Wolf Hall and the memory palace / by Nathan Carterette

When I was a young piano student I had a very inspiring teacher, who was always pushing me to the edge and beyond of my limits. A small suggestion from him would lead me into a frenzy of concentration.  Once he suggested I learn Schumann's Carnaval, and I memorized the entire piece in two days, practicing after school until dinner. 

I absorbed a lot, and memorized fast, but even for me that was a feat, though I was so enthused with the music that I didn't question or examine it until much later. Every movement in Carnaval has a title, some from the Commedia dell'arte, some from his private imagination, some people from his real life, or some dance or scenario. They all lend themselves to visualization, and as separate characters or moods, they are easy to distinguish. It was this visualization that allowed me to absorb the music so fast, and even now when I play it, I can see the characters in the Lodge, the house where I learned it. 

Unbeknownst to me I was using the memory palace technique, sometimes called method of loci. It came up only a year or two ago on the Diane Rehm show, and I knew it right away! It involves spatial memory and weird imagery. Take any object, or in the case of music a starting point and a finishing point, attach to it some image that is conspicuous, and put it in a room, or in a tree, or coming out of a sewer grate, or floating in a cloud. There on that object is attached to your memory in a certain way, and to recall it, you only need to picture part or all of your scene - the location, or the strange image.

Schumann did the work for you in Carnaval, if you have enough imagination to tack onto his titles. But the spatial memory is also crucial; there are endless places to use as your memory palace. 

anyways recently I read the miraculous novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Henry VIII told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, his most powerful servant. Her interests lie in how Cromwell obtains and uses his power, and a skill that sets him apart from his other competitors at court is... The memory palace!  

Mantel conjectures that that as a guerrilla soldier in Italy he learned the technique, which came down from Simonedes in Greece and Cicero in  Rome, and therefore had a command of faces, facts, figures, land entitlements, conversations, intrigues, whatever, that he could recall for his own purpose at any time. It's worth quoting a passage: 

in Italy he learned a memory system and furnished it with pictures. Some are drawn from wood and field, from hedgerow and copse: shy hiding animals, eyes bright in the undergrowth. Some are foxes and deer, some are griffins, dragons. Some are men and women: nuns, warriors, doctors of the church. In their hands he puts unlikely objects, St Ursula a crossbow, St Jerome a scythe, while Plato bears a soup ladle and Achilles a dozen damsons in a wooden bowl. It is no use hoping to remember with the help of common objects, familiar faces. One needs startling juxtapositions, images that are more or less peculiar, ridiculous, even indecent. When you have made the images, you place them about the world in locations you choose, each one with its parcel of woods, of figures, which they will yield you on demand. At Greenwich, a shaven cat may peep at you from behind a cupboard: at the Palace of Westminster, a snake may leer down from a beam and hiss your name.

later, when Cromwell is discussing a duke with someone, the issue of their land entitlements comes up; a "spider scurries from under the chair and supplies him with a fact." And there he has the exact entitlements, and when they were given. 

definitely the memory palace is a function of his character, and a source of his power, in the book. I think it also contributes to the particular fast pace of the story, and it's situation in time. This book comes to life through its use of the present tense, but also the passage of time: events are always attached to Saints days, or liturgical seasons, and occasionally to fixed dates. cromwell's memory gives the current time texture, and in effect ties everything together, since we see it all from his point of view. It's as powerful a literary device as a practical one.