We use cookies
This website uses cookies in order to improve your browsing experience. Read more on our cookie policies.

Near the end of the fifteenth century, the Venetian government awarded an early form of copyright to a book that taught its readers how to build memory palaces made of women. Published in 1491 and written by Peter of Ravenna, a jurist by profession, the book was titled Phoenix, seu De artificiosa memoria (Phoenix, or on artificial memory). Originally written for lawyers literate in Latin, Peter of Ravenna’s Phoenix was a late but popular addition to the ars memorativa genre — texts that instructed readers in memory training, a practice that dated to antiquity and flourished in the middle ages. Memorization was once an important if not essential skill to master for a variety of uses and professions. In the pre-print, manuscript culture of medieval Europe, all books were copied by hand (« manu » is Latin for « hand » ) and there were no guarantees that a text one had seen or heard would ever be accessible again. By the time of the Phoenix’s publication, the printing press had already begun to revolutionize textual culture, but people continued to train their memories, both for utilitarian purposes and as a party trick. One of the most well-known techniques for intricate memorization was to « construct » a so-called memory palace. That is, a structure whose architectural intricacies could be visualized in the mind’s eye and moved through in an orderly way, each step and location triggering a mnemonic image and the recollection of a piece of information attached to it. Despite its name, a memory palace could be any structure the mnemonist knew well, whether castle, cloister, or shack.

Today, the name Peter of Ravenna appears in how-to articles for extreme memorizing akin to sport. Peter claimed in the Phoenix that he could recall from memory tens of thousands of legal extracts and thousands of classical and biblical texts with their commentaries. Following the example of educated ancient and medieval men and women, he built a memory palace with the letters of the alphabet as his stone and marble. Each letter was a prompt, a memory-place that Peter adorned with information. When the alphabet’s letters sagged under that weight, he built a new palace wing using a vivid mental image alongside each letter. If more space were needed (Peter himself had thousands of memory palaces), the Phoenix’s reader could try another approach: using women as prompts for memory. Picture a woman, Peter advises, and then set by her a letter of the alphabet and the piece of information to be remembered: « Women excite the memory! » When he was young, Peter tells his reader, he prompted his memory with the image of a Tuscan woman he loved named Juniper. (No word on what her image helped him to recall or if she was still in his mnemonic rotation.) The key, Peter insists, returning from his stroll down memory lane, is to imagine or recall only beautiful women. If his readers choose unattractive women and, as a result, their memory fails them, he’s not to blame. And one more thing, Peter hastens to add: this particular method isn’t right for anyone who despises women or has « dishonored » them. Left unsaid is what, precisely, Peter envisioned going wrong — whether he meant that misogynistic readers would merely suffer failures of memory, or that real women would suffer further « dishonor » at those readers’ hands.

Subscribe to the European Review of Books, from €4.16 per month.
A digital subscription gives you access to our complete Library. A print+digital subscription brings you a print magazine designed like no other.

Or, as reincarnated by English printer Robert Copland in 1545: The art of memory, that otherwyse is called the Phenix, A boke very behouefull and profytable to all professours of scyences, Grammaryens, retoryciens dialectyke, legystes, phylosophres & theologiens.