Ramon Llull; c. 1232 – c. 1315

Philosopher, Logician, Franciscan Tertiary, Writer & Balearian.

  • Nick Gibbs (introduction)

It is fair to say that Ramon Llull does not have the cool cachet associated with some of the Balearics’ very earliest superstars. The Goddess Tanit is all about fertility, and the little fella Bes after which our own island derives his name has no end of shenanigan attributes to endear him to the modern Ibizan.  Then a century or two after Llull’s life came along the sex-on-a-ship pirates including some luminary characters as Barbrossa the Redbeard and Miguel “the Pope” Novelli.

On an island that rejoices in its hedonistic credentials it is little wonder that Ramon Llull’s face is not staring at you from endless rails of souvenir shop t-shirts, nor  his 30th June feast day considered as one more excuse for a party.

Despite his relative anonymity outside of education and cultural circles, make no mistake, as far as late Medieval Balearians go, they don’t get much bigger than Llull. And do not be fooled by his face level academia. He may not seem wild by our modern standards, but he started out living the self confessed ‘licentious and wasteful life of a troubadour’, and in the 1250s we’re talking Tony Pike territory. (All the years I’ve been trying to convince people we writers are sexy ….  )

Ramon Llull is credited with writing the first major work of Catalan literature. Recently surfaced manuscripts show his work to have predated prominent work on electoral theory by several centuries.

He is also considered a pioneer of computation theory, especially given his influence on Leibniz.

Within the Franciscan Order he is honoured as a martyr. He was beatified in 1857 by Pope Pius IX. His feast day was assigned to 30 June and is celebrated by the Third Order of St. Francis.


Early life and family

Llull was born into a wealthy family in Palma, the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Majorca. James I of Aragon founded Majorca to integrate the recently conquered territories of the Balearic Islands into the Crown of Aragon. Llull’s parents had come from Catalonia as part of the effort to colonize the formerly Almohad ruled island. As the island had been conquered militarily, all the Muslim population who had not been able to flee the conquering Christians had been enslaved, even though they still constituted a significant portion of the island’s population.

In 1257 he married Blanca Picany, with whom he had two children, Domènec and Magdalena. Although he formed a family, he lived what he would later call the licentious and wasteful life of a troubadour—that being pretty risqué for the 1250s.

Llull served as tutor to James II of Aragon and later became Seneschal (the administrative head of the royal household) to the future King James II of Majorca, a relative of his wife.


In 1263 Llull experienced a religious epiphany in the form of a series of visions. He narrates the event in his autobiography Vita coaetanea (“Daily Life”):

Ramon, while still a young man and Seneschal to the King of Majorca, was very given to ‘composing worthless songs and poems and to doing other licentious things’.

One night he was sitting beside his bed, about to compose and write in his vulgar tongue a song to a lady whom he loved with a foolish love and as he began to write this song, he looked to his right and saw what he described as ‘our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, as if suspended in mid-air’.

The vision came to him six times in all, leading him to leave his family, position, and belongings in order to pursue a life in the service of God. Specifically, he realized three intentions: to die in the service of God while converting Muslims to Christianity, to see to the founding of religious institutions that would teach foreign languages, and to write a book on how to overcome someone’s objections to being converted.

ramon-llullNine years of solitude

Following his epiphany Llull became a Franciscan tertiary (a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis—basically someone who lives like a monk but go through all the rigmarole of becoming one), taking inspiration from Saint Francis of Assisi.

After a short pilgrimage he returned to Majorca, where he purchased a Muslim slave from whom he wanted to learn Arabic.

For the next nine years, until 1274, he engaged in study and contemplation in relative solitude.

He read extensively in both Latin and Arabic, learning both Christian and Muslim theological and philosophical thought.

Between 1271 and 1274 he wrote his first works, a compendium of the Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali’s logic and the Llibre de Contemplació en Déu (Book on the Contemplation of God), a lengthy guide to finding truth through contemplation.

In 1274, while staying at a hermitage on Puig de Randa, the form of the great book he was to write was finally given to him through divine revelation: a complex system that he named his ‘Art’, which would become the motivation behind most of his life’s efforts.

ramon-llull-2Llull’s ‘Art’

His first elucidation of the Art was in Art Abreujada d’Atrobar Veritat (The Abbreviated Art of Finding Truth), in 1290.

After spending some time teaching in France and being disappointed by the poor reception of his Art among students, he decided to revise it.

It is this revised version that he became known for. It is most clearly presented in his Ars generalis ultima or Ars magna (“The Ultimate General Art”, published in 1305).

The Art operated by combining religious and philosophical attributes selected from a number of lists. It is believed that Llull’s inspiration for the Ars magna came from observing Arab astrologers use a device called a zairja.

The Art was intended as a debating tool for winning Muslims to the Christian faith through logic and reason. Through his detailed analytical efforts, Llull built an in-depth theosophic reference by which a reader could enter any argument or question. The reader then used visual aids and a book of charts to combine various ideas, generating statements which came together to form an answer.

ramon-llull-1-2Llull & Logic

One of the most significant changes between the original and the second version of the Art was in the visuals used. The early version used 16 figures presented as complex, complementary trees, while the system of the Ars Magna featured only four, including one which combined the other three. This figure, a “Lullian Circle,” took the form of a paper machine operated by rotating concentrically arranged circles to combine his symbolic alphabet, which was repeated on each level. These combinations were said to show all possible truth about the subject of inquiry. Llull based this notion on the idea that there were a limited number of basic, undeniable truths in all fields of knowledge, and that everything about these fields of knowledge could be understood by studying combinations of these elemental truths.

The method was an early attempt to use logical means to produce knowledge. Llull hoped to show that Christian doctrines could be obtained artificially from a fixed set of preliminary ideas.

For example, the most essential table listed the attributes of God: goodness, greatness, eternity, power, wisdom, will, virtue, truth and glory. Llull knew that all believers in the monotheistic religions—whether Jews, Muslims or Christians—would agree with these attributes, giving him a firm platform from which to argue.

The idea was developed further for more Esoteric purposes by Giordano Bruno in the 16th century, and in the 17th century by the “Great Rationalist” Gottfried Leibniz, who wrote his dissertation about Llull’s Art and integrated it into his metaphysics and philosophy of science. Leibniz gave Llull’s idea the name “ars combinatoria”, by which it is now often known.

Some computer scientists have adopted Llull as a sort of founding father, claiming that his system of logic was the beginning of information science.

Llull & the Immaculate Conception

Following the favourable attitude of some Franciscan theologians to this truth, Llul’s position on this subject was of great importance because it paved the way for the doctrine of Duns Scotus, whom he met in 1297, after which he was given the nickname Doctor Illuminatus, even if it seems that he had not direct influence on him. In any case Llull is the first author to use the expression “Immaculate Conception” to designate the Virgin’s exemption from original sin. He appears to have been the first to teach this doctrine publicly at the University of Paris.

ramon-llull-1Llull & Education

Llull urged the study of Arabic and other then-insufficiently studied languages in Europe for the purpose of converting Muslims to Christianity. He travelled through Europe to meet with popes, kings, and princes, trying to establish special colleges to prepare future missionaries.

In 1285, he embarked on his first mission to North Africa but was expelled from Tunis. Llull travelled to Tunis a second time in about 1304, and wrote numerous letters to the king of Tunis, but little else is known about this part of his life.

In the early 14th century, Llull again visited North Africa. He returned in 1308, reporting that the conversion of Muslims should be achieved through prayer, not through military force. He finally achieved his goal of linguistic education at major universities in 1311 when the Council of Vienne ordered the creation of chairs of Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldean (Aramaic) at the universities of Bologna, Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca as well as at the Papal Court.

In 1314, at the age of 82, Llull travelled again to North Africa where he was stoned by an angry crowd of Muslims in the city of Bougie. Genoese merchants took him back to Mallorca, where he died at home in Palma the following year. Though the traditional date of his death has been 29 June 1315, his last documents which date from December 1315 and recent researches point to first quarter of 1316 as most probably death date.

It can be documented that Llull was buried at the Church of Saint Francis in Mallorca by March 1316. Riber states that the circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Zwemer, a Protestant missionary and academic, accepted the story of martyrdom, as did an article in the Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1911. Bonner gives as a reason for Llull’s journey to Tunis the information that its ruler was interested in Christianity—false information given to the Kings of Sicily and Aragon and relayed to Llull.

Lull’ Literature

Llull was extremely prolific, writing a total of more than 250 works in Catalan, Latin, and Arabic, and often translating from one language to the others. While almost all of his writings after the revelation on Mt. Randa connect to his Art in some way, he wrote on diverse subjects in a variety of styles and genres.

The romantic novel Blanquerna is widely considered the first major work of literature written in Catalan, and possibly the first European novel.

The Roman Catholic inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich condemned 100 theories or ideas of Llull as errors in 1376. Pope Gregory XI also formally condemned 20 of his books in 1376 and the condemnation was renewed by Pope Paul IV, although Pope Martin V reversed the condemnation of Pope Gregory XI in 1416. Despite these condemnations, Llull himself remained in good standing with the Church.

Chairs for the propagation of the theories of Llull were established at the University of Barcelona and the University of Valencia. He is regarded as one of the most influential authors in Catalan – the language is sometimes referred to as la llengua de Llull – as other languages might be referred to as “Shakespeare’s language” (English), la langue de Molière (French) etc.

The logo of the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (“Higher Council of Scientific Research”) is Llull’s Tree of Science. Ramon Llull University, a private university established in Barcelona in 1990, is named after the philosopher.

ramon-llull-1-3Llull & Mathematics

With the discovery in 2001 of his lost manuscripts, Ars notandi, Ars eleccionis, and Alia ars eleccionis, Llull is given credit for discovering the Borda count and Condorcet criterion, which Jean-Charles de Borda and Nicolas de Condorcet independently proposed centuries later. The terms Llull winner and Llull loser are ideas in contemporary voting systems studies that are named in honor of Llull. Also, Llull is recognized as a pioneer of computation theory, especially due to his great influence on Gottfried Leibniz. Llull’s systems of organizing concepts using devices such as trees, ladders, and wheels, have been analysed as classification systems.


ramon-llull-3Ramon Llull Exhibition

Cas Serres Cultural Centre hosts ‘The extreme Life of Ramon Llull’

Running from Saturday 3 December until 2 January 2017, the Cultural Centre of Cas Serres will host the exhibition ‘The extreme life of Ramon Llull’, a traveling exhibition that is included in the calendar of activities commemorating the 700th anniversary of his death.

The extreme life of Ramon Llull is an exhibition coordinated by the Institute of Catalan and Joan Santanach, curator of the Year Llull, which aims to bring the complex and endless figure of Llull to the public in an entertaining and informative way, and showing its connection with the world.

The exhibition is open 9am-2pm and 5-9pm, Monday to Friday, and Saturdays 9am -2pm.