- The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200
“People do not ‘have’ ideas, they ‘make’ them,” Mary Carruthers writes in The Craft of Thought, a stimulating exploration of memory, imagery, and invention in monastic prayer. More so than in The Book of Memory (1990), her groundbreaking work on classical and medieval arts of memory, Carruthers explores the inventive side of memory. Specifically, she examines how monks devised mnemonic “tools” and “machines of the mind” with which to craft their thoughts about God. Closer to a community chest than a personal stash, memory furnished meditation with shared metaphors, clever associations, tropes, and images. This constructional conception of memory emerges from Carruthers’s perceptive reading of patristic authors, including Prudentius, Augustine, John Cassian, Boethius, and Gregory the Great. [End Page 625]
This is not a psychologizing work, probing monks’ emotions or beliefs, nor does it say much about rote memorization or reconstructing the past. Instead, Carruthers adopts a rhetorical approach to meditation guidelines, focusing on the tropes, ornaments, and images that shaped prayer. Scripture, in large part, furnished the schemes and places with which to “see,” craft, and map out their thoughts. For instance, the Apostle Paul’s notion of the skilled master builder (1Cor 3:10–15), initially a metaphor for church leadership, became an organizing principle for composition. Memoria was profoundly locational, a point Carruthers underscores with rich illustrative examples of imagined paths, roads, gardens, and buildings in meditation. Ironically, locational memory also relied on calculated forgetting, a form of displacement rather than erasure. Carruthers expertly demonstrates the symbiosis between recollection and forgetting in her analyses of John Chrysostom’s efforts to reclaim the pagan holy site of Daphne for the martyr Babylas, John Cassian on prayer, and the poetics of pilgrims’ diaries.
Images were “good to think with.” Augustine’s “mnemotechnical walk” through the locus tabernaculi in Ps 41 typifies this type of anagogical visualization. In addition to mental images, Carruthers considers how in later periods architectural plans, liturgical processions, and church architecture could also serve as meditative maps. I leave it to those with greater expertise to judge Carruther’s treatment of Carolingian and twelfth-century writers.
Within the matrix of memory, several late antique concerns—whether doctrinal, devotional, or polemical—take on new meanings. Carruther’s claim that an image’s cognitive utility took priority over any “mimetic realism” carries profound implications for further work on early Christian attitudes to images. Clear translations of primary sources make her writing accessible to advanced undergraduates. Graduate students as well as scholars will benefit from this outstanding book, which deepens our understanding of the power of word and image in the history of Christian art, exegesis, pedagogy, and monasticism. With ample illustrations and a superb bibliography, The Craft of Thought is as rewarding as it is engrossing to read.