# How could Nomadic scholars effectively memorize libraries worth of information

In my fantasy world there exists a nomadic people known as the Ròda. The Ròda believe in the collection of knowledge, lore, and more importantly spells. They practice their beliefs by travelling in small groups with each commonly having a large wagon. They then travel from village to village and city to city actively seeking out knowledge. This has led to the Ròda being labeled as "grave robbers" and "thieves" by the mage families due to the Ròda gathering any knowledge they can: digging through ruins, eavesdropping, etc.

However they are only allowed to write down this knowledge during a full moon. This is due to the "Moon Runes" the Ròda write their tomes in (mainly to avoid thievery. Who wants to steal a empty book?) This means that at times the Ròda will have a book's worth of information they must keep in their heads. Due to how magic works in this world they'd also have to be precise when they write them down.

What strategies could the Ròda use to improve their memory? Would any substances known to a medieval society help?

Note:

• they can't jot down notes, that's heresy and can be found defeating the purpose of writing the tomes in moon tunes.

• technology is the medevial high period. However the Alchemy would stretch into early renaissance.

• spells have to be remembered basically word for word if you want to have predictable results.

• Can you write down moon runes when it's not the full moon? Even if you can't read them, that would allow them to take notes that could be cleaned up and made into a proper book during the full moon. (Although note that if they're really nomadic, a whole library would be a tremendous amount of extra weight to carry around.) – Cadence Jul 28 at 1:58
• @Cadence I'd say yes. Just not very well. And also the plan was that they'd have a few sites that the ròda would gather during the solstice and blood moons and store their knowledge in vaults. – Celestial Dragon Emperor Jul 28 at 1:59
• pretty sure ancient people and tribe (especially nomadic) today have good memory, since not everyone can read or write in that time, putting record dull our memory but effective for future generation. – Li Jun Jul 28 at 4:41
• The usual solution, usual in the sense that it has been practiced by several different peoples for thousands of years, is to write the book in verse. Then practice and practice and practice. This is how the Vedas were transmitted over millennia, this is how Pāṇini's visionary grammar of Sanskrit was transmitted. See the Wikipedia article on oral transmission for a synopsis of the devices used in Indian tradition. All this is well known; know you know too. – AlexP Jul 28 at 4:55
• How exact does this knowledge have to be? Does it have to be word-for-word, as e.g. memorizing Homer or Shakespeare's plays? (People do that, you know :-)) Or is a general knowledge acceptable? I dare say I could write a halfway decent synopsis of freshman chemistry & physics, plus lots of books &,music, without any special training. – jamesqf Jul 29 at 18:21

Sagas and epics were long history lessons memorized easily by using rhyme, rhythm and repetition of structures, so your sages could use the same techniques.

Avicenna (980-1037) already wrote about the capacity of memories to be linked to smells and tastes (turns out, he was right). Maybe your Ròda chew on something while memorizing, something rich in carbohidrates like raisins or chopped almonds with honey (so the brain sees it as a pleasant activity) and do it again when they need to recall something. This kind of foods are logical for nomadic societies (the berbers had them) and they contain omega-3 (which helps a little to memory).

• Combined with the Method of loci and the Major system it would make for a believable system. They train and live to remember, of course they are good at it. As travellers, they should also have access to spices (for different smells). So training, techniques and magic, makes sense to me. – Stefan Jul 29 at 12:40
• @Stefan Yes, the "mind palace" would also be a good technique. I didn't think of spices, though, that's a great point. – Carlos Martin Jul 29 at 13:31
• Perhaps the Ròda could even bake madeleines to help them remember. I believe that once helped someone write something... – MD-Tech Jul 30 at 15:55
• @MD-Tech I think tea was also involved, or something like that. – Carlos Martin Jul 30 at 18:24

Human spatial memory is phenomenally good. Our ability to remember facts and figures sucks, but places and where things are and anything particularly out of place and interesting we can commit to memory quickly and remember for a long time.

Check out Ed Cooks book "Remember Remember" for some fun examples. I read the first chapter a year ago and I still remember the kings of England starting with Offa of Mercia in 757. This method has really helped me with giving speeches too!

You convert what you want to remember into something stimulating and odd that has some sort of similarity so you can link the two things together. Then place that scene in a specific place (like a room in a house). You fill up the house - or whatever place you pick - then walk through the space and encounter all the things you want to remember in order. Works well in real life, and if you sort of walk people through the process of visualization that your scholars go through to memorize and recall the stored information you can make the whole thing seem alien and exciting. They did this in the recent BBC Sherlock series with Benedict Cumberbatch and his "mind palace." Also worth checking out those episodes for your story and how you can portray the recall process. The series is generally really good and I recommend you just watch the whole thing for the entertainment value.

So there you go. Have your nomad scholars train in building mind palaces and filling them with information that they can recall when they need to, and walk the readers through the process because it's easy to follow and seems totally fantastic at the same time.

• @MParam I read the first chapter a year ago and I still remember the kings of England starting with Offa of Mercia in 757 - do you still remember what was in the last chapter, though? – Headcrab Jul 29 at 0:46

Pre-modern people often had sages and wise men who spent their whole lives memorizing stories. Medieval clergy occasionally would memorize their whole holy book word for word. The Roda don't need anything special, because we didn't need anything special in real life.

As for writing at night, they can use a bonfire and polished bronze (really any metal) to reflect light on to their medium. Or they could do something like braille in clay tablets and etch by touch.

• Not only medieval clergy. It's not an uncommon achievement for modern day Muslims. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jul 29 at 10:50

I think they would perfect the art of building mind-palaces.

Imagine that the games they played as kids revolved around associating physical items and places of their culture with either a short hand or phonetic version of their language — like how a dreidel is supposed to teach children hebrew characters

Then when they mature and have the intellectual maturity, they are taught how to visualize and imagine their own personal mind palace or land scape. They would then use the acculturated visual iconography they were inculcated with as children to populate rooms in their mind palace or trails, oasis, etc in their mental landscape.

This method of memorization is well defined and has a very old tradition. There are many texts available on how to train yourself to use it.

• Humans' excellent spatial memory (MPram's and EDL's answers)
• Rhyme, rhythm and repetition (Carlos Martin's answer)
• Olfactory triggers (also Carlos Martin's answer)
• Magical memory enhancement (Vilx-'s answer)

Each of these methods can work on its own or combined with others. What they all have in common is that they are methods for individuals. I'd like to suggest another method which can work by itself or in addition to those above, which takes advantage of the fact that the Ròda work in groups.

Rather than having each member in a Ròda group memorize different, independent pieces of knowledge, they can collaborate to achieve a human equivalent of a redundant memory storage system (e.g. RAID or RAIM). This way, the knowledge is distributed between members in a redundant manner, so that if someone remembers a detail incorrectly, the others can identify and correct his mistake.

There are different strategies to perform this, but a basic example (based on RAID 5) could work as follows:

1. One group member (possibly the most junior member) memorizes the first half of the text "as is".
2. A second member memorizes the second half of the text "as is".
3. A third member (a higher ranking "priest"/"researcher") memorizes a combination of the two halves - his text is constructed by treating each letter as a number, and summing letter couples from the first and second text to create new letters (see example below)

A minor advantage of this strategy is that the text each member needs to remember is much shorter (though some members will need to remember seemingly arbitrary letter sequences, which are much more difficult), but the main advantage is that as long as two out of three members remember a specific letter correctly, they can correct mistakes of a third member.

For example, for the text: In my fantasy world there exists a nomadic people known as the Ròda:

1. Member 1 memorizes: "In my fantasy world there exists a"
2. Member 2 memorizes: " nomadic people known as the Ròda."
3. Member 3 memorizes: "IBozzdodnJfHOlBoCzswHhfKetmsi!kIwa," (I+[space]=35+0=I, n+n=14+14=26+2=B, [space]+o=o, m+m=13+13=z etc.)

Now, let's say member 1 doesn't remember the second word (my). It could be reconstructed by subtracting the relevant letters member 2 remembers from those member 3 remembers. They remember ma (of the word nomadic) and (zz) leading to z-m = 26-13 = 13 = m, z-a = 26-1 = 25 = y thus reconstructing my.

If there are more than 3 members, most of them can memorize normal text and only one needs to remember the verification sequence.

Basically any tradition from indigenous community carries some sort of help toward memorizing something.

Stories, dancing, chant, mythology, "sacred" items and clothing, totems, rituals...

Memory palaces are indeed one way to memorize in details long lists of elements. However, it works best if it's intertwined with multiple techniques to memorize it : A journey through the forest and the stars, mixed with chant, dances, emotional stories of characters (often with animal traits and defying nature )... you got yourself an indigenous mythology system used to store information!

See Lynne Kelly's memory experiments for more details on what techniques are used and how they work.

As a supplement to the other answers - if you already have spells and magic, why not have a "memory spell"? Your Ròda could have learned that by heart and then just use it whenever they see the need to remember something. For example: the spell could, when cast, grant the caster perfect memory for the next 5 minutes. Everything they hear or see or smell or feel during the next 5 minutes will be stored PERFECTLY in their memory, and stay there for one month (enough to get to the next moon cycle). The mind is also a pretty spacious storage device and can store up to 100 5-minute "recordings" (trying to store more than that will overwrite the previous recordings in chronological order). After one month the enchantment on that particular memory wears off and it becomes just a regular memory, fading with time like all the others. A variation of the spell "reinforces" a memory and lets it last another month.

For extra flavor, you could create some kind of long-term effect that develops when this spell is frequently used. This would further distinguish the Ròda from the rest of the population. The effect could also be unknown and thus misattributed to something else the Ròda do, or perhaps just accepted as a part of them. Discovering the true cause could be made a major plot point down the line.