Remembering Frances Yates

The incredible midcentury historian whose book on memory influenced writers from Calvino to Thomas Harris.

Frances Yates Illo.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Chad Gordon Higgins/Shutterstock and Artex67/Shutterstock.

Throughout the BBC series Sherlock, the updated version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) can be seen visiting his “mind palace,” an imaginary building where, mentally, he stores great quantities of information. Sherlock often adapts bits of Conan Doyle’s late-Victorian adventure yarns to the 21st century—making Sherlock Holmes a chronic texter and turning Watson’s narratives published in the Strand into blog posts, for example—but a mnemonic feat like this doesn’t occur in the original stories. Conan Doyle’s Holmes compares his mind not to a palace but to an attic, an orderly one stocked only with essential data like how to identify the various types of tobacco ash, while Watson’s is a jumble of irrelevant junk like the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. The Victorian Holmes is less the castle-ruling monarch of memory than its Martha Stewart.

Besides, Conan Doyle’s Holmes wouldn’t have had a “mind palace”—or, to use the more common term, memory palace—because this ancient technique for recalling vast quantities of information was all but forgotten at the time the original Holmes stories were written. Sherlock’s creators appear to have picked up the concept from British illusionist Derren Brown and author Thomas Harris’ serial-killing antihero, Hannibal Lecter, who uses memory palaces in both Harris’ novels and the current TV series that bears his name. Follow the motif back to Harris, and he will, at last, give credit (in the acknowledgements of Hannibal) to the remarkable and unconventional historian responsible for reintroducing the memory palace to Western culture: Frances Yates.

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. (OK, I realize you may not know who John Crowley is, either, but you should—and Bloom will back me up on that.) The latest writer to use Yates’ learned and beautifully written book as an imaginative springboard is the British philosophy professor Simon Critchley, whose new novel, Memory Theater, is the faux memoir of a philosopher who believes he has learned the exact hour, place, and cause of his own death.

Yates, who was born in 1899 and wrote most of her major works in her 60s, had no formal education until she enrolled at the University College London in the early 1920s. (Her father, a shipbuilder, was also self-educated, having taught himself to read.) After getting an M.A. in French, she worked as an independent scholar, publishing books on Renaissance history and culture while caring for her ailing parents, until she found an intellectual home at the Warburg Institute, an interdisciplinary research institution loosely affiliated with the University College. “Warburgian history,” as Yates called it, sought to transcend nationalism by emphasizing pan-European ideas and culture. This unifying dream was exactly what Yates needed, in her head and in her heart. The two world wars had traumatized her—her brother was killed in the first, and her father during the Blitz, while Yates herself volunteered as an ambulance attendant—exacerbating her already melancholy temperament.

Yates’ illustrious friends included the likes of Franz Boas, Ernst Gombrich, and Hugh Trevor-Roper, as well as several close female companions, but she never married or had any romantic relationship that we know of. (Her diaries contain oblique references to an early devastating “event.”) A former student remarked, “It wasn’t an interesting life in the emotional or physical sense, only in the mental,” but Yates’ biographer Marjorie Jones disagrees, describing Yates as a solitary yet “passionate” figure who fits in “the long line of independent women historians of the Victorian Age who researched and wrote history on their own, outside the constraints of formal education from which they usually were excluded.” Yates, Jones also writes, was a “depressive, moody, frequently unhappy woman whose salvation until her death was incessant work and an intense spiritual life.” She died in 1981.

Though her fellow historians view Yates’ 1964 book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as her greatest achievement, it is Yates’ book on memory that has proved to be her most popular work by far. In researching Bruno—a renegade Dominican monk, metaphysician, and memory expert who was burned alive in 1600 in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome—Yates recalled seeing other instances of sophisticated memory techniques mentioned in medieval and early Renaissance texts. Surely they were connected? The Art of Memory culminates with Bruno, who took the memory arts to their limits, but it also follows the roots of the memory palace all the way back to the Greek poet Simonides, who first developed the idea of using spatial imagination to retain information. Simonides had just left a dinner party in a stately home when the roof collapsed, crushing all the remaining guests beyond recognition. Because he could recall where each person was sitting when he left, Simonides was able to identify all of their corpses, and in that recognized the mnemonic power to be found in conjuring mental images of space.

A memory palace, or “method of loci,” was at first mainly used to memorize speeches (the most important part of a Greek or Roman citizen’s public life). To make one, you picture a multiroomed building (it’s easiest if it’s somewhere familiar, like your family home), and place symbols of each point you want to make in each room. If you want to start out talking about crop yields, you might imagine bags of grain in the foyer, then a fierce bandit in the next room if you want to move on from there to declaim on law and order. Typically, though, the symbols used were strange and striking, weird allegorical and pagan figures filled with hidden meanings that overflowed into the art of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Yates argues that such devices as the Seven Deadly Sins and the structure of hell, purgatory, and heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy are mnemonic icons and systems that had become infused with mystical import.

Very skilled practitioners of such methods can use them to remember astounding amounts of information—and do so to this day, as Joshua Foer recounts in his 2011 book Moonwalking With Einstein, about his foray into the world of competitive memorization. But as the centuries passed, the art of memory became more than just a tool for many of its practitioners. Yates writes of Giulio Camillo’s “memory theater,” a concept that expressed the metaphysical and supernatural beliefs with which the memory arts had become saturated during the Middle Ages. Instead of moving through the architectural space of a palace, in the memory theater, the “audience,” which consists of one person, stands still in the exact center. The viewer looks out upon a tiered auditorium of rigidly ordered symbols and cues designed to call forth absolutely everything he has ever known—and perhaps even more. (You can see a video of a 3-D rendering of Camillo’s theater here.) To master such complete memory device would be to approach divinity.

Camillo, Yates writes, “was one of those people whom their contemporaries regard with awe as having vast potentialities.” And, like most people of this type, he accomplished very little and was largely forgotten (until the publication of The Art of Memory). It is his idea for a physical manifestation of the human brain at its most advanced that fascinates the narrator of Critchley’s Memory Theater. The narrator actually builds one of these structures, which sounds daft until you learn that Camillo did, too, or at least a model of one. (He refused to divulge its true workings to anyone but the king of France, his patron.) The model, never finished, was big enough to fit two people and was “marked with many images and full of little boxes,” according to one first-hand observer. The narrator of Critchley’s Memory Theater may not have a royal patron, but he does manage to complete his auditorium, which is just big enough to squeeze in one man and contains everything he knows about philosophy.

What drives him to this project are several boxes of documents he discovers while cleaning out an old academic office. These turn out to have belonged to his dead mentor, and one contains a sheaf of charts in the form of concentric circles pierced by irregularly spaced lines radiating out like spokes. While they look like birth charts (his mentor was that rare philosopher with a keen interest in astrology), they are in fact the opposite. Each chart is devoted to a particular philosopher and is filled with tiny inscriptions listing such life events as publications, weddings, and the birth of children. To his astonishment, the narrator realizes that some of these charts accurately record events that happened after his mentor’s death. His mentor, therefore, had somehow devised a means of calculating the future. At the center of each chart is a circle in which the time, date, location, and cause of death is noted for each subject, some of the dates having yet to occur. And then the narrator finds his own chart.

After an interlude of denial and bland hedonism, the narrator finally throws over a great job in New York City and moves to a Podunk town in the Netherlands where he devotes himself to building his memory theater in preparation for the fateful hour. The plan, he explains, is “at the instant of my death, I would have recalled the totality of my knowledge. At the moment of termination, I would have become God-like, transfigured, radiant, perfectly self-sufficient, alpha and omega.”

As demented as this sounds, it is not so very far from the contemporary notion of uploading one’s mind into the cloud. We are often most unreasonable when we pursue the extremes of rationality, when we decide that knowing everything will allow us to be anything we want and that with our technology we can defy death itself. This was a major theme in Frances Yates’ work: that the Renaissance we once viewed as a repudiation of medieval superstition in favor of reason and humanism was in fact shot through with magical beliefs that continued well into the scientific revolution. (Isaac Newton, after all, practiced alchemy and attempted to decode the date of creation from the Bible.) One reason the history of the art of memory had been nearly lost was because humanist scholars like Erasmus, who hated the Middle Ages, believed that such practices, as Yates put it, “belonged to the ages of barbarism,” and ought to give way to the age of books.

Yates, if she was anything at all, was a child of the age of books, and the mother of at least two great ones. The Art of Memory, despite being a work of great erudition spanning several languages, cultures, and historical periods, has a marvelous fluid clarity rare in contemporary histories written at the same scholarly level. Yates describes Bruno and Camillo as if they were people she’d just missed meeting but had heard a lot about, friends of her parents, say. Her empathy for their spiritual yearning animates the book without ever trumping her rigor. And above all, she conveys the excitement of intellectual discovery and deduction, as she carefully unearths the strands of a strange, unbroken tradition lying concealed beneath the conventional story of Western civilization’s stately procession toward the triumph of the Enlightenment.

Although she is best known for unearthing this long history of the art of memory, Yates never actually learned to perform any of its techniques herself. Instead she plowed forward, reading and writing more and more books and articles. By the time of her death she had buried her beloved brother, both her parents, and two talented sisters who had been the companions of her later years. If she had chosen instead to look back, chances are she would have seen only loss and that mysteriously tragic “event” of her youth. For someone with her gloomy disposition, this might have seemed too great a risk. Even Frances Yates must have understood that there are times when it’s better just to forget.

The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. Random House (UK).

Memory Theater by Simon Critchley. Other Press.

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