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Martin Luther and the Art of Memory

While Luther himself may not have employed the artificial memory or recommended it to his students, he was certainly aware of it and used many of the time tested methods popularized in various treatises of memory through the ages.

Luther's Knowledge of the Art of Memory

Luther’s familiarity with the ‘art of memory’ can be proven by his familiarity with Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, a first century book on rhetoric that included a prominent section on artificial memory. Luther cites Quintilian’s work in several of his writings, most prominent are Against Latomus and The Bondage of the Will.

It is in The Bondage of the Will that Luther shows himself familiar with Quintilian’s rules for memory, “Suppose Quintilian, proposing to write about oratory, were to say: “In my judgment, that stupid and superfluous stuff about choice of subject, arrangement of material, style, memorization [emphasis mine], delivery, ought to be omitted…”

Martin Luther's Amazing Memory

Luther himself was noted to have a tremendous memory as evidenced by his knowledge of Scripture and the classics. In the Preface of Luther’s commentary on Genesis we read, “Luther had an astonishingly retentive memory, as his Biblical quotations show. He had also read around in the classics and knew some classical works almost by heart.”

By Luther’s own account, he states that he had much of Scripture memorized, “I had then already read and taught the sacred Scriptures most diligently privately and publicly for seven years, so that I knew them nearly all by memory.”

Good Memory Necessary for Preachers

In discussing the necessary qualities of a preacher, Luther declares, “The person who wishes to preach needs to have a good voice, good eloquence, a good memory [emphasis mine] and other natural gifts; whoever does not have these should properly keep still and let somebody else speak.”

Luther on Memory Work

Luther also follows the Jewish and Medieval practice of having students cite their memory work individually after having learned it in a group setting, “This order should be followed: The schoolmaster shall have the whole division come up for recitation, asking each pupil in turn to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments.”

Luther continues on and advises the memorization of a few easy Psalms for students, “Furthermore the teachers should ask the pupils to memorize a number of easy Psalms that contain in themselves a summary of the Christian life and speak about the fear of God, faith and good works…”

Sources:

  • Arand, Charles P., That I May Be His Own. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000.
  • Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 32 : Career of the Reformer II. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999.
  • ________.Luther's Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III.
  • ________.Luther's Works, Vol. 1 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5.
  • ________.Luther's Works, Vol. 34 : Career of the Reformer IV.
  • ________.Luther's Works, Vol. 36 : Word and Sacrament II.
  • ________.Luther's Works, Vol. 40 : Church and Ministry II.


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