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William E. Engel, Rory Loughnane, and Grant Williams, eds., The Memory Arts in Renaissance England
by Rebeca Helfer

The Memory Arts in Renaissance England: A Critical Anthology. Edited by William E. Engel, Rory Loughnane, and Grant Williams. Cambridge UP, 2016. vii + 377 pp. ISBN: 978-1107086814. $84.00 cloth. 

Early Modern memory studies is a vital and growing field to which The Memory Arts in Renaissance England: A Critical Anthology, edited by William Engel, Rory Loughnane, and Grant Williams, makes a particularly important and timely contribution. This superb anthology offers extended excerpts from over seventy works printed in England and in English between 1500 and 1700, demonstrating extraordinary range and depth of writing about memory, a subject of ongoing fascination throughout the period. In the process, The Memory Arts in Renaissance England succeeds in broadening the boundaries of the field as we know it.

In a rich and engaging introduction to the anthology, the editors describe the wide contours of the volume, including their aims and methods. “Our undertaking began with the ‘art of memory’ singular,” as they explain, but the project grew to encompass a much wider view of the memory arts (2). Beginning with the classical art of memory associated with Cicero and Quintilian, the editors describe how public speakers would mentally construct places and fill them with vivid images to aid in remembrance, most often in the form of the architectural mnemonic or memory theater. They extend this history to the Medieval period, particularly the theological uses of memory training described in treatises by Albertus and Aquinas, before turning to the Early Modern era, which saw a dramatic expansion in the use and expression of the memory arts. “Neither restricted to a single subject or discipline, the memory arts permeate the early modern encyclopedia, the circle of learning,” Engel, Loughnane, and Williams agree, an assertion to which The Memory Arts bears witness, both in its textual excerpts and in the illustrations which illuminate “the rich interplay of text and image so much a part of the visual culture of the period and likewise fundamental to the memory arts” (11, 29). As well, their introduction provides a useful critical overview of recent scholarship on the memory arts.

Divided into six parts, each section of The Memory Arts contains a comprehensive introduction and supplementary material designed to help students and scholars alike situate the excerpts within significant biographical, textual, intellectual, and critical contexts, and which usually includes suggested further reading. Part 1, “The Art of Memory,” provides excerpts and additional information on memory tracts written in (and translated into) English, alongside works clearly influenced by memory tracts. They draw from such texts as John Willis’s relatively well known tract on The Art of Memory (1621), as well as from less obviously relevant texts such as Stephen Hawes’s The Pastime of Pleasure (1509), a long allegorical poem with a fairly brief but nevertheless significant description of the art of memory as a rhetorical mnemonic method. In their introduction to Part II on “Rhetoric and Poetics,” the editors contend that memory is at the center of literary and rhetorical works in the period, arguing that “de facto Renaissance language arts measure their value and purpose in Mnemosyne’s coin” (107). Excerpts in this section, such as the one drawn from George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy (1589), illustrate the shared focus of rhetoric and poetics on memory, perhaps most clearly witnessed in Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (1595). As Sidney asserts, “even they that have taught the art of memory have showed nothing so apt for it as a certain room divided into many places, well and thoroughly known,” which fits “verse in effect perfectly, every word having his natural seat, which seat must make the word remembered” (124). Sidney also suggests that the intimate relationship between rhetoric and poetics in the memory arts constitutes something like common knowledge, coyly asking “what needs more in a thing so known to all men”? (124).

Part III on “Education and Science” focuses on the relationship between memory and knowledge, both pedagogical and philosophical (as the forbear of modern science). Excerpts from specifically educational and advisory works such as Thomas Elyot’s The Governor (1531) and Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570) treat memory as foundational to edification.  More philosophically and scientifically oriented works such as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) attempt to situate memory within the larger structure of faculty psychology: “Memory lays up all the specifics which the senses have brought in, and records them as a good register, that they may be forthcoming when they are called for by phantasy and reason,” Burton writes, arguing that memory’s “object is the same with phantasy, his seat and organ the back part of the brain” (168). Similarly, Robert Hooke’s An Hypothetical Explication of Memory (1682) describes the apprehension of time through memory, arguing that “the soul understands time or becomes sensible of time only by the help of the organ of the memory” (181).

To introduce Part IV, on “History and Philosophy,” the editors observe that “it should not surprise us that the humanist side to early modern historiography cultivated a rich breeding ground for the memory arts” (186). Excerpts here include such notable works as Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605), in which Bacon at once describes the art of memory, which clearly influences his writing, and casts a skeptical eye on the memory arts in their limited form: “An art there is extant of it,” he writes, “but it seemeth to me that there are better precepts than the art, and better practices of that art, than those received” (200). Thomas Hobbes’s seminal study of political philosophy, Leviathan (1651), likewise attempts to reform conventional understandings of memory, emphasizing its fallibility when asserting that “imagination and memory are but one thing, which for diverse considerations hath diverse names” (220).

Part V on “Religion and Devotion” considers how “the principles of the ars memorativa frequently were used in theological studies and devotional practices,” particularly in the context of England’s Protestant Reformation and related theological debates concerning memory (229). John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563), for example, emphasizes the spiritual as well as historical necessity of Protestant commemoration, of remembering the “patient sufferings of the worthy martyrs,” lest they “lie buried … in the pit of oblivion” (237). In an excerpt from John Donne’s “Sermon, Preached at Lincoln’s Inn” (1649), he famously asserts that “the art of salvation is but the art of memory,” describing the pathway to divinity through memory.

Part VI on “Literature” offers examples of “literature’s profound entanglement” with the memory arts: “Renaissance English literature cannot be read, contextualised or historicised,” the editors argue, “without mobilising at least an awareness of the memory arts” (276). Edmund Spenser’s allegorical Castle of Alma, or the soul, from the 1596 The Faerie Queene, which represents memory personified, illustrates this intersection: “The man of inifinite remembraunce was, / And things foregone through many ages held, / Which he recorded still, as they did pas, / … But laid them vp in his immortal scrine, / Where they for euer incorrupted dweld” (288-89). In his satirical novella, The Unfortunate Traveller, Thomas Nashe likewise gestures to the link between literature and the memory arts: “I am of this opinion,” says a nameless English earl, “that as it is not possible for any man to learn the art of memory, whereof Tully, Quintilian, [and others] … have written so many books, except he have a natural memory before, so it is not possible for any man to attain any great wit by travel, except he have the grounds of it rooted in him before”—and without which unfortunate travelers, like Nashe’s narrator Jack Wilton, will  gain not only the “experience of many evils” but also many memorable tales to relate (322-23).

In their introduction, Engel, Loughnane, and Williams write that “this critical anthology is a substantial and sustained if preliminary effort to indicate the far-reaching applications” of the memory arts, one that “does not seek to establish a canon of texts” (32, 16). For the sake of recognition, I have chosen to discuss largely canonical examples here, although the anthology itself contains many lesser known and non-canonical excerpts, which serve to illustrate the diversity of works—texts and images—relating to the memory arts in Early Modern England.  This blend of well-known and lesser-known works on memory, of important primary sources and helpful secondary supplementary material, all serve to make The Memory Arts in Early Modern England an invaluable resource for scholars and students, at all levels, of Early Modern memory.


Rebeca Helfer
University of California, Irvine 


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Cite as:

Rebeca Helfer, "William E. Engel, Rory Loughnane, and Grant Williams, eds., The Memory Arts in Renaissance England," Spenser Review 47.2.29 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed December 11th, 2019.
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