Friday 24 March 2023

Wisdom Of The Elders - Memory


This most excellent book bag was found hanging on a rack outside a bookshop I passed the other day. Apart from the reminder that there's no time for frivolities like twirling wreathes with a BFF when there's a book within reach, Your Correspondent thought it was time to dip into our rich medieval past and share some more nuggets of wisdom from our elders. If your memory is getting a little rusty then you are in luck today for Jacobus Publicius shares some memory enhancing tips from 1482.

For example: The tongue of a hoopoe, given to a forgetful person, will restore memory. 

Nota bene: no cooking instructions were given.

Fear not, we are not immersing ourselves bodily into the murky and uncharted waters of Latin texts, for I do profess ignorance of these matters; I merely provide this teaser page as both illustration of the lost art of beautiful typography and to show Mr. Publicius' popular and influential late-C15th treatise Ars Oratoria. Ars Epistolandi. Ars Memorativa, is no trifling matter!

His mnemonic alphabet (sampled above) could be the subject for another day, but we'll presently eschew the book's coverage of memory techniques as applied by the lofty ancients. Since he was a physician, the choice nuggets will instead come from his medical and dietary advice for improving memory, for goodness knows we could all do with some help in that department.

Pick and choose from the following regime, as you see fit, Dear Reader, of tips to keep your brain's psychical pneuma serene, lucid and clear and thus stave off a languid and dull memory*:

  • Moderate sleep at night.
  • Avoid midday snoozing. If you can't help it then sleep in bare feet as the thick soles of shoes will reflect harmful vapours back into the brain and eyes of one who slumbers deeply.
  • Keep your head moderately covered with cloths, according to the season, as both excessive heat and cold dulls the mind with stupidity.
  • Sleeping on one's back, thus warming the kidneys beyond what is reasonable, is a most harmful enemy of the mind. Men should sleep then on their side or tummy. Sleeping on one's back is fine, however, for women and for nocturnal delusions and pollutions**.
  • Upon rising, purge your body's channels with expectoration and motion. Then rub your head with an ivory comb and a rough, coarse rag.
  • After ablutions, swallow six raisins and as many juniper berries. This will do for breakfast.
  • A bit of exercise, then on to lunch. You don't want your wine too vehement, lest it inflames the blood, so light wine only or diluted with water.
  • Boiled meat then roast meat, in that order.
  • To avoid your stomach emitting the vapours from the digesting meat, clouding the mind and intellect and eliciting sleep, you need to close your stomach's opening. A list of fruits and nuts qualified in this respect can be furnished upon request.
  • Avoid horseradish, garlic, onion and leek as they are the enemy of memory.
  • Avoid noxious odours, they are harmful to the brain.
  • Keep your head and feet very clean with a decoction of water boiled with honey, bay leaves, and stems of fennel and chamomile.
  • The dulling of the mind can be alleviated by the sneezing caused by mustard, pepper and castoreum, and by the chewing of oregano, stavesacre and caper root.
  • Exercising some more at dusk and at night in the manner of the Pythagoreans is a great help to the memory and to the human mind and intellect. It's not specified if this is physical exercise or mathematical gaieties, so try either or both!
I do hope this unsolicited 500-year-old advice is found valuable, Dear Reader!

* I am quoting liberally here from the Henry Bayerle translation in The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, 2002 edited by Mary Carruthers and Jan P. Ziolkowski.

** There are also provided the typical Pythagorean cautions against, ahem, immoderate coitus, but we don't speak of such stuffs around here.

Image credits: 1: Flying With Hands; 2: Royal Collection Trust; 3, 4: Internet Archive


  1. My beloved did Latin in high school, mandatory back in 1964 because he wanted to do Medicine at Sydney University. I asked him if he remembered Ars Oratoria. Ars Epistolandi. Ars Memorativa... alas he did not. The upshot of our different educations was that I am fascinated by medieval and early modern history; he never looked at history again :)

    1. Oh, boo, dear Hels, I was rather hoping Mr. Publicius was rather more well-known today. Your beloved would have been just the candidate to prove it so. That his book is only found free on the Internet Archive should have told me all :) I suspect that the memory techniques as refined by the ancients like Aristotle have probably droppped from school curriculums post-WW2, as memorizing vast swathes of poetry and whatnot hardly features anymore.

  2. Apparently both heat and cold make people stupid. I guess that explains a lot.

    1. Dear Jim, everything makes sense, no? Hahahah!

  3. Hahaha, dear Pip - as an ardent reader of "How to books" I enjoy Mr. Publicius tipps very much!
    In Italy I saw twice a hoopoe - and both time he (with tongue and brain well intact) whooshed away - though I only wanted to take a photo of that lovely bird! (Didn't know about his valuable tongue - but you know: till this day Italians eat a lot of birds - that HE remembered).
    "Keep your head moderately covered with cloths," this (and a few of his other recommendations) remind me of dear Rudolf Steiner, founder of the famous Waldorf schools and kindergartens (where they dance all the lovely letters Mr. Publicius depicted so vivaciously), waving with bands and veils - but more interested I was why the small children all had to wear little woollen caps, even in summer. Of course there was a very obvious reason for that (and I swear I do not make it up!): "Those caps are there to collect the thoughts of the brain under them".
    I instantly recommended Husband to buy such a beneficial cap - as an university professor he sometimes tends to be a bit absent-mindedly...

    1. Oh, good, dear Britta, I did hope these handy tips (tipps) would be helpful. Napping with your shoes on, who knew it was such a hazard? I love Mr. Steiner's take on hats, I'm surprised Me Publicius didn't make that obvious leap. There had to be more to it than just staving off stupidity, hahah.

      You are so right about the Italians and birds - that you've seen an intact hoopoe there is a miracle for they shoot anything with wings straight out of the sky in the hunting season, ostensibly for the plate but what a palaver when they are tiny tits!

  4. PS: It seems that your assumption: "If your memory is getting a little rusty" is bitterly true...
    In Germany we had some years ago a Rechtschreibreform - an orthography reform - and there they changed the spelling of our quite normal word "Tip" - meaning and spelled as your "tip" - into "Tipp" (WHY? WHY?) - and now I, giving up all resistance and anger (which I need for more complicated things as the German railway "Bundesbahn" - look at my last post) I evidently get muddle headed and start even to write that hideous German spelling in an English text, oh, oh, oh...

    1. I remember that particular reform. After so many years, I think I can finally remember that extra 'p' at the end... But what of 'tip-top' as in 'Ich fühle mich tip-top'? Does one now have to write 'tipp-topp'?

    2. Dear Be a, I never thought about that - but you are right! Normally "tip-top" is used in spoken German, but if you want to write it, the Duden says now you have to write both words wit double "p" - the writing of tipptop, tiptop oder tiptopp is wrong. Oha - now we know!

  5. How fascinating! I could never avoid garlic, onions or horseradish (or the occasional leek), however.

    1. Dear Bea, some of the nutritional recommendations set forward are rather whacky in Mr. Publicius' learned treatise. I rather wonder if prejudice came from the odoriforous byproduct of the alliums in the days when dental hygiene had none of the present-day minty overtones? Pongy breath = dull wits, p'rhaps?

  6. Oh, signora Pipistrello, what a font of wisdom. Now did I never eat a hoopoe's tongue, nor did I often stink like one, but grown up being – ahem – encouraged 'to memorize vast swathes of poetry', right now I am coming to remember some lovely ** stuff that would not be spoken of around here.
    As it's in Latin, and as I would not translate, may it be considered a venial sin .

    Paula Pulchra

    Paula pulchra erat virgo, virgo sine hymine,
    Hymen erat perforatus, numquam reparabile.

    Unam dies quisquam venit, cuius nomen Meyero,
    et per dies et per noctes iubilans in coito*

    * also a popular variant: coitans in iubilo]

    Septem mensibus peractis, se movet in utero,
    Embryo quid Meyer fecit, sine ullo dubio.

    Novem mensibus peractis, Paula pulchra peperit,
    Meyer, alimenta timens, se in fugam retulit.

    Can optionally be sung to following melodies:
    • Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"
    • German National Anthem
    • Gaudeamus igitur / So let us rejoice

    The peace of the night. ;-)

    1. Dear Sean, I do not know whether to envy your education, your memory or your ability to sing! Maybe all three, and then that makes up for your bold effrontery in hiding some unspeakable ** in plain sight amongst my pages, albeit sneakily in Latin!

    2. Could not stop laughing, yet.

  7. The Hoopoe must be my favourite bird. Hearing its hoo hoo hoo in the distance always cheers my heart!!!

    1. How delightful, dear Cro, and just think what a boon the bird could be to you if you get all in a muddle one day! First, though, you need enough wit about you to catch one.

  8. Avoid horseradish, garlic, onion and leek as they are the enemy of memory - no no no I read a double blind study in JAMA negating this.

    1. Pshaw! Double blind studies. Rubbish in, rubbish out. Anyway, JAMA is stuffed full of controversy. Mr. Publicius would just say the Ancients shouldn't be questioned.


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