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Our cyborg past: Medieval artificial memory as mindware upgrade

By Ruth Evans


The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has argued that humans have always been ‘natural-born cyborgs,’ that is, they have always collaborated and merged with non-biological props and aids in order to find better environments for thinking. These ‘mindware’ upgrades (I borrow the term ‘mindware’ from Clark, 2001) extend beyond the fusions of the organic and technological that posthumanist theory imagines as our future. Moreover, these external aids do not remain external to our minds; they interact with them to effect profound changes in their internal architecture. Medieval artificial memory systems provide evidence for just this kind of cognitive interaction. But because medieval people conceived of their relationship to technology in fundamentally different ways, we need also to attend to larger epistemic frameworks when we analyze historically contingent forms of mindware upgrade. What cultural history adds to our understanding of embedded cognition is not only a recognition of our cyborg past but a historicized understanding of human reality.


jesus1I have lately been thinking about medieval antecedents for the idea that human beings are, in the words of the philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark, ‘natural-born cyborgs’ – not in the superficial sense of being human-machine hybrids of ‘flesh and wires’ but in the deeper and more historically pervasive sense of being ‘human-technology symbionts’ (Clark, 2003, 3). What is distinctive about human brains, argues Clark, is ‘their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props, and aids’ (Clark, 2003, 5). In order to solve better the problems of survival and reproduction, the human mind has never just been restricted to what he evocatively calls its ‘biological skin-bag’ (Clark, 2003, 5); we have always collaborated and merged with external technologies and sources of order in order to process information more smartly. His examples include speech and counting, written text and numerals, early printing, moveable typefaces and the printing press, and, latterly, digital encodings of speech, sound, and images, from laptops to iPhones. For Clark, human cognition is not just embodied but embedded: not mind in body, but both mind and body enmeshed in a wider environment of ever-growing complexity that we create and exploit to make ourselves smarter.

The notion that we have always been natural-born cyborgs has important consequences for cultural historians. What is now often called posthumanism (together with the related viewpoint known as transhumanism, Bostrom, 2005), and which is predominantly – often sensationally – associated with the new forms of bioengineering that seamlessly integrate humans and intelligent machines, is not therefore a radical break with previous ideas of ‘the human’ (a point that Katherine Hayles also makes about a number of recent forays into the posthuman: Hayles, 2001, 134) but part of a continuum that encompasses the entire history of ‘the human.’ Think of this temporal recalibration as one way of slashing the post/human: in this schema, the ‘post’ is simultaneously present, future and past, and the past is correspondingly folded into the ‘post’ – and the ‘human’ is decisively relocated as an entity distinct from the Enlightenment ideal of ‘Man,’ though not perhaps in the ways in which Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe imagine that relocation (Haraway, 1990; Wolfe, 1995). For we are talking here less about the forms of hybridization that Haraway invokes (organism/machine, human/animal, physical/non-physical) or about Wolfe’s quite proper concerns about ‘what kinds of couplings across the humanist divide are possible’ (Wolfe, 1995, 66) than about rethinking the architecture of the mind as it engages with an external environment. Because cultural historians shy away from the idea that anything is ‘natural-born,’ it’s important to appreciate that Clark’s model is anything but a recuperation of the universal, liberal humanist subject: it fully recognizes historically contingent forms of ‘mindware’ upgrading. The task for a newly reconfigured cultural studies is to explore these forms – and to ask, given the bias among some scientists and ‘third culture’ thinkers against history, what history might add to our understanding of embedded cognition.

Medieval texts abound in imaginative representations of human-technology symbioses that enhance human capability: Beowulf’s lic-syrce [‘coat of mail’] that is ‘heard, hond-locen’ [‘strong, interlocked by hand’] and which protects him in his fight with the sea-monster (Beowulf, ll. 550–551); the man/bird-machine in Yonec, the lai attributed to Marie de France, that is able to penetrate impregnable towers; the marvelous mechanical brass horse of Chaucer’s ‘Squire’s Tale’ that allows its human rider to go wherever he pleases by ‘trilling’ the pins in its ears. But what interests me is Clark’s idea that our external, non-organic tools do not remain external to us – my mind, that tool – but enter into our minds and interact with them, in a manner analogous to a cybernetic feedback loop: they bring about ‘cognitive upheavals in which the effective architecture of the human mind is altered and transformed’ (Clark, 2003, 4).

One such medieval mind-altering cognitive apparatus is the systems of artificial, trained memory that were widespread in monastic and early humanist culture (Carruthers, 1990, 1998). Hugh of St Victor’s late twelfth-century Three Best Memory Aids for Learning History, John of Metz’s thirteenth-century pictorial diagram of the Tower of Wisdom, Thomas Bradwardine’s fourteenth-century On Acquiring a Trained Memory, and Jacobus Publicius’s late fifteenth-century ‘Wheel for Combining Letters’ (existing only as a diagram for making a 3-D model consisting of a series of printed concentric circles with letters, with a revolving, serpent-shaped dial that can be turned to produce different combinations that would enable the user to remember phrases and sayings), all offer elaborate training programs that are designed to bend the biological mind into a different shape (Carruthers and Ziolkowski, 2002).

Hugh of St Victor’s system involves numerical and locational division-schemes, as well as classification by occasion. His number scheme for learning the Psalter by heart is a pre-digital memory store and search engine, a ‘powerful mental device’ (his words) designed to cut the human labor of counting through endless manuscript pages to find the relevant psalm text. First he learns the psalms by heart, then ranges them in numerical order on a mental grid, and then ‘by voicing or cogitation’ he makes each one ‘of a size equivalent to one glance of my memory.’ And then, as he says, ‘I imprint the result of my mental effort by the vigilant concentration of my heart so that, when asked, without hesitation I may answer, either in forward order, or by skipping one or several, or in reverse order and recited backward according to my completely mastered scheme of places, what is the first, what the second, what indeed the 27th, 48th, or whatever psalm it should be’ (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, 2002, 37). Hugh’s description scarcely counts as cognitive anthropology, yet it is clear that these extended cognitive scaffoldings dovetailed with their users’ minds to produce astonishing feats of knowledge retrieval. They are magnificent systems of order, like that other great medieval invention, the Benedictine canonical hours: instruments that Freud might have included in his discussion of the ‘incontestable’ benefits of order, as enabling humans ‘to use their space and time to best advantage, while conserving their psychical forces’ (Freud, 2001, 93).

One mind-altering aspect of Hugh of St Victor’s scheme is that the user first confronts it as an opaque technology – one that is immensely difficult to use – but then transforms it into a transparent technology, one that is used almost unconsciously, as he moves from the ‘mental effort’ involved in mastering the scheme of places to the almost unobtrusive merging of the biological self with the external aid that enables recall of all the psalms in whatever order, ‘without hesitation.’ It’s a shift from Heidegger’s ‘present-at-hand’ tool, one that we are conscious of in its own right, to the ‘ready-at-hand’ tool, one that we scarcely notice in use. But the brain-training involved does not assume that all the work goes on only in the brain. The goal of medieval mnemotechnics is to provide a better environment for thinking, to immerse the self in a matrix of extended resources that inform conscious operations: as Clark says, ‘mind, body and scaffolding’ (Clark, 2003, 11).

But I am writing as if the history of brain-body-environment engagements takes place outside of questions of value and ethics. It doesn’t. Consider virtual pilgrimage. When Clark airily claims that ‘prosthetics and telepresence are just walking sticks and shouting, cyberspace is just one more place to be’ (Clark, 2003, 8), he is right in one sense, but wrong in another. Take the phenomenon of ‘virtual pilgrimages.’ If believers can now undertake their arduous journeys to sacred sites without moving from their desks, how does this affect the theological and spiritual value of pilgrimage? However satisfying such dematerialized ‘digital sojourning’ may be to those undertaking it, physical hardship and encounters with the real have always been central to the meaning of pilgrimage and to the transformations of the self that it produces. Tibetans on pilgrimage to the home of the Dalai Lama often do full-body prostrations for the entire length of the journey; in the Middle Ages, pilgrimages were part of a practice of penance, and were even inflicted on people as punishments for certain crimes. Moreover, it’s not only technological advances that change our environmental landscape, there is also the question of larger epistemic frameworks. It’s not just that medieval people didn’t have cochlear and retinal implants, software agents, smart phones, and other forms of ubiquitous computing; it’s that they conceived of their relationship to technology in fundamentally different ways.

The Middle Ages inherited from antiquity a strong bias against technology. The branch of knowledge known as artes mechanicae (the mechanical arts) was seen as inferior to the rhetorical arts. Technē was a ‘secondary creation’ (Sawday, 2008, 3), made by humans: imitative, not authentic. In the words of Hugh of St Victor, writing in the 1130s, ‘the products of artificers, while not nature, imitate nature’ (Hugh, 1990, 1.iv). Yet Hugh is one of the most forward-looking of medieval thinkers because the Didascalicon does include an important discussion of the seven mechanical arts: ‘fabric making, armament, commerce, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and theatrics’ (Hugh, 1990, 3.i). Following Augustine in the belief that the human mind, made in the image of divine Wisdom but damaged in the Fall, can be restored through the arts (with the operation of grace), Hugh argues that we must consider the mechanical arts as part of the totality of knowledge required for restoring human nature, precisely because they are, as he says in his Epitome, ‘developed philosophically,’ even though ‘they are not about philosophy nor are they for it’ (Hugh, 1955, 115). Nevertheless, he still subscribes to two common medieval understandings: firstly, that the mechanical is ‘adulterate … because it is concerned with the works of human labor’ (Hugh, 1990, 2.i; my emphasis), a point that depends on the (false) medieval etymology that derives ‘mechanical’ from moechus (‘adulterer’), and secondly that it is associated with the unfree: whereas the liberal arts, he says, ‘require minds which are liberal … or because in antiquity only free and noble men were accustomed to study them, … the populace and the sons of men not free sought operative skill in things mechanical’ (Hugh, 1990, 2.xx). Hugh’s text, then, challenges a widespread theological view of technology as impure and the province of bondmen.

jesus2But medieval vernacular understandings of technology can be very different. In his Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391–1392), Chaucer assures his ‘litel son’ Lowys, ‘truste wel that alle the conclusions that han be founde, or ellys possibly might be found in so noble an instrument as is an Astrelabie ben unknowe parfitly to eny mortal man in this regioun’ (Prologue, ll. 15–19). Not only does this reveal Chaucer’s admiration for technology (‘so noble an instrument’) but it also shows that there was a pragmatic medieval view that the artifacts we use to think with embody more knowledge than can be perfectly comprehended by any one human, a version of what the cognitive anthropologist Edward Hutchins calls ‘cognition in the wild,’ (Hutchins, 1995) in which no single human mind masters the knowledge required for a given task. Instead that task is distributed across an environment that involves both humans and non-biological constructs.

But if we must be careful to distinguish between the theory and the practice of technology in the Middle Ages, we still have to reckon with the pervasive narrative of the Fall. For the memory-theorists, human memory needs supplementing because, in the words of the thirteenth-century Bolognese rhetorician Boncompagno da Siena, the ‘stuff of corruption’ is transmitted by Adam to his descendants, and ‘consequently we all have lost the privilege of incorruptibility and the grace of remembering’ (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, 2002, 106). Forgetfulness is the default position of the postlapsarian medieval Christian subject. Within this scheme, artificial memory is a tool for remedying human deficiency and restoring our damaged nature, not for enhancing human capabilities. We can think of this in terms of Clark’s crutch/shoes dichotomy: ‘A human with a broken leg may use a crutch, but as soon as she is well, the crutch is abandoned. Shoes, however (running shoes especially), enhance performance even while we are well’ (Clark, 2003, 109). Both are tools, but there’s a big difference between remedying a deficiency and improving human functionality.

But within the medieval period there is a shift toward the latter view. Where Boncompagno’s thirteenth-century memorista is weighed down by a sense of corruptibility and deficiency, the later memory texts show a lively awareness of the powers that their mindware upgrades can confer on humans. The late fifteenth-century European humanist Jacobus Publicius’s Art of Memory (the first edition of which was printed in Venice in 1482) speaks of memory (by which he means trained memory and its associated memory-practices) as capable of transforming us from ‘mute beings, incapable of speech … into skilled and eloquent speakers’ (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, 2002, 232). The theory of locational memory is the means, he assures us, ‘by which the advantages of nature are strengthened and the endowments of natural ability are augmented’ (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, 2002, 236). And Publicius trusts in science to deliver this enhancement: ‘It has already been established by experiment that the combining of letters and material objects [images] brings us a great, immeasurable, and almost divine advantage’ (quoted in Carruthers and Ziolkowski, 2002, 249; my emphasis). We need to attend to these shifts and be wary of totalizing either the Middle Ages or the present.

jesus3A further epistemic difference that affects our understanding of the medieval natural-born cyborg is the impact of twentieth-century information theory, as developed by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener. As Katherine Hayles notes, the previous model of the human as characterized by absence/presence is being replaced by that of a pattern/randomness dialectic. This model is not interested in origins or teleology, and it is post-Darwinian: in complex biological systems, ‘[m]eaning is not guaranteed by a coherent origin; rather, it is made possible (but not inevitable) by the blind force of evolution finding workable solutions within given parameters’ (Hayles, 1999, 285). Such an understanding of meaning would of course have been unthinkable in the European Middle Ages. The medieval subject is firmly constituted by absence/presence, whether in Augustine’s model of human nature as pulled between the two poles of caritas and cupiditas, or in Hugh of St Victor’s notion that humans are composed of a good nature that is corrupted, and an evil nature that has to be removed (Hugh, 1990, 1.v). I mention these epistemic differences not as cautions against retrofitting the Middle Ages – since it’s clear that medieval memory systems prove our cyborg past – but as necessary components of our analysis of medieval subjects and objects.

Like the scientists and humanities scholars who are spurred on by technological and scientific advances in genetics, cybernetics, informatics, artificial intelligence, neurobiology and evolutionary theory, medievalists also want to be where the action is. They are fascinated by the new possibilities. They want to challenge C.P. Snow’s two-culture divide. But on what terms? John Brockman, founder of the web-based forum Edge, and leading proponent of the ‘Third Culture’ movement, caricatures traditional humanities scholars as having ‘no empirical contact with the real world.’ The center of culture, he argues, should be rooted in empirical discovery, and not in ‘a process of text in/text out’ (Brockman, 2003, 3). Brockman’s impatience with the humanities has been much critiqued, but it also signals a deeper malaise. In a culture in which increasingly the arts are being asked to demonstrate their social, cultural and economic ‘impact,’ Brockman’s formulation should not surprise us, but it should also not make us retreat into our disciplinary fastnesses. While we need to acknowledge the importance of disciplinary protocols, we must also attend to our styles of writing. Whom will we address? Who will read us? How will we make the John Brockmans of this world, the skeptical scientists, pay attention?

To recognize the ways in which the Middle Ages offers examples of ‘cyborgs without surgery’ is also one way of countering some of the more outlandish claims that have been made about the posthuman as an apocalyptic break with what has gone before: Hans Morevec’s predictions of machines taking over the world (Moravec, 1998), Ray Kurzweil’s futurological sublime that he dubs ‘the Singularity’ (Kurzweil, 2005), Lee Smolin’s evolutionary cosmology (Smolin, 1997). In terms of evolutionary biology, the Middle Ages is not distant at all – it’s the merest blink away. We do well to remember this when we get mesmerized by the relatively recent phenomena of modernity and the post/human. To study memory in the Middle Ages from a cognitive perspective is rather like entering a time machine: it’s certainly not far enough away to enable us to view the long loops of evolutionary behavior, but it does give us a window onto earlier formations of human reality. The cultural historians are just as concerned with human reality as the scientists.


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About the Author

Ruth Evans is Dorothy McBride Orthwein Professor of English at Saint Louis University. Her major research interests are in the period 1300–1580, with particular focuses on memory, and on gender, sexuality, and the body. She has co-edited Medieval Virginities (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2003), Medieval Cultural Studies (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2003), and Secrets, Mysteries and Silences (Nantes, 2006). She is currently finishing a monograph on Chaucer and memory, and is editing Sexuality in the Middle Ages for Berg’s Cultural History of Sexuality series (E-mail:

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