Thinking Tools

Objects and images have been used to ‘think through things’ since antiquity, explains Sarah Griffin, assistant curator at Winchester College.

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

Leaving the Wellcome workshop in mid-February, I was left thinking about what it means to ‘think through’ an object, why this method of intellectual enquiry is regarded as powerful, and how it has been employed in the past. Objects and images have been used to ‘think through things’ since antiquity, examples of which survive in texts describing memory techniques. Classical methods relied on the subject creating mental images, details of which unlocked information stored in the mind’s eye. From the Middle Ages onwards a plethora of physical images – perhaps better understood as thinking tools – were provided in memory texts. They most often came in the form of diagrams, sometimes with movable parts. Through their first-hand analysis, one can better understand how the medieval readers of memory texts used images as a way to study and store information, demonstrating the importance of object-based methods for the medieval and modern reader alike.

Jacobus Publicius was the author of the first widely printed ars memoriae, a handbook in rhetoric and the art of memory. In addition to providing memory techniques, he used his knowledge as a trained physician to consider the medical aspects of memory training. First printed in Toulouse around 1475, his ars memoriae also exists in twenty-eight manuscripts from circa 1460 onwards (Heimann-Seelbach 2000, p.117). The Wellcome owns both a printed copy of the text, published in 1482 by Erhard Ratdolt, and a manuscript made in Freiburg around 1515 (Wellcome MS 332) that is clearly copied from a printed version. A comparison between the extant printed and manuscript copies shows the variation in the types of images used for his memory technique. They are not illustrations that serve to clarify the text, but are themselves tools used to memorise or ‘think through’ things.

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One of the images most common in Jacobus’ text, and also the most complex, is a woodcut dial that once had a movable part in the form of a snake attached to its centre (fig. 1). The text opposite, titled ‘The Facilitation of Memory by Combination of Letters’ explains its function: ‘…having been rotated, divided, extended, and combined with discerning and meticulous art, they will connect letters to letters, reveal the conclusion of subject matters, and give [them] meaning’.[1] Used with a nearby pictorial alphabet (fig. 2), the user connected the provided images associated with the letters on the dial to memorise a phrase or saying.[2] This means that the user does not simply read the text, but must rotate the snake of the dial and flick through its pages to find the appropriate letter-image, a physical process that is repeated until the phrase is translated into the provided visual system and learnt by heart.

The pictorial alphabet technique is a prime example of the power of object- and image-based learning across time. By handling the book and using it in the way that Jacobus instructed his fifteenth- and sixteenth-century readers, a researcher re-enacts the thought process of the trained medieval reader to gain a better comprehension of how the images were used to digest and learn information.

Beyond thinking through the steps of this medieval method for memorisation, an understanding of how it works reveals insight into why object-based learning was and is so effective. Medievalist scholars such as Mary Carruthers and Mickey Abel have argued that movement was a key aspect of such memory images, and that medieval illustrators used their knowledge of rhetorical strategies to design their images as mnemonic devices that required interaction (Abel 2012, p.68). Movement through an image – either by physically turning its parts or moving through it in the mind’s eye – was understood by medieval readers to be a way of thinking through its content. In the ars memoriae, information was deliberated and absorbed through the physical process of turning the dial towards certain letters and flicking through the pages to find their correlating letter-images.

The same is true of a researcher’s first-hand analysis of the book as an artefact. While it is possible to learn how the technique works through digital images, first-hand interaction is by far the most effective approach. This is supported by recent studies on object-based learning, which compared students’ interactions with digital and physical objects. Those working directly with objects had ‘far better didactic recall over a longer period than students exposed to their digital surrogates’ (Simpson and Hammond 2012, p.75). Not only do those handling the objects gain a better understanding of the subject, they will also remember it better when they no longer have physical access to it: the objective for the medieval reader as well as the modern researcher.

A person’s reading of an image or object is governed by the visual culture in which they exist, yet the impact of first-hand observation and physical interaction with objects as a way to understand something is timeless. This is clearly something that Jacobus Publicius, in building his image-memory system, understood. Thinking through a physical thing deepens and consolidates the understanding of it and information associated with it: whether that is a phrase to be memorised, or information concerning its historical context. The ars memoriae is just one example that shows how object-based research draws on a rich history of using objects in thought.


Sarah Griffin is Assistant Curator at Winchester College, where she works with the Treasury, Winchester’s public museum, and the holdings of Fellows’ Library. After gaining her DPhil in Art History in 2018, looking at medieval cosmological diagrams, she was a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and co-convened Krasis, a set of interdisciplinary undergraduate seminars at the Ashmolean museum which helps graduate students learn how to teach with objects.


Abel, M. 2012. Open Access: Contextualizing the Archivolted Portals of Northern Spain and Western France within the Theology and Politics of Entry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heimann-Seelbach, S. 2000. Ars und scientia. Genese, Überlieferung und Funktionen der mnemotechnischen Traktatliteratur im 15. Jahrhundert. Tübingen: Tübingen University Press.

Publicius, Jacobus. 2004. ‘The Art of Memory’, trans. H. Bayerle, in The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, ed. M. Carruthers and J.M. Ziolkowski. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Simpson, A., and G. Hammond. 2012. ‘Physical and digital: University collections and object-based pedagogies’, University Museum and Collections Journal 5, pp. 75–82.

[1] Jacobus Publicius, ‘The Art of Memory’, trans. H. Bayerle, The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, ed. M. Carruthers and J.M. Ziolkowski (Pennsylvania, 2004), p. 230.

[2] Ibid., p. 249.

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