Trithemius, and how not to revise

One of the best school assemblies I have heard during my time as a teacher concerned the subject of revision: how to do it, how to organise it, what works well, what doesn’t. It was an interesting subject for me for several reasons. At school I often found it difficult to sit still and concentrate, alone with my files and books: revision, in fact, was an activity I never felt I quite mastered (and this wasn’t simply a case of normal teenage activities feeling more interesting than sitting down for a couple of hours with a chemistry textbook). My technique, I was quite aware, wasn’t right.

As a teacher now myself, pupils will often ask me for advice on how best to revise, and of course I try to offer helpful suggestions. This involves rehearsing conventional wisdom about the importance of working in manageable chunks of time, with regular breaks, in accordance with a clear plan. I suggest that pupils concentrate, in particular, on revising what they’ve struggled with in the course of regular term-time study, and that they take the opportunity to ask teachers for extra resources they can use where relevant. I also suggest that attempts be made to talk things through with friends and/or family, so that revision doesn’t end up as a lonely experience. Vocabulary revision and key term learning, I suggest, benefits from this process.

Anyway, one of the highlights of the excellent assembly I heard was its address of a particular topic: the perils of just copying material straight from a textbook or from your notes, just to repeat it, verbatim, on a separate sheet of paper. This very common method, we were told, is a particularly unhelpful way of doing things. Well, I have to confess: this exact method was one of my main ways of doing revision when I was at school… and certainly it did always seem a bit – well – slow and ineffective.

What, then, to do instead? You’re better off, we were told, spending a minute or two casting your eye over a given page, then – from memory – trying to write out everything of importance that you can recall (before then cross-referencing it against the original). Then repeat if necessary. This way you can quickly build up your memory of the main take-homes on a given topic. In addition, you should develop your own questions and ideas relating to what you’re studying and use these to build up a sequence of questions and answers on a given subject. When it comes to straight knowledge acquisition (brute, fact-based learning for e.g. Biology or Chemistry exams), these seem to me excellent recommendations.

The memory of my old, obviously inefficient, approach to revision returned to me over the past few days in a quite separate context, as I was reading about the thought of the renaissance humanist scholar, the Benedictine monk and bibliophile Johannes Trithemius. In the words of the historian Anthony Grafton, whose brilliant book Worlds made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West I have been reading, Trithemius was a famous German abbot and spiritual counsellor who had to spend ‘the last 15 years of his life dealing with the accusation that he was a magician who employed diabolic help’. Just the sort of character I like to encounter in my bedtime reading.

What struck me most as I learned about Trithemius was his idea of the benefits of scribal activity, his sense of what just copying out a text (in a way analogous to what I had done as a revising teenager) can do. The monk who spends his time copying out holy books, Trithemius thought, ‘will not be burdened by vain and pernicious thoughts, will speak no idle words, and is not bothered by wild rumours’. Instead this monk will be ‘gradually initiated into the divine mysteries and miraculously enlightened’.

A copy of Trithemius’ De regimine claustralium

Sure, I had never copied out ‘holy books’. But still: it was interesting to see that the monastic discipline of copying texts was more than a means of just preserving the texts in question. It was a way, Trithemius thought, to gain access to the divine: ‘every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading’, he wrote.

The ‘imprinting’ Trithemius had in mind was not a simple matter of rote learning, then: it was of a training in spirituality, in ethics, and in theology. But knowledge acquisition clearly mattered too: copying the texts was a method of instruction, after all. Trithemius was no expert, obviously, on the cognitive psychology of test preparation (a topic on which teachers today can expect to be lectured). Naturally the approach he recommends wouldn’t have led to optimal preparation for 21st century school examinations.

The abbot was articulating his ideas at a time when the recent spread of the printing press across Europe had started to exercise a dramatic impact. The world of the monk copying texts in a cloister would soon be shaken to its core, not just by the printing press, of course, but by the 16th century reformers and their challenges to monasticism itself across western Europe.

Monks in a cloister

Trithemius was vigorously opposed to the use of printing presses: he saw them, among other things, as a recipe for idleness in monastic communities. The vision he cherished was of a Benedictine world in which ‘brothers do not spend their time in idleness, but practise the work of their hands’, i.e. by copying out texts. And there was a role for every member of a community here: while some would copy, others would bind the books in written codices, others would correct them, and others would rubricate them. This, he thought, is what ‘holy labour’ looks like.

This, then, was a world in which the copying out of texts wasn’t simply a dud revision technique, but an activity which might give life and shape to a community, an activity which could even be conceived as a way to achieve spiritual development.

From a present-day vantage point, it is interesting to me that the reading of texts, now, in the present (whether the texts are literary, religious, self help or otherwise) is still widely held to offer the same kind of potential benefit Trithemius attributed to copying. People can grow and develop emotionally through their reading: this much is still widely believed – and uncontroversially so – in the 21st century.

But, by contrast, the copying or writing out of a text is – now – not assumed (to my knowledge) to carry any similar benefits. Trithemius’ world of the text is not ours.

A very happy 2021 to all readers of this blog.

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