Today, we meet the enemy of memory -- and it is
writing. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Plato warned that writing
would harm thought. If we reduce the dynamics of
remembering and juggling ideas to a medium that can
be so contained, we abdicate our own mental powers.
James Burke tells how this idea worked in the
Platonic world of medieval Europe. Educated clergy
could read. A few could write as well. But this was
not a world where we shared and leveled human
experience with written words, as you and I do.
Sharing ideas and relaying the news was complex
business. To merely say that we did it by word of
mouth makes a molehill out of a mountain of human
ingenuity. Suppose you wanted to spread news of a
war -- something that would've taken ten pages of
written text. The written word was easily forged.
No one trusted such a document, and few people
could read it, anyway.
To give a message validity you had to deliver it
orally. A class of people called troubadours
prepared oral texts, and jongleurs recited them.
These people served in place of today's newspapers.
And they offer a disturbing lesson for us today.
The words were usually set to verse. That made them
easier to memorize. A good jongleur could hear
several hundred lines of verse maybe three times,
and he'd have it committed to memory.
Of course his presentation made similar demands on
the memory of his audience. After all, they would
hear it only once. There was no going back to
reread a paragraph. So our medieval ancestors lived
in a sea of mnemonic devices.
For the audience to remember, recitations had to be
repetitive and emotional. Drama is a terribly
important aid to memory.
The jongleurs had a marvelous arsenal of tricks of
association. One was to mentally walk through a
familiar building, associating lines of text with
its interior features.
Even reading itself was still an oral activity. The
few people who could read in silence were regarded
as eerie and frightening. When St. Anselm said of
reading, "Chew the honeycomb of [God's] words," he
reminds us that reading was done aloud.
Still, Plato's warning that writing destroys the
art of memory was being fullfilled. Writing really
was detaching knowledge from memory. And that
process is all too complete today. How many of us
can recite even our driver's license number from
Perhaps the surest sign of what has happened is the
fate of the very word jongleur. All
that survives today is our word jingle
-- a trivial bit of nonesense rhyme. And those
ancient arts of memory? Well, we've forgotten them
just as surely as we've forgotten the text of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds