports that our own indented paragraphing derives from the incomplete printed books in which space for initials and rubricating were left to be filled in later. Thus, “The convention of the indented paragraph represents the acceptance of the unfinished book as normative.”

Chapter 3 deals with “publication” (correctly placed in quotation marks), the intermediate stage between the time the author satisfactorily completed the work and when it got into the hands of the independent reader. How copies were made, corrected, and punctuated are all discussed, using ancient and medieval evidence. S. emphasizes that one feature of the ancient text that is still common among scholarly readers is the practice of individual correction of texts by the owner-reader. To sum up, she suggests that a more accurate term than “publication” would be “release,” since neither the author nor the fashioner of the text had much control over it.

Chapter 4 focuses on the acquisition and arrangement of multiple texts, both literary and documentary, and the nature of access to them in antiquity. While most of the major cities of the Mediterranean had bookshops, the central collecting place for books was, even then, the library. Alexandria became a center for scholars, though it is not clear from our evidence who exactly was allowed to use the library, which was, after all, the personal possession of the Ptolemies. It was there, however, that many of the methods and devices to help the reader were developed. Among the innovations S. mentions were the critical examination of texts to determine authenticity and what were genuine and interpolated versions, the accenting of Greek, attempts at punctuation, and the first glossaries.

In regard to the “catalogue” of Callimachus, the Pinakes, S. does not seem to have read the remarks of R. Pfeiffer who already stated in 1968 that “the distinction between a mere library catalogue and a critical inventory of Greek literature is sometimes obscured in modern literature on Callimachus’ great work; it was certainly based on his knowledge of the books available in the library, but he also had regard to works only mentioned in earlier literature and to questions of authenticity.” Indeed, how books were arranged in an ancient library is not known. And even if there was a catalogue at Alexandria, S. correctly observes that it was certainly not available elsewhere.

Chapter 5 is devoted to a discussion of the retrieval of documents and texts. Like Clanchy, S. comes to the conclusion that the written word at one point was just a corroboration of what was said orally. As such it could then be ignored when its original purpose no longer had any validity. Under these circumstance the organization of written materials remained rudimentary, while the individuals trusted, as they had in the days of pure orality, to memory.

Chapter 6 briefly discusses the place of the Muses in the pictorial arts.

Chapter 7 is the beginning of a major treatment of techniques used by the ancients to develop the skill of memory. Naturally, our first report of this skill goes back to the Greeks. The well-known tale of how Simonides remembered the names of guests at a banquet after the roof had fallen in on them, depends on the use of locations ( topoi in Greek and loci in Latin), viz. where each guest was seated.

In the Hellenistic period, memory became a formal division of rhetoric. Training in mnemotechnics becomes part of the curriculum. The major point S. makes is that, in contrast to what seems the common opinion and perhaps common sense of past views, the increase of written materials did not, as some feared, lead to less dependence on memory, but to more. In addition to the usual procedure of learning sequential information, such as a series of items in a specific order to lead to a particular conclusion (which is tied to the logic of the syllogism), there is a second art, to learn lists or groups of things that need not have a particular order of recall. Both Simonides and Aristotle suggest a permanent set of places or bins in which one stores different sets of information to be remembered. Within the set of bins for storage are placed vivid images for each set of information. These “bins” or “places” in mnemotechnic terms can refer to literal places (such as a seat or setting at a meal), and to abstract locations like a container. So it can be a building whose rooms and parts of room serve as bins or it may be a figurative container for a particular piece of information.

Chapter 8 shows how the Roman contribution to memory techniques enlarged and strengthened the technique by offering a system in which physical places are presented as necessary for memory. The influential treatise on rhetoric which goes under the name of Auctor ad Herennium in its third book shows how this process works. “Places” ( loci) are understood literally and require a strong sense of visual perception. The places can be imaginary, but for this system, the places are architectural constructs (like rooms with niches and furniture) and the items to remember are placed there and not merely attached to some abstract anchor like the alphabet or numbers as in Aristotle. S. remarks that this emphasis on memory locations fits in with our physical visual system, particularly how the figure or object to be remembered is first “seen” as an individual item and is then located spatially in relation to other figures or objects within the same space. This kind of system fits in well with the way Roman painting placed figures in physical settings. Quintilian in Book 1 also explains how the system operates. He uses a path that the spectator would take naturally from room to room in a house. Quintilian recognizes that this process may slow down recall, but it allows for the retrieval of what has been memorized.

Chapter 9 reviews other advice that was given for memorizing, noting in passing the devices established in the medieval and Renaissance periods in which mnemotechnical procedures continued to be changed and developed. S. sees this as the result of a further increase in the amount of written text available.

Chapter 10 deals with the tools that were used in writing to deal with the growing amount of words. We know little about how one learned to read and write in antiquity, but more about the materials used: the stylus and wax tablet and the reed pen and the papyrus sheet. Modern experiments attempted by S. show that in the absence of tables for writing, it was possible to place the papyrus sheet across the thighs and write on it in columns.

The scanty evidence we have on techniques of scholarly research in antiquity is set out in Chapter 11. We have little idea from the remains of what the ancient library looked like. Only the architectural shell has come down to us, and we have no idea of the bookshelves or niches that might have been used to hold the scrolls. S. draws several conclusions from the evidence available. If, as seems possible, there were no tables in the libraries, it would have been difficult for the researcher to take notes and read at the same time. Notes may have been taken by a literate slave or freedman while the writer dictated the excerpts or quotations from the text he was consulting. And, given the paucity of surfaces, it is not likely that the writer had multiple volumes at his disposal.

In Chapters 12 and 13, the means of composing a work are considered, using as sources the writings of the historians and of compilers like Pliny the Elder. It seems that in selecting the materials for the text, the writer depended on abridgements and notes, excerpts and quotations that were in the end committed to memory according to a previously determined schema. What we find is that the ancients were more concerned with the “gist” of a text than the exact words. The result was that it was physically difficult for the historian, say, to be able to mediate in memory two contradictory versions of an event and produce a single version. Such versions were set out one after the other, without any decision about the correctness of them. In the case of legal speeches, it seems to have been understood that the “gist” of a delivered speech would be understood as different from the “gist” of a speech set out for a reader.

In Chapter 14, S. points out that while memory as part of the rhetorical education had effects throughout classical life, still the Romans’ system of loci was not used to make the words clearer and more understandable. Procedures to enable the reader even to find words in a mass of text were also not developed. It was only in the medieval period that devices ranging from paragaphing to punctuation to illustrations, large initials, and marginal pointers were used as helps. Indeed, the use of loci in medieval texts led to the development of pictures on which keys to an accompanying text could be placed.

In summing up the book S. emphasizes that both display and retrieval of words are features of literacy and tied to memory systems. Since she is neither a paleographer nor a codicologist, it is not surprising that she thinks that these are matters that have not been attended to by classicists. Changes in the materials and their effects on the text have long been discussed in the work of paleographers, but it is useful to see that the author hopes that such sensitivity and interest will attract scholars whose major attention is given to the words of the texts. Leaving aside her doubtful claims about the use of modern cognitive theories, which fortunately play little part in the actual working out of her analysis, she has offered the general student and scholar of classics a useful study of how antiquity preserved and produced the texts that are so important to us today. Although much of the material presented is not new, the personal voice of the author and her interest in experiment with ways of writing will make this work attractive to a wide audience.

The book has one great lack, all the more surprising as it is the work of an art historian. There is not a single plate in a work that depends so much on the analysis of visual artifacts. Perhaps the printer’s costs were too high for all this, but a book of this sort without illustrations leaves many points difficult for a reader not already familiar with such pictures.

If one leaves aside the concluding remarks about the use of computers which offer the usual platitudes about the advantages of hypertext, the author of this informative and lively study deserves our gratitude for presenting to us clearly the way in which literacy, memory, and technology work together in a culture.

Medieval: Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge, 1990; Renaissance: Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Chicago, 1966; Modern: A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist, Cambridge, MA, 1968. S. states that the paragraphos was employed for calculating how much a scribe had written and hence what he should be paid (fn. 29; her reference to E. Turner, Greek Manuscripts in the Ancient World [1987], p. 1 does not say what she says it does). This mark, basically a simple horizontal stroke placed between lines of writing, is used to set off one portion of text from another: prose from verse, speaker from speaker (as in drama), etc. My favorite is her remark (145), in regard to her making of beeswax tablets in New York in October, that even on the ninth floor melting wax will still attract bees. P. Saenger and M. Heinlin, “Incunable Description and Its Implication for the Analysis of Fifteenth-Century Reading Habits,” Printing the Written Word, ed. S. Hindman, Ithaca, 1991, 252. It should be noted that the obelus and asterisk which date to this period are not punctuation marks, but marginal symbols, referring to other materials. There is no evidence that the size of the roll was standardized in this period. R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship, Oxford, 1969, 128. M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, Oxford, 1993, 260ff. She and her students used ten foot lengths of wrapping paper on which to write across their thighs. For columns wider than the thigh, the roll was shifted from side to side for each line. The author of this review is currently working on a late fifteenth century block book, the Ars Memorandi which had a considerable influence on such books even in the printed book period. An English translation of this work together with its illustrations is scheduled to be published in the future in a book on medieval memory edited by Mary Carruthers and Jan Ziolkowski. Illustrations from manuscripts and from wall paintings would have told much as would plates showing wax tablets and papyrus rolls. In addition the reader can learn much from illustrations in medieval texts as well. Here are several useful sources: E. Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World, 2nd edition, London, 1987, plates 1-10; Margaret T. Gibson, The Bible in the Latin West, Notre Dame, IN, 1993; Lina Bolzoni, “The Play of Images. The Art of Memory from its Origins to the Seventeenth Century,” P. Corsi, ed., The Enchanted Loom: Chapters in the History of Neuroscience 4, New York, 1991, 16-65 (the plates are especially helpful).