A Mosaic Palace - Freemasonry and the Art of Memory

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*** Due to be Published December 2018 ***

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“The 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. . .” Second Schaw Statutes of 1599.

The above quote is from the well known Masonic document referred to as ‘The Schaw Statutes’, which was issued by the then royally appointed Master of the Works, William Schaw. The text gave a code of rules governing the activities of operative masons in Scotland at time which by many is seen as a turning point in the transformation of operative masonry to speculative, and often considered the first conception of Freemasonry as exists today. However, historians and Freemasons alike often make the mistake of assuming that Schaw’s reference to this art of memory was simply the skill to recall phrases and passwords, failing to recognise the full implications of this phrase. Stevenson was probably the first historian to really delve into the history that the Schaw Statutes hint at, notably highlighting the above phrase. In recent years notable Masonic historians such as Fabio Venzi and Robert Cooper have touched upon the underlying meaning of this phrase, what this paper aims to do is explore the various arts of memory that existed around this time and to build upon this research 

The phrase ‘Art of Memory’ is very interesting in this context as during the sixteenth century it had far greater connotations than it may to the modern reader. In contemporary Scottish correspondence the term is always used to refer to a specific set of memory disciplines and techniques that had evolved from classical Greek mnemonics. This was a method whereby one would create a memory palace using one's imagination. This could be based on a real or imaginary place which, using intensive imagination, one would build up in the memory to the degree that it could be visited with ease. This memory palace could then be used as a kind of memory storehouse. By placing items in different locations in the palace one could remember them with ease when it was next visited. In order to make the images memorable the characters, figures or items used were often striking and could sometimes be quite striking to contemporary sensibilities.

By the time of the Schaw Statutes, this art of memory had been very much part of Renaissance society and existed in Schaw’s time in many different forms and styles. Not only was it commonly believed to be a very good method of memorising speeches, but also a great form of moral training - a goal common to Freemasonry. Even beyond this, there were some who also believed that this mysterious art had far more potential and could even have supernatural effects on the world. 

So why did Schaw legislate to make the practice of the art of memory mandatory for Masons and why did they need to be tested in this art? Could it have been a reference to Masonic ritual and if so, does this mean the Masonic lodge is a memory palace of some form? If this is indeed the case, then by exploring what school of mnemonics it evolved from it can tell us something of the intentions behind the ritual. Was Masonry developed as a form of moral training for good Christian builders, or could its rituals have evolved from a more ambitious or mystical purpose?

Format : Paperback

Extent : circa 40 Printed Pages

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