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No. 909:

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 memory?

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 yesterday's newspaper.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Burke, J., the Day the Universe Changed, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985, Chapter 4, "Matter of Fact."

For more on memory and memorization, see Episodes 892 and 1226.