"The Chain of Memory": Distributed Cognition in Early Modern England

Evelyn Tribble

In his recent chapter on “Exograms and Interdisciplinarity,” John Sutton summarises the Extended Mind hypothesis:

In certain circumstances, things – artifacts, media, or technologies – can have a cognitive life, with histories often as idiosyncratic as those of the embodied brains with which they couple. The realm of the mental can spread across the physical, social, and cultural environments as well as bodies and brains (2006:1; quoted from draft).

Sutton calls for historically situated studies of the shifting and unstable boundaries between inner and outer, engrams and exograms, thought and the cognitive artifacts that structure it (and vice versa). Expanding upon Andy Clark’s suggestion that “much of what matters about human-level intelligence is hidden not in the brain, nor in the technology, but in the complex and iterated interactions and collaborations between the two” (2001:154), Sutton describes a “third wave” of extended mind studies that would treat such lines as permeable and contested and advocates investigation of “the variety of cognitive interfaces, and the many dimensions on which differing inner and outer resources are unequal” (2006:12). In this formulation, “cognitive technologies don’t have to be external” (2006:19) and instead may rely upon “culturally-sculpted internal surrogates (2006:24). Study of the Extended Mind, then, involves investigation of the “mutually modulatory dynamic” (Sutton 2002:132) between internal and external. As Clark argues, “it is our basic human nature to annex, exploit and incorporate nonbiological stuff deep into our mental profiles” (2003:198).

Extended Mind theory is unusually well positioned to generate genuinely interdisciplinary work. Working from a shared set of suppositions about the social nature of cognition, scholars in a wide variety of fields can bring to bear their particular disciplinary areas of expertise upon a common critical question. These discipline-based studies can in turn modify and refine the theoretical work, in a process that perhaps exemplifies the “mutually modulatory dynamic” invoked by Sutton above. My area of expertise, early modern English literature and culture, affords numerous opportunities to examine an expanding repertory of cognitive artifacts, including printed books, maps, and diagrams, objects such as astrolabes and perspective glasses, and new cognitive environments such as purpose-built theatres. A number of scholars, including Walter Ong (1982) and Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979), have speculated about the cognitive effects of such technologies, but the precise models of cognition at work have seldom been elaborated. Even work that is heavily indebted to cognitive science, such as the path-breaking Shakespeare’s Brain (Crane 2001), tends to rely upon an individualistic rather than distributed, or extended, model of cognition. Elsewhere (Tribble forthcoming) I have explored the applicability of the model of distributed cognition (Hutchins 1995) to the early modern English theatre, arguing that the complex mnemonic demands made upon the participants can best be understood through a model that views cognition as social rather than individual, extended rather than internal.

The theatre was one of a number of domains in the early modern period in which close recall or verbatim memorization of textual or aural material was highly valued. We might think of memorization as a peculiarly internal, intracranial process. Although today memorization tends to be associated (wrongly, I would argue) with rote or mindless learning, it is commonly regarded as an internal phenomenon, in which an external body of knowledge is assimilated inwards, to be held in more or less permanent storage. Yet this is far from the case. Consider what might seem to be the most straightforward example: the memorization of a passage of verse. In this case, the work of memory is distributed across the act of producing the text in memorable forms and the techniques devised for committing it to memory, which may include a variety of mnemnotechnical strategies, including vocalization, mapping the material onto the hand (Sherman 2000), visualization, and writing. Moreover, such strategies are historically constrained, depending upon the nature of the dominant “remembrance environment” (Zerubavel 1997), the value a particular culture or subculture places upon certain ways of remembering and the dominant strategies and technologies used to scaffold memory. The very concept of “memorization” is historically situated, since the term posits the existence of a stable artifact against which to check a given performance (Hunter 1984). The way such artifacts, and hence the expectations of fidelity, are conceived changes as technologies of reproduction shift from writing to print, to, in later periods, newer modes such as the tape recorder or the videocam (Hunter 1984:427). Hunter argues that verbatim memory or close recall necessitates “not only the prior acquisition of a large repertoire of verbal knowledge, but importantly the pursuit of interests which involve a strong concern for verbatim fidelity” (1984:433). Such achievements depend upon generating a large number of scaffolds and supports for memory, since remembering and retaining such material presents a number of challenges to the capacity of memory. Exact verbatim memory is notoriously difficult to achieve; as I argue in my work on the English theatrical systems in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, remembering depended as much upon fluent forgetting as much as exact recall (Tribble forthcoming).

In this essay I examine another instance of a shift in cognitive strategies associated with a changing remembrance environment: the new requirements on the faithful in Protestant England to recall sermons after having heard them once. While memory was long considered a branch of ethics and a spiritual duty (Carruthers 1990:12 and passim), English Reformers advocated an unprecedented level of textually-based mnemonic requirements not only for the clergy, as Carruthers has documented, but also for the laity. Such mnemonic feats required an equally high level of cognitive scaffolding. As Harvey Whitehouse argues, “some forms of religious thinking are far from intuitive and may require a vast repertoire of pedagogic tools and mnemonic supports to be transmitted intact. To put it another way, some aspects of religion are cognitively costly” (2004: 223). Certainly the English Protestant reformation, as a prime example of the “doctrinal mode” of religiosity (Whitehouse 2001) demanded a wide range of costly cognitive practices: “For such concepts to be produced and passed on, massive institutional support is required: pedagogical (e.g., theories and methods of instruction), infrastructural (e.g., classrooms, libraries, equipment), motivational (e.g., systems of sanctions and incentives)” (Whitehouse 2004:224). The reconfiguration of devotional practices to valorize near verbatim-memorization or close recall either of oral texts (especially sermons) and written (Scripture) demanded an extensive array of institutional and pedagogical supports.

While Protestantism is generally thought of as a religion of the book – with its rallying cry of sola scriptura – the English church of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century put an equal (or even greater) emphasis upon hearing the word preached, since “the liuely voice of the teacher, is more effectual and piercing than bookes, which are but as dumbe schoolemasters or teachers” (Zepper 1599: c1r). “Hearing” means not simply listening, but attending, listening actively and retaining what was said. To achieve this end, an entire system of memory was necessary, in which the rich sensory modalities of Catholic worship were replaced by practices designed to support recall of the word preached. It would be a mistake to think of this change as a shift merely in individual cognitive practices; instead, an entire system was put into place. The work of memory was distributed across the preacher, the parishioner, the book, (sometimes) writing, and the physical environment of the church, since the activity of all these agents and structures was needed to support the costs of remembering.

I will begin by briefly sketching some of the salient differences between late medieval Catholic worship in England and the systems of worship which replaced it in the sixteenth century. In late medieval piety, lay devotional practices were structured to make the most of the limitations and capabilities of human memory. For example, material to be kept in memory was ordered according to the 7 (+ or –) 2 principle: the seven deadly sins, the seven cardinal virtues, the five wounds of Christ, and so on. Visual materials reminded worshipers of their duties and provided a focal point for contemplation of the divine. The rosary served as a tactile mnemonic, with the crucifix as the starting point prompting the sign of the cross and the large and small beads cued to the recitation of particular prayers. Incense and candles stimulated the sense of smell and the association of the place of worship with the sacred, and key sound events, such as the ring of the sacring bell at the moment of transubstantiation, also reinforced pious practices. In short, the entire sensorium was employed to aid and reinforce memory (Duffy 1992). But the nature of the mnemonic requirements, particularly the demand for fidelity to certain types of text, differed greatly. Lay devotion was if anything on the increase in the period leading up to the Reformation in England, but the behaviour and demeanour of the Catholic subject in worship was far different from that prescribed for her Protestant counterpart (Duffy 1992). Catholic worship during divine service was parallel rather than synoptic. It depended upon a disjunction between priestly performance and lay worship: the service was in Latin, the Eucharist was an event, by and large, to be watched, rather than taken, and the books of hours, or primers, that were increasingly carried to Mass through the fifteenth century were not translations of the service, but guides to pious contemplation to be consulted in parallel with it (Aston 1984:122-25). Phrases of the mass and gestures of the priest cued contemplation and memory at particular points during the service, aided by the book (Duffy 1992:119). Such practices represented their own sophisticated forms of religious cognition, aided by sensory objects, the book, and the physical environment of the church. In Catholic devotion, the Mass was the central event, and the sermon, while an important element in medieval devotion, was generally seen as secondary to the ritual of the Eucharist, which was the focal point of pious practices (Wabuda 2004:24).

As is well known, Reformers objected to the panoply of sensory materials used to support devotional practices; in this view, material objects did not remind worshipers of the divine, but instead blocked the sacred with unnecessary and distracting paraphernalia. There is a vigorous historical debate about whether English Protestantism was in any essential way anti-visual. The historian Patrick Collinson famously described the English church in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as “iconophobic” (Collinson 1995:49). Much evidence can certainly be found of iconoclastic rhetoric and attacks on the whole array of material objects, visual, tactile, and somatic, employed in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century Catholic Church. On the other side, revisionist historians have argued that this emphasis is somewhat misleading, pointing to the use of visual and typographical material such as emblems, ballads, woodcuts, and plays for spiritual exercises (Watt 1991, Diehl 1997). We might argue that for Protestants, the problem is not necessarily with the visual per se, but with its potential for distraction. In short, worship in Protestant England demanded a new economy of attention centered upon learning and remembering one’s spiritual duties, especially as laid out in scripture.

Two woodcuts included in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563, 1572, 1583) exemplify the nature of this new economy of attention, albeit from a highly polemical Protestant perspective.

Figure 1, the cartouche from the title page of Actes and Monuments, contrasts Catholic and Protestant worship. Distraction and boredom characterize the Catholic worshippers, on the left, who sleep or tell their beads while the priest lectures. In contrast, the Protestant worshipers, to the right, are attentive, upright, and consult lap books rather than count rosaries (Aston 2004: 185-6).


Similarly, in the “Ship of the Roman Church,” Foxe represents the cleansed temple under Edward VI, as the “papists” take their “trinkets” and “get packing” (Figure 2). In the bottom right cartouche, hearing of the word is visually foregrounded, with the rows of attentive listeners looking up at the sober preacher, representing the “lively word”: the word preached, ideally composed for the occasion by an educated minister, heard, apprehended, and remembered by an attentive congregation. Indeed, in this period we see a “fundamental change in the image of the minister’s duties” (Carlson 2001: 255) to emphasize preaching above all other ministerial duties, including administration of the sacraments (Wabuda 2002:64-89).


As can be seen in this illustration, new demands for a particular kind of attention are met by changes in the physical environment of the church. To remember, one needed first to hear, and church architecture was fitted to the ear. Julia Merritt has shown that medieval churches “were not especially well suited to the needs of parishioners attempting to hear a minister preaching a lengthy sermon,” (Merrit 1998: 946) and a reorientation of space was necessary to support demands for a new form of attention. Before the reformation, the high altar was the most prominent interior feature of the church, but the pulpit and the lectern gained increasing importance as the reformation went on (Wabuda 2004: 144). “Naves became preaching spaces … and the pulpit … pushed into the body of the church. In time, as the Book made way for the Word, the latter took precedence even over the Eucharist, and the most eye-stopping feature of church furniture became the pulpit” (Wabuda 2004: 150-51). Concomitantly, other visual distractions were removed, and the primary visual and aural feature of the church became the Word preached.

Remembering long chunks of text heard aurally is one of the more difficult cognitive tasks it is possible to set, especially if the text is composed for occasion rather than familiar from repetition. It is of course virtually impossible to attain verbatim memory in such circumstances; however, close recall was exhorted as part of one’s spiritual duty in innumerable tracts, with titles such as Hearing and Doing,The Jewell of the Eare, The Art or Skill of Hearing, and The Boring of the Eare. Attention and memory became a spiritual duty, as the famous Puritan divine William Perkins enjoins: “ And that good obedience may be performed to euery commandement of God, faith works two things in vs, memorie [and] attention” (1601:18). Performing this spiritual duty requires somatic discipline, an ordering of the body to sustain attention. As Elnathan Parr writes: “ In hearing, three things are requisite: first, Attention; second, Intention; third, Retention. The first ordereth the body, the second the vnderstanding, the third the Memory. Attention is when the whole body, but especially the eare, and the eie are reurently composed to heare the word” (1615:c3r-3v). Henry Mason prescribes that attention will be aided “if we use such posture of the body, as may be apt to keep our senses waking, and to drive away heaviness & sleep” (1635 dd11r). Congregants were to position themselves so that “the eyes and eares of euery one must be attent to the mouth of the minister . . and all things there must be receiued with hungrie appetites, and as it were greedy minds.” (Zepper 1599: 65). The author of Jewell for the Eare tells us:

Our attention hath fiue great enemies, the first is a straying thought, when all the powers of our soule should wait upon the voyce of the Preacher, then our minds [are] in our Coffers, or our Pastures, or else where they should not be. . . the second is a wandering eye, gazing after euery picture, vpon euery moath or flie, and rowling vp and down in euery corner. The third is a needeless shifting and stirring of the body, a fumbling with hands, and a shuffling with the feet, a rising and remouing from place to place, when there is no cause to prouoke us . . .The fourth is an vnreuerent talking, and unciuill laughing in the Church . . . The fift is a secure and senceless sleeping. (Wilkinson 1625: B5v-B6r)

These injunctions advocate a bodily disposition for the receptivity to the word preached. The believer is to be positioned within an architectural infrastructure conducive to hearing, and within that framework is to discipline the senses so that hearing predominates over other sensory modalities.

Attention and memory are also aided by cognitive artifacts, protheses such as books and writing. A key artifact to aid memory was the Bible, and it was recommended that the Bible be taken to holy service “to prove by the Scriptures that which is taught” (Geneva Bible 1560:*4r) and to reinforce the memory of the scripture cited during the service. Zepper (1599:58-60) directs that all those who enter the church, especially “Citizen and townsmen” should

haue alwaies in a readiness the holie Bible, that so they may . . . the better turne ouer and harke[n] unto that chapter or those chapters of the Bible, which vpon the Lords daies especially in the ordinary reading of the Bible are wont & ought to be read, as those textes likewise, which are expounded in the Sermons. Furthermore, they must at the least note with some marke, such testimonies & texts of Scriptures also, as in the Sermone time are alleged and were either not known before, or not understood, as they should haue been; or else in which they marked some speciall point, that so they may more diligently meditate vpon them at home & cause them to become more familiar to them. . . .. .And this custome of bringing their holy Bibles with them, will manifest in them no meane or common argument, both of excellent zeale towards the word of God, and also of a mind, that is very desirous to profit in that truth of God, which bringeth saluation. Neither can it but cause that to take deepe roote in them, which by one and the selfe same labour of two of our most notable senses that is by the helpe of hearing and seeing, is conueyed to the mind.

The book could provide a support or prop for memory, allowing memory to fish with two hooks rather than one, reinforcing the visual and the verbal. However, the book reinforced memory only if used synoptically with the preacher; that is, only if used to find the precise verses cited in the sermon and hence reinforce memory of the “text,” the verse or verses which the sermon treats. If used otherwise, the book was also in danger of becoming one of the very distractions enveighed against, since reading “is not to giue attendance to the things that are spoken.”

And it is one thing, according to the present occasion, and as it were by the way, to seeke out and to marke, by turning the holy Bible onely some one testimonie or other, which was alledged in the Sermon, that we may the more diligently mediate of it at home (of which also we haue spoken heretofore) and another thing for a man wholly to giue himself, and that of set purpose, in publike space to his own priuate reading. (Zepper 1599:F4v)

Finding verses cited in the Bible is itself a fairly complex cognitive skill, requiring a knowledge of the order of the books of the Bible, as well as a haptic ability to find one’s way through it:

That thou mayst with great facility turne unto any Chapter or Verse here quoted. My advice is, that thou committ to Memory the names of the Books of the Old and New testament, as they are orderly and ordinarily set down in the leafe that immediately precedes the first chapter of Genesis (in all Bibles): which will note onley much further thee in the speedy finding out of any Verse here set downe: But also inable thee with farre greater celerity to turne unto any place which the Preacher shall in his Sermone cite, for the prooving of any Doctrine or Vse whatsoever. The want of which (as I have often observed) hath caused many (in church) to tosse the leaves of their Bibles to and fro (to seeke the place he nominates) and oftentimes to close the Booke without finding of the same. (Touchstone of Truth, D1v).

Such “tossing” of the leaves of the Bible could itself be a distracting form of display, as Thomas Heywood’s satirical portrait of a “Hypocrit” makes clear:

His seat in the Church is, when he may be the most seene: in the time of the Sermon he drawes out his tables to take the notes, but still noting who observes him to take them. At every place of the Scripture cited, he turnes over the leaves of his Booke more pleased with the motion of the leaves, then the matter of the Text: for hee folds downe the leaves, though he finds not the place: his eye being still fixt on his Paper, or on the Pulpit. (Heywood 1636: B3r)

We might reflect, then, on what it takes to make one’s way through the Bible. The term “chapter and verse” is so common that we may forget how relatively recent consistent verse divisions are (Stallybrass 2002: 72-3). The first printer to use verse divisions was Henri Estienne in 1551, and the first English Bible employing them was the Geneva Bible of 1560. Expert readers and rememberers of the Bible had always had a good recall of the particular chapter and “sentence” alledged, often anchored in the visual memory of the illuminated page, as Carruthers (1990: 93). But consistent verse division, a result of technical advances in printing and increasing sophistication in the mise-en-page, had far-reaching effects for the cognitive work of remembering. Verse division gave the Bible an aphoristic effect, a form of ‘chunking’ that aids memory even while it tends to work against what John Locke called the “strength and coherence” of the work. Locke complains about dividing Paul’s epistles into chapter and verse, “whereby they are so chopp’d and minc’d, as they are now printed, stand so broken and divided, that not only Common People usually take the verses for distinct Aphorisms, but even Men of more advanced Knowledge, in reading them, lose very much of the Strength and Force of the Coherence” (Locke 1733). Verse divisions, however, were too great an aid to a newly culturally valuable goal of verbatim memory to be discarded. “Breaking and dividing” indeed privileges memorability over coherence; the latter is a readerly demand, while the former reflects the hybridity of oral and written forms of expression in this period.

But perhaps the major means of scaffolding memory was the tight relationship between the production and reception of the sermon. If sermons are to be remembered, the preacher must make them memorable, and mnemonic work is therefore distributed across producer and recipient. For many preachers, memorability meant method: dividing one’s sermon into heads and subheadings, along the lines advocated by Peter Ramus in his Logic (Ong 1958, but also see Ferrell 2003). Although division itself is an ancient technique far pre-dating our period (Carruthers 1990: 104-06), the popularity of methods based on Ramist and quasi-Ramist techniques points to a new concern for a kind of reciprocal mnemonic practice. John Wilkins defines Method as “an art of contriving our discourses in such a regular frame wherein every part may have its due place and dependence: which will be a great advantage both to 1) our selves; 2) our hearers” (Wilkins 1646: A4v). He describes method as “a chain in which if a man should let slip any one part, he may easily recover it again, by that relation and dependence which it hath with the whole” and argues that “hearers are equally benefited who may understand and retain a Sermon with greater ease and profit, when they are before-hand acquainted with the generall heads of matter that are discoursed of” (1645:A4v). Similarly, John Willis in his Mnemonica uses the memory-as-chain trope, a metaphor designed to call attention to the links between speaker and hearer:

Four things must be observed, that speeches contrived by ourselves may be deeply fastened in memory: Method, Writing, Marginal Notation, and Meditation; the Method ought to be so disposed, that every part of an entire Speech, and every sentence of those parts, precede according to their dignity in nature; that is, that every thing be so placed, that it may give light to understand what followeth; Such a method is very effectual to ease the memory of both Speaker and Hearer; for in a speech methodically digested, each sentence attracted the next, like as one linke draweth another in a Golden Chain; therefore Method is called the Chain of Memory; For this cause let every former sentence so depend upon the latter, that is may seem necessarily related thereunto (Willis 1661: B-7v-b8R).

As Zepper (1599) comments in a marginal note: “Mens memories many times hurt by want of method in the preachers” (G4r). The high cognitive costs of close recall are met by creating a variety of constraints upon production and reception of oral material and requires a shared skeletal structure that can be produced by the speaker and reproduced by the listener.

The famous Puritan divine William Perkins gives somewhat short shrift to memory as a separate topic in the Arte of Prophecying (1607), his highly influential preaching manual. Little specific attention to memory was needed in part because observing method was said to “naturally” produce memorability, without the need for so-called “artificial” systems. Perkins regarded imagistically-based artificial memory systems such as those described by Frances Yates (1966) as “impious” because the “animation of the image” upon which it depends “requireth absurd, insolent, and prodigious cogitations, and those especially which set an edge upon and kindle the most corrupt affections of the flesh” (Perkins 1607: I6v). Perkins advocates instead an internalization of the external structures of method made available by new printing technologies, especially the use of sophisticated charts and tables (Ferrell 2003). As Ferrell has pointed out, Calvinists such as Perkins exploited new cognitive technologies, employing the technical resources of printing, which were deployed to create elaborate and tactically inviting tables and figures that “embodied a fundamental pedagogical message: you can grasp the truth of this idea as readily as you do this book, as skillfully as you do this page” (Ferrell 2003: 137). Perkins advocates remembering by means of internal disposition of external structures such as those represented in Figure 3:

It is not therefore an vnprofitable aduise, if he that is to preach doe diligentlie imprint in his mind by the helpe of disposition either axiomaticall, or syllogisticall, or methodicall the seuerall doctrines of the place he meanes to handle, the seuerall proofes and applications of the doctrines, the illustration of the applications, and the order of them all (Perkins 1607:I7r).

This mental imprinting of structures that are represented externally on the printed page nicely demonstrates the importance of the “ culturally-sculpted internal surrogates” Sutton discusses (2006:24). Determining whether such tables are internal or external cognitive artifacts is impossible; what this example shows is precisely the permeability of such boundaries within a distributed model of cognition .

For the permeability does not simply exist between internal and external cognitive structures of an individual agent; rather, speaker and hearers work within a distributed structure mediated by a range of cognitive technologies. The nature of this reciprocity between speaker and hearer is made apparent in recommendations for the “after-thought” or rumination upon the sermon, an activity often likened to a cow chewing cud. Afterthought involved rehearsing and impressing into memory the key points of the sermon – a mental compression of the key points.

The memory is hereby helped also, because in the first hearing the material points, were clothed & covered (as wee may say) with many words of amplification and enlargement: which though they had their use for moving of affections, yet are some hinderance to the memorie, which is lesse able to treasure up necessary points, when they are cumbred with so many circumstances. But in our after-thoughts, when wee consider again, what wee have heard, wee may single out the bare matter from the Rhetorick and lay the necessary points by themselves alone: and then they will not onely be contracted into a narrower roome, more easie for the memorie, but besides, each thing will appeare in its due order and place, which will help the memory to remember that, which otherwise it would have forgotten. (Mason 1635: H11r)

Preachers seeking to create memorable – or perhaps memorizable sermons – use methods based upon the ubiquitous typographical tables in dominant handbooks. The method, not the words themselves, constitutes the structure, for preachers were repeatedly warned not to be tied to particular words, but to memorize the method and to reproduce it, with necessary amplifications, for the listeners. In their turn, in ‘after-thought,’ listeners strip the sermon of such amplification, contracting the sermon “into a narrower roome” conducive to memory. Just as PowerPoint, our contemporary hegemonic cognitive technology, shapes both production and consumption of presentations, the ubiquity of cognitive technologies based upon the resources of the page shaped the forms of memory in the early modern period.


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