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From Medieval Mnemonics to a Social Construction of Memory - page 3 / 23





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This conceptual totality of God as One, or the “Good and Eternal Light,” greatly influenced philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and medieval society in general (where such notions provided further ideological justification for the patriarchal family in particular and for social hierarchies in general). In the social sphere, being and morality both became rarely obtainable forms of per- fection, in contrast to the concept of evil signified by a lack of goodness or activ- ity—in short, a lack of being. According to this Dionysian belief system, evil became a form of exhausted or dead matter (Piltz, 1981, pp. 26-27). That which lacked goodness (being and perfection) could receive it from God, but only to the extent that an entity’s receptivity would allow; receivers were responsible themselves for the amount of goodness they received from God. In his book Ecstasies, Carlos Ginzburg (1989/1992) considered how, historically, Church inquisitors persecuted supposedly culturally distant witches but simultaneously helped to crystallize, or contributed to, the “inner coherence” (p. 78; see also Ginzburg, 1981, p. 277; Sider & Smith, 1997, p. 4) of the witch sects, simultaneously strengthening their own inner coherence.

A totalizing conception of God as the giver of being to that which is “not being” infused medieval society with a sense of nature and goodness as all responsible and all powerful, whereas humans needed to practice their ability to be increasingly good. If goodness meant being active in the world (rather than dead organic matter, which was evil), then activity such as warfare or torture might be viewed as good, moral, life-affirming activity that might bring a con- queror closer to God and perfection. Contrarily, those killed in warfare or torture (being dead matter) would have had a total lack of being or goodness. This view of life as a futile striving for perfection in the hierarchical scheme of perfection invariably fostered a sense of life as a “round of sin and penance” (Nelson, 1965, p. 71). In addition, it created a society in which hurting people was justified as a matter of “saving souls” and elevating the “soul” of the person who hurt others in the service of God.


Discussion about historical human memorization practices and social values attached to such behavior owes tribute to the work of Frances A. Yates (1966/ 1974) in her acclaimed book The Art of Memory. The book is an analysis of the ancient history of the human activity of training memory or as the Greeks called it, mnemosyne. Yates began her history of mnemosyne in a quest to understand Bruno’s works on memory after writing Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tra- dition (Yates, 1964/1991). The quest led her to a comparison of Bruno and Leibniz’s conceptualizations of the art of memory as a foundation for some of humankind’s greatest aspirations, such as love, art, magic, mathematics and

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