Memory systems date back to antiquity. In the ancient world, a trained memory was of vital importance. There were no handy note-taking devices, and it was memory techniques and systems that enabled bards and storytellers to remember their stories, poems, and songs. Early Greek and Roman orators delivered lengthy speeches with unfailing accuracy because they learned the speeches, thought for thought, by applying memory systems.
What they did, basically, was associate each thought of a speech to a part of their own homes. These were called “loci,” or “places.” The opening thought of a speech would, perhaps, be associated to the front door, the second thought to the foyer, the third to a piece of furniture in the foyer, and so on. When the orator wanted to remember his speech, thought for thought, he actually took a mental tour through his own home. Thinking of the front door reminded him of the first thought of his speech. The second “place,” the foyer, reminded him of the next thought; and so on to the end of the speech. It is from this “place” or “loci” memory technique that we get the time-worn phrase “in the first place.”
Although Simonides (circa 500 b.c.) is known as the father of the art of trained memory, scraps of parchment dating back a thousand years or so before Simonides state that memory techniques were an essential part of the orator’s equipment. Cicero wrote that the memories of the lawyers and orators of his time were aided by systems and training and in De oratore he described how he himself applied memory systems.
It’s important to realize that oratory was an important career during those early days. “We should never have realized how great is the power of a trained memory,” wrote the philosopher Quintilian, “nor how divine it is, but for the fact that it is memory which has brought oratory to its present position of glory.”
The ancients also knew that memory training could help the thinking process itself. From a fragment dated about 400 b.c. we learn that “A great and beautiful invention is memory, always useful both for learning and for life.” And Aristotle, after praising memory systems, said that “these habits too will make a man readier in reasoning.”
If Simonides was the inventor of the art of trained memory, and Cicero its greatest early teacher, St. Thomas Aquinas was to become its patron saint, instrumental in making the art of trained memory a devotional and ethical art.
During the Middle Ages, monks and philosophers were virtually the only people who knew about and applied trained-memory techniques. The systems, whose use was mostly limited to religion, were basic to some religions. For example, memory systems were used to memorize Virtues and Vices, and some priests and philosophers taught that memory systems showed “how to reach Heaven and avoid Hell.”