A medieval hand mnemonic for reckoning time

At first glance, this medieval hand mnemonic seems to possess six rather than five fingers. It is part of a tract describing methods of monitoring the passage of time, the cycles of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the day of the month on which the moveable feast days of the Church will fall. The treatise in question is therefore quite literally a ‘manual’. The use of fingers as a form of reckoning or ‘computing’ dates back to antiquity, but during the Middle Ages it became closely associated with calendrical calculation and with the contentious task of establishing the correct date for Easter. The Venerable Bede’s De temporum ratione liber (725) was critical here. Such mnemonic and cognitive techniques retained their vitality and importance into the early modern period, coexisting with new devices for retrieving and remembering knowledge, such as the commonplace book. People continued to rely upon their hands to remember information of all kinds, including religious and moral precepts. Mimicking earlier medieval images of the hand as the mirror of salvation, one striking broadside from the 1560s shows a pair of gloves inscribed with a list of sins and virtues inscribed on the palms and the Ten Commandments on each of the fingers. AW

‘Tractatus Astronomica’, a collection of astronomical tracts, thirteenth century.

CUL: Ms Ii.3.3, fo. 15v-16r

Further reading

Sachiko Kusukawa, ‘A Manual Computer for Reckoning Time’, in Claire Richter Sherman (ed), Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Washington, DC, 2000), pp. 28-34.

Mary Carruthers and Jan. M. Ziolkowski (eds), The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Philadelphia, 2004).

Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 248-50.

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