Ramon Llull and poetry

Ramon Llull and poetry

Ramon Llull depicted in the famous Codex St Peter (Badische Landesbibliothek [Baden State Library], Karlsruhe, Parchment 92, f. 5r)

Ramon Llull’s (1232–1316) relationship with poetry is, by and large, complex and at times seemingly contradictory. His prodigious output following his conversion begins with a work in verse, Lògica del Gatzell (Al-Ghazali's Logic), which seems far from our idea of poetry, filtered as it is through the lens of Romanticism. Llull's work is a versification of a treatise on logic by the Arabic philosopher Al-Ghazali, with additions by Peter of Spain and a section by Llull himself. The use of verse mainly serves as a mnemonic, a device Llull returns to again and again [Text 1]. In fact, most of his works in verse were written to teach elements of his Art, as we can see in his Regles introductòries a la practica de l’Art demostrativa (Introductory rules for the use of Demonstrative Art), the second version of his Art, or his Aplicació de l’Art general (Application of the General Art). The rhythm and versification are essential elements to aid learning and Llull showcases his pedagogical credentials with works designed to be student-friendly, although to us they might seem strange and far from poetic.

In Chapter 118 of his second work, the immense Llibre de contemplació (Book of Contemplation), Llull explains how to protect yourself from joglars (‘minstrels’, as he calls the troubadours); men who have altered the ultimate aim or first intention (in Llullian terms) of the art of music, which is to praise and bless God through the joy that music provokes, and only use it to express vain or luxurious matters. In this chapter, Llull makes no distinction between minstrels and troubadours: both are accused of being boastful, of worshipping what should be censured and vice versa, of faking their expressions of love, and of being covetous for wanting to be paid for the work they do, work that leads to sin:

«Nos veem que per so quels juglars fan e díen, que son contensons e guerres e baralles enfre’ls prínceps e·ls cavallers e·ls pobles. E per los juglars son dones desmaridades, e puncelles corrompudes e ensutzades: e per los juglars son homens altius e ergulloses e desconexens e desleyals.» (LC 118,7)

“We observe how, on account of what minstrels say and do, there are disputes, wars, and quarrels between princes, knights and the common people, and because of minstrels women become separated from their husbands, and maidens are corrupted and defiled, and because of minstrels men grow haughty and proud, as well as ungrateful and disloyal.” (118.7)

This chapter has often been read as a total condemnation of the very concept of troubadour poetry, but what Llull wanted was to reform the troubadours, in other words, to return the art of music to its first intention:

«Volría veer, Sènyer, juglars qui anassen per les plasses e per les corts dels prínceps e dels alts barons, e que anassen dient la proprietat qui es en los dos moviments e en les dues entencions, e la proprietat e la natura qui es en los cinc senys corporals e los cinc espirituals, e que dixessen totes les proprietats qui son en les cinc potencies de l’anima.» (LC 118,19)

“I should like to see, Lord, minstrels who passed through town squares and through the courts of princes and of eminent men, and that as they went they should speak about the property that resides in the two movements and in the two intentions, and the property and nature that resides in the five corporeal and the five spiritual senses, and that they should speak about all the properties that reside in the five powers of the soul.” (118.19)

Naturally, this new prescriptive material would consist mainly of works by Llull himself, as he indicates in his Llibre de contemplacióBlaquerna and Llibre de santa Maria (Book of Saint Mary) [Text 2]. Embedded within Blaquerna, we find two poetic jewels: A vós, dona verge santa Maria (To thee, My Lady Mary, Holy Maid) and Sènyer ver Déus, rey gloriós (O God, true Lord, our glorious King), which, far from being composed by troubadours as part of the novel’s plot, are instead the work of the Canon of Persecution and the Emperor. The first of these two characters is one of the canons to whom the Abbot Blaquerna assigns multiple functions, and this one in particular is tasked with applying justice. One day, as he is pondering how best to carry out his office, he goes into a tavern full of con artists, goliards, prostitutes, and drinkers and starts to sing his Marian poem. Moved by the beauty of his song, the sinners all repent. The Emperor, on the other hand, who is not named in the novel, closes the work, after several quasi-chivalric trials (see part 2.1b. Valour), by telling a bishop that he wanted to take Llull’s Art to the papal court following a recitation of the poem Sènyer ver Déus, rey gloriós by the Minstrel of Valour, another key figure in the Llullian literary world, who is portrayed as an example of a minstrel reformed according to Llull’s ideals. Although the inspiration for these two poems is clearly from the troubadour tradition, the context of their composition and function are far removed from it.

These two poems, given the number of times they have been reproduced in modern anthologies, are also considered the most famous in Llull’s entire oeuvre. It is worth pointing out that this was not the case in the Middle Ages: both poems have always been transmitted together with the novel and only in what we could define as the ‘Llullian songbook’ (Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya, MS 2017), from the second half of the 14th century, where we find them alongside the majority of Llull’s works in verse. Clearly this selection was not a success with the Llullists of old because no other copy survives than the songbook in Palma (Biblioteca del convent de sant Francesc, MS 14), from the 18th century.

In order to evaluate the importance that Llull himself attributed to one of his own works, we have to see if the work in question features in the network of cross-references that abound in his oeuvre. It soon becomes clear that the only piece in verse cited in his other works is Cent noms de Déu (Hundred Names of God), one of his most extraordinary works in rhyme. Composed of mono-rhyming tercets of varying length inspired by the structure of the Koran and the Psalms, it is a work that attempts to teach theology to the people. It is also the work that strays furthest from contemporary poetic output.

We have so far seen two ways in which Llull tries to overcome the poetic tradition of the time: the first was his use of verse as a mnemonic; and the second was his production of works that might help unbelievers convert to Christianity or to love God and the Virgin Mary more fervently. There is a third, related to his autobiography. His Desconhort de Ramon (Disconsolation) and Cant de Ramon (Song of Ramon) are a personal confession in verse in which Llull explains his life and the doubts and fears he experienced as he tried to demonstrate how he came by his system of thought. Llull’s sincerity contrasts with the lies of the troubadours who pretend to be in love and achieve success through being dishonest while Llull’s Art, and Llull himself, are denigrated. Before these two works, where reflection is focused on the flesh-and-blood Llull, there was a first attempt to create a figure based on Llull's life story: the character of ‘Ramon lo Foll’ (Ramon, the Mad) in Blaquerna. He in fact takes on the role of a minstrel, or rather a court jester (see his first appearance at court, in Chapter 79, accompanied by a dog and a sparrowhawk). However, his function is clearly very different to that of other minstrels, as his performances and words critique the bad behaviour of the powerful and advocate the true values of Christianity.  

Although Llull tries to distance himself as far as possible from traditional medieval poetic output, which in his eyes is only concerned with lust, possible connections with the troubadour world also emerge in his prodigious oeuvre, a world he himself had been a part of during his sinful youth (when he was working at the court of Jaume of Majorca). So, this traditional poetry also comes to feature among the sources that Llull studies and transforms into a work at times completely different from the original. The pastoral scene that opens his Llibre de meravelles (Book of Wonders) has none of the malice we would typically find in the Occitan genre; instead it is used to introduce a debate on the existence of God. In the same novel, we also find him appropriating the metaphor of the tree overloaded with fruit used by Aimeric de Peguillan [2a.2]. However, Llull does not use it to show how the poetic ‘I’ is destroyed by sobramar ('excess of love'), but rather to highlight how easily human behaviour can be corrupted. In Blaquerna, we come across a tenso in prose (Chapter 64) in which Blaquerna has a dispute with a knight about who is the best woman in the world. The encounter is very similar to the one that is commonplace in the Occitan genre, and in fact in the end Blaquerna disguises the name of his beloved with a senyal ('sign') which nevertheless makes it clear to us that he is speaking about the Virgin Mary. The knight duly signs up to the Marian cause and heads off to fight the unbelievers.

Ramon Llull can also be a witness —a somewhat subjective one— of courtly reality: the numerous scenes in his novels featuring minstrels in particular comprise a rich field of research for the reconstruction of life at court, whether royal or ecclesiastical.

In the following sections you will find other connections that Llull maintained with the troubadour world. The list will be updated as and when there are new discoveries.

Simone Sari (2018)

This paper is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 746221 Christianus Arabicus.


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