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The Art of Memory and Masonry

by Clarence A. Anderson

When a candidate enters upon the initiatory path of Freemasonry, one of the first things he discovers is that there is a great deal of memorization involved.  The officers perform the ritual from memory, and long, memorized lectures are presented to him.  Finally, perhaps to his consternation, he learns that he is expected to memorize a dialog before he is permitted to advance to the next degree.

Why is memorization so prominent in Masonry?  How did the practice of committing the ritual to memory enter Freemasonry?  Does memorization still have value in modern times?  Considering the importance traditionally given to memory in Masonry, surprisingly little has been written about it.  A search of Masonic encyclopedias and reference books reveals practically nothing.

One of the few books to deal with the origins of memorization in Masonry is The Origins of Freemasonry, Scotland's Century 1590-1710, by David Stevenson.[1]  Stevenson points out that the earliest references to memory in Masonry occur in the Schaw Statutes.  William Schaw was appointed the King's Master of Works to James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) in 1583.  As the Master of Works, Schaw was a member of the royal court and was responsible for the maintenance of all royal buildings.  In 1598 and 1599, Schaw issued regulations for the building trades in Scotland.  They were basically concerned with health and safety regulations, but also contained rules for the organization of the working masons.[2]

The First Schaw Statutes, of 1598, required the selection of Aintenders (instructors) for each new fellow craft upon his admission.  Early minutes of the lodges of Edinburgh and Atchison's Haven show that it was usually the most recently admitted fellow crafts who were selected as intenders.  As candidates would have to prove their technical proficiency before being admitted, it seems reasonable to suppose that the function of the intenders was to instruct the new fellow craft in secret work.  This is borne out by the late 17th century Dumfries No. 3 Manuscript, which states:

"Then let ye person yt is then made a mason chuse out of ye lodge a mason who is to instruct him in those secrets which must never be written, & he is to call him tuter. [T]hen his tuter will take him aside & show him all the whole mistery, yt at his return he may exercise with ye rest of his fellow masons.[3]

The earliest explicit reference to the use of memory in Masonry is in the Second Schaw Statutes of 1599:

"[T]he Warden of the Lodge. . . shall take trial of the art of memory and science thereof of every fellow craft and every apprentice according to their vocation and in case that they have lost any point thereof. . . pay the penalty as follows for their slothfulness. . . ."

Here, Schaw is creating a special rule that every member of the Lodge is to be tested annually in the ability to memorize something.  Unfortunately, it is not clear what that something is, but it seems to have something to do with the Lodge's ritual and ceremonies.[4]

We know little about the ritual in Scotland in the period around 1600.  The first written materials date to about a century later.  Whatever the details of the ritual, it was seen as somehow linked to the esoteric.  This may have been one of the factors that attracted men who were not working masons to join the organization.  One piece of evidence that shows how Masonry was regarded in the early 17th century is a poem by George Adamson, The Muses Threnodie, published in 1638 after Adamson's death, but probably written about 1630.  It contains the lines:

"For what we do presage is not in grosse,
For we be brethren of the Rosie Crosse,
We have the Mason Word and second sight,
Things for to come we can foretell aright."[5]

Here, Masonry is portrayed as somehow giving its practitioners power to foretell the future, and Masonry is linked with Rosicrucianism.  This link will become important as we consider the art of memory.

Stevenson points out that when Schaw referred to the Art of memory, he was not just using a fancy term for the ability to memorize.[6]  The Art of memory, or ars memorativa, was a specific technique for memorizing things, well-known at the time Schaw was writing, which had its origins in Classical times. [7]  Originally, the intent of the art of memory was to greatly increase the natural capacity of the human memory.  The practitioners of the art of memory tried to find ways of retaining, retrieving and using vast amounts of information.  In late Medieval and Renaissance times, the art of memory gradually became highly symbolic.  Neoplatonists and Hermeticists gradually adapted it to develop it into a special way of knowing, a special way of relating to the universe.  It is in this tradition that Stevenson finds the origins of the Masonic use of memory.

The traditional story is that the art of memory originated with the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, about 500 B.C.  According to the legend, a Thessalian nobleman hired Simonides to compose an ode, to be recited at a banquet celebrating the nobleman's athletic victories.  The nobleman agreed to pay a certain price for the ode.  Simonides included some lines in the ode in honor of Castor and Pollux, the Greek gods of boxing and horsemanship.  The nobleman claimed that the ode should have been devoted entirely to him, and said he would pay only half of the agreed-on price.  He told Simonides to collect the other half of his fee from Castor and Pollux.  Shortly thereafter, a messenger told Simonides that two young men were waiting outside the banquet hall to see him.  When Simonides went outside, no one was there, but as soon as he left the building the roof collapsed, killing everyone inside.  Of course, the legend is that the two young men were Castor and Pollux, come to pay their half of the fee.  The story goes on that the bodies of the guests were so badly mutilated that they could not be identified.  Simonides, however, was able to remember where each guest was seated, and by this means the bodies were identified.  Thinking this over, Simonides realized that this method of remembering things could be used for other purposes.  He developed a system of memorization and taught it with great success.[8]

The essential features of the traditional art of memory are that a building is pictured in the mind, the parts of the building are visualized in a certain order, and various images are associated with the parts of the building.  The images would remind the practitioner of what he was trying to recall.  When he was trying to remember something, the practitioner would mentally walk through the building.  When he came, for example, to a certain statue, he would remember the image he had associated with it, for example a sword and shield, and that would remind him of what he wished to remember, that the next point in his speech involved warfare.  Ideally, the images would be striking and memorable.  Roman orators and politicians used the art of memory so that they could deliver long speeches accurately.  One can imagine an ancient orator wandering about the city, looking for a suitable building with many distinctive locations where he could anchor his mnemonic associations, then slowly walking through it as he rehearsed his speech. The key elements of this system B the use of mental images in ordered, often architectural settings, became the basis for later developments.

In Medieval and Renaissance times, along with the architectural settings used in the Classical art of memory, practitioners came to make use of the whole Ptolemaic cosmos of concentric spheres as a setting for their memory images.  Renaissance Hermeticists took this a step further.  They reasoned that if human memory could be reorganized in the image of the universe, memory became a reflection of the entire realm of Platonic Ideas, and therefore the key to universal knowledge.  The microcosm of the memory would reflect the macrocosm of the universe.[9]  Images placed in a building need not be used to associate and recall arbitrary external ideas.  The images might themselves be used to remind the observer of certain ideas.  The emphasis shifts from the expansion of memory to the search for a universal language of symbols.  The memory temple might become not only a method for remembering speeches, but a tool for teaching.

Frances Yates has written:

"It is not easy for us to recapture the spirit in which Renaissance princes planned and furnished their palaces and grounds, as a kind of living memory system, through which in elaborate arrangements of places and images, all knowledge, the whole encyclopedia, could be stored in a memory. . . . and also, perhaps to induce an atmosphere through which occult relationships might be perceived, and the hidden harmonies of universe might be heard."[10]

The next logical step would be to construct a building specifically to be used for the art of memory, to embody all human knowledge.  There is at least one known instance.  Giulio Camillo (1480-1544) built a portable wooden theater into which only two people could enter.  According to Camillo, the structure contained memory places and imagery which could contain all human knowledge.[11]

Perhaps the most developed and complex system of mnemonics in the period was that of Giordano Bruno.[12]  One of Bruno's students, Alexander Dicson (or Dickson) was a courtier of James VI of Scotland.  It is highly probable that he knew William Schaw, and may well have been the source for Schaw's interest in the art of memory.[13] 

Stevenson suggests that the attempt to build a physical memory theater is the origin of the symbolic Masonic Lodge.  That is, our Lodge buildings and tracing boards, to a greater or lesser extent, are an embodiment of an ideal Lodge, existing in its fullest form only in our minds.  The 17th century Masons probably used chalk or charcoal to mark out a diagram of this ideal Lodge in whatever room they happened to meet.  The earliest surviving Masonic catechisms are from the late 17th century and show that Masons of this period had a mental image of the Lodge essentially the same as that given in the modern lecture of the Entered Apprentice degree.[14]  Compared to the memory systems of Giordano Bruno or Giulio Camillo, a Masonic Lodge is a very simple memory temple.  Rather than trying to present all human knowledge, a Lodge merely suggests paths that the initiate may wish to explore.  It is perhaps for this very reason that Freemasonry continues to be a vital force, while the elaborate memory systems of the past are all but forgotten.

The imaginary buildings used for the art of memory are sometimes referred to as memory theaters.  Robert Fludd, the 17th century writer on Rosicrucianism, wrote extensively on the art of memory, and suggested using an actual theater building to anchor the memory images.  A. T. Mann, in his book Sacred Architecture, suggests that specific locations in an Elizabethan or Jacobean theater had specific symbolic meanings, so that the place where a character entered, exited and performed gave clues to his state of mind.[15]  It might be worthwhile to investigate whether this idea could be applied to Masonic Lodges. Another possible relationship between the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater and Masonic Lodges is that the front of the theater had a covering, called the Aheavens, portraying the zodiac and other heavenly bodies.[16]  This recalls the Astar-decked heaven which we are told symbolically covers the Lodge, and which is sometimes represented on the ceiling of the Lodge room.

In modern life, books and computers are easy sources of information.  Speakers can use notes or teleprompters.  Yet, the art of memory still has value.  One goal of traditional practice is to maximize human capacities as tools for inner transformation.  The art of memory is valuable to us today, not only because it develops the memory, and allows us to retain large amounts of information, but also because it requires us to use other capacities, such as attention, imagination and mental imagery, which are useful for our overall development.[17]

Each Lodge is, in fact, a Memory Temple, designed to elicit specific effects through the recollection of its images and symbols and our physical motions as we proceed through the Lodge.  Each degree emphasizes one aspect of this Temple.  The lecture of the Entered Apprentice degree reminds us of our place in the cosmic scheme of things, the macrocosm.  The Fellowcraft degree brings us down to earth, as we move through the material world.  The Master Mason degree brings the spiral further inward, within ourselves, to the microcosm of the human psyche.  Thus, the art of memory remains an essential part of Masonic initiation.  The method of Masonic initiation is to teach us to build, and to live in, a temple of memory, a temple full of symbols that remind us of that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.


[1]Stevenson, David, The Origins of Freemasonry, Scotland's Century 1590-1710, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988.

[2]Cooper, Robert L. D., Schaw's Freemasonry, The Short Talk Bulletin, Vol 89, No. 7, July, 2002, The Masonic Service Association of America, Silver Spring MD, pp. 3-4.

[3]Carr, Harry, ed., The Early Masonic Catechisms, 1943, reprinted by Kessinger Publishing Co., Kila MT (reprint undated).

[4]Cooper, p. 5

[5]Stevenson, p. 126

[6]Stevenson, p. 49

[7]Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966.

[8]Fuller, Henry H., The Art of Memory, National Publishing Co., St. Paul MN, 1898.

[9]Greer, John Michael, Ars Memorativa: An Introduction to the Hermetic Art of Memory.  Http://

[10]Yates, Frances, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1996, p. 68.

[11]Mann, A. T., Sacred Architecture, Element, Rockport MA, 1993, pp. 158-163.

[12]Yates, Frances, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

[13]Stevenson, pp. 87-96.

[14]Carr, supra.

[15]Mann, supra, pp. 168 ff.

[16]Yates, Frances, Theatre of the World, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1969.

[17]Greer, supra.

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