Strong Boxes vs. Filing Boxes

Another common medieval metaphor for memory is the “Thesaurus”–which means “storage room,” “treasure,” or “strong box.” As a metaphor for memory, it provides a more robust conception of memory than the banal “filing box” metaphor. Here is how Mary Carruthers describes it:

Treasuries and book-chests are not like twentieth-century filing-cabinets. They contain ‘riches,’ not documents. And their contents are valued for their richness in terms of their present usefulness, not their ‘accuracy’ or their certification of “what really happened.”


Memory Metaphors

Much of my MA thesis work this past year involved reading and rereading Mary Carruthers’ book The Book of Memory. Carruthers is one of those rare academic writers whose work is not only informative but a joy to read. Her research into medieval conceptions of the purpose and function of memory also has motivated me to memorize more poetry and literature.

Unfortunately, in education circles, the importance of memory is downplayed. The emphasis is always on creativity and connecting ideas, while memory is considered a lower-order skill–just look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.

From a medieval point of view, the skills we consider to be “higher-order” could not be so easily separated from memory. In fact, many writers believed that creativity itself is an act of memory. This might sound odd to a 21st century reader, but I’ve realized that part of the problem stems from the metaphors we commonly use for memory.

When we think of memory, we typically use the metaphor of a filing box or some kind of a computer storage device. Information is neatly organized and filed away: e.g., Washington is a state in the Northwest corner of the United States of America. That fact exists in the geography file of my brain that I can access when I need it.

For a medieval writer, the metaphor of a file box for memory is insufficient at best. A castle, mansion, or some variation of a Sherlock Holmes Mind Palace would be a closer metaphor. What medieval writers realized is that memory isn’t simply the categorizing of bland information. It is the process by which we construct our mode of cognition and experience. When we memorize a fact, we place it within a larger complex network of other memories: ideas, images, and emotions. To remember something, therefore, requires the alteration of everything we have memorized up to that point in our life. Every act of memory is an act of composition because you are building up your house of memory with every addition and rearranging everything that’s come before.

The consequences of this medieval conception of memory are far-reaching. It inevitably leads to discussions about morality, theology, philosophy, and anthropology. Memory is not a lifeless storage box, but a vital component to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We would do well to remember this.