Cotton’s Memory Palace

One recurrent theme in the literature on Sir Robert Cotton’s library is the idiosyncratic arrangement of his collection, a feature which still persists in various ways 400 years later. Within this theme, the two big questions are probably “why did he do it that way,” and “how did users find things, before the library’s first catalog?”

Scholars propose that other people mostly found things by consulting Cotton. He acquired the documents, arranged and bound them to his liking, and thus had intimate knowledge of the collection. This has seemed adequate explanation to me.

Some while back, though, an erudite reader suggested that Cotton also built a mnemonic device into the library itself. The layout of Cotton’s library, suggests Mr. Mark Kindt, was a real-world memory palace.

You can read about the memory palace technique in many places. But the basic concept of memorizing information by mapping it to physical space is, at least, suggestive in light of what we know about Cotton’s library.

Cotton organized his manuscripts into physical niches, each adorned by the bust of a Roman emperor or other figure from antiquity. This curious sorting eventually joined the first catalog, and all those which have followed up to this day. (The Beowulf manuscript is still “Vitellius A. xv,” from its onetime position as the 15th item on the first shelf under a bust of Emperor Vitellius.)

But what if this wasn’t just a novel convention drawn from a purely decorative foundation?

Reading Cotton’s Library and the reconstruction of its early layout which Colin Tite has developed, Kindt immediately felt that this was a purpose-built memory palace. The idea seems plausible, at least. Cotton was obviously thinking of items in his collection in terms of their physical position in the room, rather than in relation to an abstract cataloging system, e.g. Dewey’s. Perhaps he introduced the bronze busts to make each library niche a distinct location he could picture in his mind, with the conscious intent of building a memory palace in both mental and physical space.

Artist's rendering of Cotton's library

Artist’s rendering by John Ronayne

Kindt proposes that Cotton likely would have known of and been interested in the memory palace concept. It dates from classical antiquity, and does seem like the kind of idea which could have been in vogue among late-Renaissance antiquarians like the young Cotton. Combine with the fact that Cotton chose figures from ancient Rome to adorn his library, andā€¦ I do agree that it’s suggestive.

I’m happy to finally publish the suggestion, with due credit, and perhaps make one more contribution to the ongoing scholarship of this fascinating treasure.

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