- The Book of the Order of Chivalry by Ramón Llull
The Majorcan Ramón Llull was a complex and seminal figure of the Middle Ages. Born into wealth and prestige in 1232, he embarked on a conventional path of marriage and family, but while still young veered into more bohemian territory by falling in with troubadours, most of whom he later condemned as wastrels and worse. A man of extremes, he underwent a religious conversion experience at about the age of thirty and subsequently entered a life of poverty and service. He took it as a personal mission to foster the mastery of languages as a tool for spiritual education and learned Arabic as well as Latin and his native Catalan. However much Llull may have later devalued it, the imprint of his early poetic experience marked him and he became an accomplished writer. Highly prolific, he produced more than two hundred works on various topics, including a slim volume entitled The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Noel Fallows has recently translated a new scholarly edition of this work.
Completed by Llull around the year 1276, The Book of the Order of Chivalry set out to prescribe a perfect mode of knighthood as a cornerstone upholding the feudal social system and supporting the efforts of the Crusades, the second of which had recently run aground due to the death of its main motivating figure St. Louis and a decreasing willingness of the European aristocracy to commit resources to the risky endeavor of retaking the Holy Land. Llull himself felt that all chivalric orders should be united as one force to defend Christianity across the territories of the medieval world, a concept later to be proven untenable, as the fate of the Templars showed, since that degree of concentrated power in the hands of an armed order could prove as much a threat to established internal power structures as outward enemies. The model of knighthood he promoted was more mythic than realistic, with Fallows comparing Llull’s mystical elevation of the symbolism of weaponry and panoply to the Psycho-machia, the fifth-century allegorical poem about the eternal battle of Virtue and Vice. The sword in particular was said by Llull to hold special significance due to its cruciform shape, an idea strange when contemplated in relation to the peace-loving exhortations of Christ, but fitting snugly in with images of Christian soldiers and reminiscent of the veneration accorded to swords in antique cultures that worshipped sky gods associated with the sun. As Llull says, bespeaking almost a divine right of nobility, “God has honored the knight.” But one might well ask, which god? Organized knighthood originated in Rome, which through its adoption of Christianity as a state religion infused the faith with its own martial spirit. Llull’s imagined knights are meant to be a kind of cosmic police force, maintaining the social order by defending the official religion but also by keeping everyone in the place accorded to them in the tripartite ideology of the medieval caste system: sovereigns, warriors and workers. (This is of course solely a masculine function in Llull’s archaic worldview. He relegates women via a few dismissive words to non-entity status. There is no room for feminine values in a trenchant hierarchy based on ancient and rigid social sorting categories inherited from a distant Indo-European age.)
The structure of the Book is especially interesting in the context of its era. It dedicates the text with a prayer, followed by a dreamy prologue almost like courtly scenes of fountains and walled gardens from Le Roman de la Rose [End Page 274] which references what C. S. Lewis called “the discarded image,” the cosmology of the ancient world based on the visible planetary bodies. Llull uses that as his organizing principle for the bulk of the text—as there were seven celestial objects, including the sun and moon, he divides his work into seven sections covering such topics as the origins of chivalry, knights’ duties...