Giordano Bruno: Wheels in Wheels

I’ve been reading Scott Gosnell’s translations of Giordano Bruno, on Gordon’s recommendation over this holiday.  Giordano Bruno was an Italian, a Dominican monk, a university professor, a heretic, a scientist, and probably a magician of some great capacity, and was executed on February 17, 1600.

Caesar cipher (Wikimedia)

He was also an expert on memory palaces, and used the work of Raymond Llull, the 13th century logician, as a basis for developing his own ideas.  At the core of both Llull’s work and Bruno’s extension of that work is a paper machine similar to a Caesar cipher wheel, to find multiple combinations of images and attributes, to invent memory pictures for study and recall…I have to admit, Giordano Bruno’s memory palaces work nothing like mine.  Mine is based on four sides of a room, and intended to be an introduction to the ideas of a memory palace for 10-14 year-olds. Bruno’s is intended for a prince, one who must have thousands of facts or figures at his disposal; and it’s further intended to teach the prince who uses it a range of subjects deeply and effectively, from philosophy and theology to music and mythology and history.

At its core are five nested or concentric circles, each divided into thirty segments, and labeled with thirty letters from three alphabets: the Roman (essentially our modern English alphabet with a few dropped characters); the Greek; and the Hebrew.  Comparing just the first two wheels and allowing them to be fixed in place, it’s possible to imagine a series of tables, almost like a set of Excel spreadsheets, in which each pair represents something:

AA. Aristophanes writing a play.
BB. Bucephalus charging across a battle field
CC. Cicero speaking in the Senate
DD. Dispater brooding on his throne.
… and so on.

But shifting the inner circle just one letter yields a new set of combinations:

AΘ. Aristophanes tied in knots
BA. Bucephalus writing a play
CB. Cicero charging across a battle field.
DC. Dispater speaking in the Senate.

Shifting the inner circle two places might yield:

Aζ. Aristophanes fishing in the ocean.
AΘ. Bucephalus tied in knots.
CA. Cicero writing a play.
DB. Dispater charging across a battle field.

Adding a third ring inside the first two yields something like this:

AζA. Aristophanes fishing in the ocean with a stylus and writing tablet.
AΘB. Bucephalus tied in knots with his nostrils flaring.
CAC. Cicero writing a play with his hands upraised.
DBC. Dispater charging across a battle field with his scepter and orb.

And that third inner ring can be turned, as well, of course, which means that you can wind up with combinations like Bucephalus speaking in the Senate with his scepter and orb.  Five rings of thirty letters allows for 150 combinations just at the AAAAA. level, and millions of combinations when all possible combinations are considered (I think it’s 30-factorial, or 30!, but I’m not ever as sure of my mathematics as I should be).

26×26 table (Wikimedia)

The modern Roman alphabet consists of 26 letters, though, and 26 * 26 is 676. Here’s the possible combinations of a Caesar cipher, for example.  We have to remember that in Bruno’s tables,  M at the intersection of U+S genuinely stands for something like Ursula dances in the campus Martius (not Bruno’s suggestion, but suitable for discussion here).  If we could add a third dimension to the table (or add a third wheel to the Caesar cipher), that’s 17,586 combinations.  Yet there’s only 1450 or so words that represent the most common words in Latin. There’s a massive amount of room for a fluent speaker’s vocabulary in just a 26x26x26 grand table or grand cube.

So as I read, it occurs to me that Bruno’s Palace of Memory (based on Llull’s) is much better suited for teaching Latin than mine.   Latin is an inflected language — the position of a word in a sentence matters relatively little, compared with the ending on each word.  For someone whose first language was French or Italian or English, who was trying to become fluent in Latin, the inflected endings of words would be the single-greatest obstacle to fluency.  And the practice of coming up with ridiculous sentences like Cicero will be writing a play with his hands upraised and his nostrils flaring — well, look: this sentence forces the would-be speaker to practice noun and adjectival endings, to think in the future tense, to manage a gerund and a pronoun change, and to practice at least three declensions while drawing on a host of vocabulary and conjugating three verbs.

So I think that I’m going to adopt this methodology the next time I teach Latin: give kids a three-ring Caesar cipher disk (have them put it in their notebooks), and three lists of thirty words — two lists of nouns, and a list verbs, across the declensions and conjugations visited in first-year Latin.  Later I can add more disks to the Caesar cipher disk such as an adjective list, an adverb list and a second noun list.  Now it’s possible to ask students to practice writing 10-12 sentences with compound subjects (two nouns), complex verb constructions, adverbial modifications, and so on.  The word combinations are ridiculous, but there’s method in the madness: it’s a way to practice vocabulary, practice Latin endings, gain fluency and conversation, and manage the vast quantity of domain knowledge that is required to practice fluency in a language.

I imagine that this method will work equally well with other languages, though.  Building the right word lists for Spanish, for Italian, for German, for Chinese, for French, and so on, would be challenging. But then it would be possible to learn a language with just a dictionary, a Caesar cipher code wheel, and one of those SparkChart grammar sheets from the bookstore.  Hmmm!

But think, too.  There’s a reason that Llull is often credited as being a founding father of computing. There’s a path here toward a process of teaching students computer coding, too, by way of Latin: students, you’ve been working with a Caesar cipher code wheel to practice your Latin endings; now, I’d like you to learn enough Python that you can build this Caesar cipher code wheel to create and translate Latin sentences.  You’ll be using arrays, variables, and various replacement strategies; you’ll also have to build a sort of database of endings.  Hmmm…

And of course, this is why we read things like Giordano Bruno, and Raymond Llull.  Because cool ideas emerge from the reconsideration of the past, and the reclaiming of lost ideas.

Thanks Gordon, Thanks, Scott. Thanks Rune Soup podcast.

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  1. Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is in full effect for me. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Giordano Bruno before but in the fall I read a number of historical fiction books with him as the protagonist (a friend is in a relationship with the author). Then I read Three Body Problem in which he was mentioned. Now this.

    • I think he’s having a bit of a moment, really. My interest began a few years ago, and then his works were being made available in English for the first time… and yet the book is sort of a manual on how to become more fluent in the language it was written in, Latin.

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