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The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates

The Art of Memory (1966)

by Frances A. Yates

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,0931111,440 (4.06)26
  1. 00
    Cicero: Rhetorica ad Herennium by Cicero (paradoxosalpha)
    paradoxosalpha: The pseudo-Ciceronian text is a cornerstone of the tradition that Yates traces in her book.
  2. 01
    What Is Called Thinking? by Martin Heidegger (vy0123)
    vy0123: Thinking and memory relate.

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» See also 26 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
A great book. Introduced me to concept of the "Memory Palace" ( )
  BoyntonLodgeNo236 | May 1, 2018 |
  Jway | Apr 18, 2016 |
Yates provides a fascinating account of both how memory systems worked in Classical and Mediaeval times (including an examination of differences between those approaches); and, a consideration of how & why the discipline altered almost to the point of being lost in the Modern era. This work links to two separate efforts: the earlier effort, Aby Warburg's intent to investigate human image-based memory, with special focus on Giordano Bruno; and the later effort being Yates's own prior publication, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Yates was assisted in her research for The Art of Memory both by Warburg Library holdings, and by Warburg's personal assistant, Gertrud Bing.

Yates argues the flowering of the art of memory occurred in Classical era, known today through three primary texts.
● Cicero's De oratore
● the Ad Herrenium, an anonymous document long attributed (but falsely) to Cicero ("Tullius")
● Quintilian's Institutio oratorio

The memory arts changed between the Classical and Mediaeval eras, with much lost in transition (whether through misunderstanding or re-purposing). In effect, the use of memory arts shifts from rhetoric to ethics as part of the Scholastic project to meditate on heaven and avoid hell, a project less concerned with ready recall of massive amounts of specialized information as was useful among Roman Senators or other rhetors. Intriguingly, Yates suggests Dante's Divine Comedy and frescoe paintings may be usefully interpreted with "eyes of memory".

The work is a wondrous example of interdisciplinary scholarship, almost begging the question of how no-one before her pulled the story together, given the myriad clues found in documents familiar to modern scholars and historians. It comes down (as it often does) to the fact the documents were always of interest for other reasons and so the references to memory systems were glossed over, set aside (and never returned to), misinterpreted, or ignored entirely.


Emma Willard may have been a 19c practitioner: see her Temple of Ancient History chronographers (infographics).

An abridged reading, from a PDF of the first 4 chapters. Recently found an unabridged PDF, but I should purchase a reading copy and study the full argument. Based on the table of contents, Yates evidently examines one and perhaps two other transformations of mnemotechnics: the adaptation during the Rennaissance as influenced by Hermetic wisdom, and then modern adaptations with perhaps a return to an emphasis on rhetoric or recall from a mass of factual material. ( )
3 vote elenchus | Mar 21, 2016 |
There are enough reviews here describing the contents and quality of this book. For me, the best part was the palpable sense of discovery the author conveyed as she began to see how Simonides's artificial memory permeated Renaissance culture and became a hidden strand connecting Thomas Aquinas's Method to Raymond Llull's Art to Giordano Bruno's enigmatic Shadows and Seals and on to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz's invention of infinitesimal calculus. ( )
1 vote le.vert.galant | Jan 26, 2015 |
You may have heard the story of the ancient Greek poet Simonides who was engaged to give a panegyric honoring the host of a banquet. But said host reneged on the deal, agreeing to pay Simonides only half the amount originally offered because the panegyric included a section praising the twin gods Castor and Pollux, from whom the poet was told to seek payment for the balance. At some point Simonides was called outside and while absent from the banquet hall, the roof caved in killing everyone inside, including the mean spirited host. The identities of the dead were so complete obliterated that mourners who came to claim the bodies were unable to recognize their own kin. But Simonides remembered where everyone was seated and was able to assist the families in locating their dead.

It has come down to us that this event was the source of the memory technique which was attributed by the ancients to Simonides. In ancient times before books were commonplace, in those storied times when Homer's epics were passed on by word of mouth, people depended upon memory for the retention and transmission of knowledge to a degree that staggers the imagination today. Apparently there were techniques for retaining prodigious amounts of material beyond the obvious rote memorization. It is those techniques that are the subject of Frances Yates' The Art of Memory.

What we know about these techniques is scanty at best because those whose writings on the subject that have survived only speak about the methods in the broadest terms, under the assumption that every reader would know what they were talking about so widespread was the understanding as recently as the time of Cicero. In fact, Cicero's De Oratore is one of only three ancient Roman sources that talk about the art of memory at all, the other two being an anonymous document known as the Ad Herrenium, which for many centuries was erroneously attributed to Cicero, and a work of Quintilian called Institutio Oratorio.

The technique involved memorizing the architectural details of an existing building, such as a temple, and then affixing ideas that one wanted to commit to memory to specific locations within that building so that they would come to mind in a prescribed order. Cicero speaks in De Oratore about how he memorized important speeches before the Roman senate using this technique.

Similarly, it was reported by Quintilian that a Greek named Metrodorus of Scepsis used the twelve signs of the Zodiac divided into 360 subsections in a similar fashion as a storehouse for memorization. Because Quintilian wrote in less than glowing terms of the art of memory, it fell out of use and was completely lost by the time of Charlemagne. But the ideas were resurrected at some point and names associated with variations on the theme of the art of memory include Ramond Lull, Giulio Camillo, Thomas Aquinas, Giordano Bruno, Robert Fludd, Francis Bacon and ultimately the Enlightenment philosopher Leibnitz, among many others.

The story is astounding of how the relatively simple idea of memorizing by association with a building — whether a temple or in later times a theater — the zodiac, or both, was enlarged upon to such an extent that the idea took on a life of its own. What was at first intended to be a tool for simple memorization of speeches or poetry became under Giordano Bruno and others a superstructure for containing all the world's knowledge. In the course of the Renaissance, it acquired occult attributes which put it in danger from Church authorities with the net effect of driving it almost completely underground. And once again, through the developments that occurred during the Renaissance, it becomes apparent that humanists and Neoplatonists were quite different breeds of cat and not at all on the same page philosophically.

The Art of Memory opens a window on a relativelly unknown aspect of Western intellectual history. The first quarter of the book should be of general historical interest. Beyond that it goes deeper and deeper into abstruse documents, almost none of which have been translated from their original Latin or French or German into English. So in addition to being rather arcane subject matter to begin with, unless one can read five-hundred-year-old texts fluently, there is hardly anywhere to go with this subject for most of us.

Interestingly, memory systems as such are still alive and well. I have a book on my shelves called Stop Forgetting by Dr. Bruno Furst, which was published in 1949. Two approaches to memorization are given, one of which invites you to memorize a list of words ingeniously associated with numbers from, say, one to a hundred which become part of your permanent memory. You are then supposed to associate, for example, items on a grocery list with the assigned numbered words and create an image in your mind linking the two. For example, if the number one is associated with the word "tea" and you need to replenish your supply of Darjeeling at the grocery store, that is an easy association. This is merely a variation on the theme of memory by association that was used by Simonides, Cicero and the rest.

Readers who are interested in ancient, medieval or Renaissance intellectual history will find The Art of Memory to be a storehouse of fascinating information. I am only assigning it three and a half stars because I believe it contains more information than the average reader wants to know, but this is not to detract at all from the quality of writing and clarity of presentation. On the whole, I found it to be an unusually interesting book. ( )
20 vote Poquette | Jun 5, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Yates was the author of The Art of Memory, a 1966 title that remains oddly obscure despite having been named by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books published in the 20th century. Many well-read people have never even heard of it, yet tendrils of Yates’ ideas are entwined through contemporary culture—not just wrapped around Hannibal Lecter and Sherlock. Those who have read The Art of Memory tend to become obsessed with it, and the list of contemporary authors inspired by the book is impressive: Italo Calvino, Carlos Fuentes, Hilary Mantel, Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively, Harold Bloom, and Madison Smartt Bell, to name just a few. John Crowley wrote a four-novel series, Aegypt, based on The Art of Memory.
added by elenchus | editslate.com, Laura Miller (Nov 23, 2015)

» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Frances A. Yatesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Groot, JacobTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hadders, GerardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226950018, Paperback)

One of Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century

In this classic study of how people learned to retain vast stores of knowledge before the invention of the printed page, Frances A. Yates traces the art of memory from its treatment by Greek orators, through its Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance, and finally to its use in the seventeenth century. This book, the first to relate the art of memory to the history of culture as a whole, was revolutionary when it first appeared and continues to mesmerize readers with its lucid and revelatory insights.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:40 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

This unique and brilliant book is a history of human knowledge. Before the invention of printing, a trained memory was of vital importance. Based on a technique of impressing 'places' and 'images' on the mind, the ancient Greeks created an elaborate memory system which in turn was inherited by the Romans and passed into the European tradition, to be revived, in occult form, during the Renaissance. Frances Yates sheds light on Dante's Divine Comedy, the form of the Shakespearian theatre and the history of ancient architecture; The Art of Memory is an invaluable contribution to aesthetics and psychology, and to the history of philosophy, of science and of literature.… (more)

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