Medieval Mnemonics

In the collection of incunabula bequeathed to King’s College by Jacob Bryant (1715-1804) is a first edition of Giacomo Publicio’s Artes orandi, epistolandi, memoranda, a treatise on the rhetorical arts published in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt on 30 November 1482. Not much is known about Publicio, of whom no other works survive; in the text he describes himself as Florentine, though he may have also been Spanish.

Leaf A2r of Artes orandi, epistolandi, memoranda (Bryant.XV.3.12), with a woodcut white-on-black floriated initial “S”

The third section of the work is devoted to the art of memory and is widely regarded as the first memory treatise to have been printed. Towards the end are seven pages containing 42 roundels forming a pictorial alphabet with two woodcuts for most letters, where each letter has been associated with objects of a similar shape. For example, A is coupled with a folding ladder and a pair of compasses, B with a mandolin, C with a horseshoe, D with a bull’s head, and so forth:

The visual alphabet is followed by a full-page woodcut of a mnemonic structure containing 25 animals, arranged alphabetically by the first letter of their Latin names.

The letter V is particularly “memorable” and may well represent the first instance of a simultaneous mooning and flashing to appear in print… Publicio’s book later influenced other scholars, including the English physician Robert Fludd (1574-1637) who devised his own mnemonic alphabet, as you can read here.

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