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Remembering the Reformation

Memory is a fundamental human faculty. In the modern world, memory is understood as an informational processing system made up of a sensory processor, a short-term (or working) memory, and a long-term memory. These terms are categorised both in psychology and in neuroscience, as features of the brain. In early modern times, memory was a very different concept, although just as powerful and significant in everyday life. Imagined as a technique as well as a psychological faculty, it was discussed in both rhetorical and philosophical terms. The medieval ‘art of memory’ was adapted and cultivated by Renaissance humanists. Traditional mnemonic techniques often relied upon oral recitation and mental visualisation, including the ‘memory theatre’, an imaginative space in the mind in which items of knowledge for recollection were placed for retrieval. Others involved using the fingers of the hand and the sense of touch, or depended on the physical act of writing and transcribing information under alphabetical headings. The invention of the mechanical press augmented rather than displaced these techniques of combatting the human tendency to forget. Meanwhile, the challenge of remembering what one had read engendered a range of paratextual devices and finding aids, including indexes, marginal annotations, and bookmarks.

Memory was also an integral feature of medieval religion: to remember set prayers, places of pilgrimage, and episodes in the life of Christ were studied forms of meditation and piety. Although Protestantism repudiated many aspects of Catholic devotion, it engendered a rich memory culture of its own, as the items in this exhibition show. Only belatedly, however, did this come to entail remembrance of the possibly fictional event that is at the centre of the anniversary celebrations taking place in 2017: the posting of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses on the church door in the small university town of Wittenberg. Ironically, in Luther’s own lifetime this date did not hold any special significance. Although a jubilee year was declared in Germany in 1617 to celebrate Luther, which was repeated in 1717 and (with special pomp) in 1817, it was not until the nineteenth century that 31 October 1517 came to be recognised as the birthday of the Reformation.