1. The present treatise was not printed until approximately 1585, but the British Library manuscript Sloane 3731 (fols. 3 -43) contains substantially the same document, under the title Artificiosae Memoriae Libellus, prefaced by a dedicatory epistle dated 6 June, 1583. In April 1583 the Polish Palatine Pfalzgraf Albert Alasco (or at least the English called him such, and modern scholarship has imitated them, although he was actually Adalbert Łaski, Voivode of Siradia) NOTE 1 arrived in England, and for some reason that seems to have been as obscure to contemporary Elizabethans as it is today, was accorded the red carpet treatment. The most memorable feature of his stay was his reception at Oxford in the second week of June, in the company of such notables as the Earl of Leicester, Sir Philip Sidney, and Giordano Bruno. The splendor of his reception and the entertainments provided him elicited an enthusiastic description by Holinshed. The manuscript version of the present work is prefixed by a dedication to Alasco dated to the previous week. In its original form, the text presents a couple of features that hint it may have been written for recitation. Towards the end of Chapter 1 it has vobis ante oculis ponam where the book substitutes exponam, and at the end of the work (in both versions) Watson winds up with the words satis iam dixisse mihi videor. The suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Watson subscribed his dedication to Alasco with the words vestrae celsitudinis humillimus orator and supplies an exact date, something he never otherwise did in his dedications. It would therefore appear that he recited this treatise in the presence of the Pfalzgraf on June 6, 1583. Souvenir copies of pieces written as entertainments were often given to prominent guests, and it may well be the case that our manuscript was prepared for this purpose; certainly, its neatness and formality give it the look of a presentation copy. NOTE 2 One can only speculate about the forum in which this recitation occurred: in the General Introduction we have seen that Mark Eccles denied that Watson was a member of the Inns of Court, citing the lack of evidence for Watson in surviving Inns records. The Inns would nevertheless provided a suitable venue, and would serve to explain the work’s quasi-academic tone and sprinkling of learned references. NOTE 3 Then too, it is perhaps significant that at 10.2 Watson uses the example of a lawyer defending a man on a charge of murder, in order to give a concrete example of how his memory system could be used in the courtroom, and uses the word “us” to designate lawyers.
2. In the spring of 1583 Giordano Bruno had come to London, and was living in the household of the French ambassador, Michael de Castlenau, Seigneur de Mauvissière. NOTE 4 At the beginning of June, Castlenau met Alasco at a tournament at Greenwich, in the presence of Bruno. Evidently the Polish nobleman took a liking to Bruno, for a few days later Bruno accompanied him to Oxford as a member of his suite. As Bossy noted, “at present, [Bruno] was known to the public as an expert in the art of memory, which he taught more as an occult science than as a technical skill.” His lengthy memory treatise Ars Reminiscendi...Sigillus Sigillorum ad omnes animi operationes comparandas...conducens was printed at London sometime in 1583. Because it is not mentioned in Stationers’ Company records, we cannot say precisely when. Frances A. Yates thought it was published soon after his arrival in London, NOTE 5 although Bossy (p. 25) wrote “he must have published it on his return to London [after his June visit to Oxford]...Written in Latin and dedicated to Castlenau, it was designed to appeal to an academic audience, if any, and he published it with a self-advertising letter to the vice-chancellor of Oxford.” The precise date of publication is in any event not crucial, inasmuch as Bruno’s system of memory training had already been set forth in print: the first of the four parts of Sigillus Sigillorum is an abbreviated reprint of his Cantus Circaeus ad eam memoriae praxim ordinatus quam ipse iudiciarum appellat, published in Paris in the preceding year (as was also a second memory treatise, De Umbris Idearum...ad internam scripturam, et non vulgares per memoriam operationes explicatis).
3. The aspect of classical rhetorical doctrine most neglected by modern historians of the subject is memory training, although it figures prominently in standard Roman treatises as an indispensable tool for orators: Cicero’s De Oratore (particularly II.lxxviif.), Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (XI.ii.17 - 22), and, most extensively, the Rhetorica ad Herennium wrongly attributed to Cicero in the Middle Ages (III.xvi - xxiv). In all three discussions, the same kind of mnemonic device is discussed: the exercise of intense mental discipline to acquire a vivid eidetic memory whereby the mind sees representative objects stored in a series of distinct “physical” places, frequently imagined to be the rooms of a building. In her Art of Memory Yates traced the history of this kind of “mnemotechnics” through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. By the sixteenth century, memory training had metamorphosed into something rhetoric professors of antiquity would scarcely have acknowledged as their own: mnemonic systems were richly elaborated forms of Hermetic or Cabalistic arcana, overlaid with all manner of mystical rigmarole. As Bossy noted, the subject of memory training had become the province of initiates rather than orators. Bruno’s Sigilla Sigillorum is a prime example of mnemotechnics in this richly elaborated form. It would be hard to imagine that Watson’s recitation, if not his actual writing, of the present treatise was unrelated to Bruno’s association with Alasco: its dedication to the Pfalzgraf and its evident recitation in his presence was in all probability made with an eye to his newly-discovered interest in Bruno.
4. Watson can scarcely be described as an adherent of Bruno, in the manner that Alexander Dickson, author of the De Umbra Rationis et Iudicii, printed at London in the following year, at least appeared to be. The method he advocates is entirely devoid of any mystical content. Like the Roman predecessors whom he repeatedly cites — and from whom he liberally cribs — he seeks to purvey practical instruction, rather than any assemblage of mystical or “metaphysical” symbolism, or system of spiritual askesis or Gnostic illumination. His method is designed for the immediate use of lecturers, lawyers, preachers, and other professionals obliged to rely on memorization in their routine work (14.1). In its philosophy and the structure of its arguments — introduction, places, images, words, final exhortation — and also in many of its details, Watson’s treatise is very similar to the discussion of memory in Book III of the no less pragmatic Rhetorica ad Herenniam. Surely his reversion to the pristine classical formula was a deliberate reaction to the elaborated system currently being popularized by Bruno. He could already have been familiar with it thanks to Bruno’s memory works that had already been published, which would have been especially easy if he had recently been in Paris, as we know he was sometime in the early 1580’s (as is related here).
5. What is less clear, perhaps, is the precise nature of this reaction. Perhaps he simply wanted to capitalize on the visibility Bruno was currently conferring on mnemotechnics. He may have wished to provide a simplified system, more comprehensible and more immediately useful to those of his fellow countrymen (above all, his fellow legalists) who had immediate practical needs for a trained memory but no interest in philosophical arcana (the relentless pragmatism of his approach is emphasized by the motto on the title of the printed version, “All honor consists in doing one’s duty, and shame in neglecting it”). But it seems equally possible that his attitude was more disapproving — it is perhaps surprising that there is no mention of the Italian philosopher either in the treatise itself or in the original dedication to Alasco — and that he chose to return to mnemotechnics’ classical roots as a corrective. His introductory remarks asserting the practical value of mnemonics, and stating that he could find nobody capable of assisting him in its acquisition, could be read as an implied rebuke of Bruno. Especially pointed, it would appear, are his repeated statements that a trained memory can be developed by any reasonably intelligent person willing to invest the requisite time and effort. The implied corollary may be that mnemotechnics are not the special property of initiates. Watson pointed reasserts the old Roman view that a trained memory indeed is a technical skill rather than an occult science, and so, whether intentionally or not, has the effect of demystifying the subject, and hence of deflating Bruno’s pretensions. NOTE 6 If so, one can only guess why: personal dislike perhaps — or was Watson put up to it by some individual or faction hostile to the Italian visitor? In any event, one cannot help suspecting that episode was another example of Watson’s propensity for practical jokes; as with much practical joking, an element of cruelty may well have been involved, and, if the surmise that this treatise was recited before Alasco on June 6, 1583, is correct, Watson’s failure to mention him may have been a studied insult.
6. In the General Introduction to this edition, I have cited John Nicholl’s recent argument that Watson’s mnemotechnics tends to show that he was some sort of Renaissance Hermeticist or Gnostic. In point of fact, the unrelentingly pragmatic orientation of this treatise goes far towards discouraging any such understanding. NOTE 7 Then too, it is worth emphasizing that one reason why Watson was an adherent of this straightforward system of local memory, unadorned by any mystical claptrap, was that it was Ciceronian (as he thought) and therefore supported by the massive cultural authority of the great Roman orator. In his eyes, this treatise makes clear, the Rhetorica ad Herennium was written by Cicero, and even without reference to that work, Cicero’s endorsement of the place-oriented mnemonic system made in the course of his De Oratore, which Watson cites, goes to show this. A remark made in the manuscript version of Chapter 1, praesertim vero unius Ciceronis ea de re commendatione plus quam vulgare persuasus, shows that Cicero’s approval of the system counted for a great deal in his thinking. What could be more orthodox, and more contrary to Bruno’s brand of mysticism, than to inject a strong note of Ciceronianism into contemporary discourse about mnemotechnics?
7. The text given here is that of this printed version. Compendium Memoriae Localis. Authore Thoma Watsono Londinensi, I. V. studioso was printed at London, date and printer unspecified. A photographic reproduction is given by Boyle, pp. 426 - 80. Like Amyntas, this volume was dedicated to Henry Noel. Although the book is undated, allusions to Amyntas in the dedicatory epistle suggest a dating of ca. 1585. The authors of the Short Title Catalogue suggested Thomas Vautrollier to have been the printer; in view of the number of printing errors, John Wolf is another possibility. Generally speaking the book text is the same as that of the manuscript, although there are a number of divergent details. A linked collation of the manuscript text is therefore given here, together with a text and translation of the original dedicatory epistle to Alasco.
NOTE 1 Alasco’s visit to Oxford was the occasion for the production of William Gager’s tragedy Dido (co-authored with somebody else, probably George Peele) and his lost comedy Rivales. For the Pfalzgraf and his visit, see this discussion.
NOTE 2 As explained in another context, the manuscript is evidently a holograph. It is bound together with a letter, dated November 1586, from William Lewis to Francis Beaumont [d. 1598], a prominent jurist, in which Lewis passes it on, saying it was given him by an unnamed friend.
NOTE 3 The only further possible clue as to the circumstances under which the recitation occurred, if one did, is that in the title of the manuscript version Watson identifies himself as an Oxford man as well as a student of the law. He rarely did so, and so it looks as if for some reason he was going out of his way to establish his academic credentials. So that he would seem a more serious counterweight to the impressive Bruno?
NOTE 6 This is not meant to suggest that Watson was involved in the pamphleteering war that subsequently broke out after the publication of Sigillus Sigillorum between Alexander Dickson and other adherents of Bruno and those who were opposed to him, the so-called Ramists — devotees of Pierre de la Ramée — discussed by Yates, pp. 266 - 86. Above all, despite his very material differences from Bruno, Watson too was a believer in the system of local memory. When Watson criticized Concatenation or “the Chain” as an inferior mnemonic system, he may or may not have been thinking of Ramée as well as those classical writers who advocated rival systems to that of place memory (see the commentary note on 11.1).
NOTE 7 In making this claim as part of his bill of particulars against Watson, Nichols wrote “[Watson] acknowledges Bruno as the master of this art, and modestly states that his own contribution is minor compared to that of ‘Nolanus.’” It is true that Watson makes such a passing reference to Bruno (and also to his English disciple Dicjson) in the course of the dedicatory epistle to Henry Noel prefacing the printed text, albeit a reference in which it is not impossible to detect a note of sarcasm. But Bruno goes unmentioned in the body of the text, such as Watson’s June 1583 audience would have heard, and likewise in the original dedicatory epistle to Alasco preserved in Sloane 3731.