Madman Or Genius? The Man Who Wrote The Book On Chivalry

There was a country in which it happened that there lived a wise Knight who had long maintained the Order of Chivalry and who, by the strength and nobility of his great courage and wisdom, had ventured his body in various wars, jousts and tournaments. Because he thought in his heart that he would not live much longer — as one who, by the course of nature, had long been near his end — he chose a hermitage for himself. For age had weakened the natural strength within him so that he no longer had any power nor strength to wield arms as he was accustomed to do. Therefore, he left all his inheritance and riches to his children and made his dwelling place in a great forest abundantly provided with water, large trees and fruit-bearing bushes of various kinds.

Thus starts the “Book of the Order of Chivalry”. The basic premise of the first chapter is the story of a knight who has become old and who decides to become a hermit and spend the rest of his life in contemplation. This fable is fiction, but it does have certain parallels to the life of the author of the book: Ramon Llull.

Llull was not a knight, but a medieval Catalan writer, philosopher, logician, and theologian, a Renaissance Man a few centuries before the Renaissance. Today, he is best remembered as one of the first writers in the Catalan language and one of the first writers of novels in Europe.

This short description, however does not give justice to the wide range of the man and his interests. His significance and story surpasses mere words and enters the world of legend, for he left a powerful, but controversial legacy that has remained influential throughout the ages.

The life of Ramon Llull

Ramon Llull’s real life story begins in the High Middle Ages, during the times of the Reconquista. He was born in 1232 on the island of Mallorca into a family of Catalonian colonists. After the conquest of the island from the Muslims, many Christian families from the mainland began moving there. Llull’s family was one of them, immigrating to the island from Barcelona.

At the beginning of his adult life, Llull spent some time as the chief administrator of the royal household, but also as a troubadour, a wandering poet. He was married and had a family, but also spent a lot of his time chasing other women. He was a real ladies man, who composed poems and songs in order to win their hearts.


However one day, he had an epiphany. He supposedly saw visions of Jesus Christ. After that day, Llull swore to change his life, and become a real man going his own way. He abandoned his wife and family, stopped chasing other women, and became a Franciscan monk, spending the next 9 years in solitude. Ramon Llull chose the path of a hermit, just like the protagonist of the first chapter of his book on chivalry.

Knighthood and chivalry

Unlike the protagonist of his story, Llull never became a knight, and did not even strive to become a knight. However he saw the importance of the order of knighthood. For Llull, knights formed the backbone of society. They were the ones who were supposed to ensure law and order among people. The knight was a warrior, scholar and commander, and chivalry was his code of conduct.

They had a special purpose in life and had to be prepared to fit the part. The description in the book gives a forceful commentary on knights and their roles. They are almost superheroes, the select few with a mission and duty to hold society from falling apart. Out of the mystical past the order of knighthood and chivalry arose:

When charity, loyalty, integrity, justice and truth grew weak in the world, then there began cruelty, injury, disloyalty and falseness. Thus error and trouble came into the very world where God had planned for man to know, love, serve, fear and honor Him. Fortunately, however, no sooner had laxness in enforcing the law first arisen than fear in turn caused justice to be restored to the honor in which she was formerly held. Therefore, all the people were divided by thousands. Out of each thousand there was chosen a man more notable than all the rest for his loyalty, his strength, his noble courage, his breeding and his manners.

That man, one out of a thousand, became a knight, sworn to protect the weak and become a pillar of his community. For Llull, the knights were examples of moral virtues that served as inspirations for others. They not only protected the society through the force of arms, but through their personal conduct served as moral icons to be emulated.

The exceptional nature of his courage has caused a Knight to be picked out from among all other men, who are beneath him in service. Therefore, exceptional habits and upbringing are also appropriate to a Knight. For extraordinary bravery may not achieve the high honor of chivalry without selection also based on virtues and good habits. Thus it behooves a Knight to be well-stocked with good habits and manners. Every Knight ought to know the seven virtues which are the source and root of all good habits and are the path to everlasting heavenly glory. Of these seven virtues, three are called “theological” or “divine” while the remaining four are “cardinal.” The “theological” ones are faith, hope and charity. The “cardinal” ones are justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude.


Knights had to not only take care to work their bodies and their outward skills, but they also needed to work their minds and spirits:

If the practice of knighthood were, in fact, more a matter of physical strength than of inward resolve, the Order of Chivalry would be concerned much more with the body than with the soul. And if that were so, the body would be more excellent than the soul, but that is obviously false. Thus inner courage cannot, when it is functioning properly, ever be vanquished or overcome by any mere man.

The life purpose

Llull too found a place for himself in the social order of his world. The role he chose was different, but complementary to what the knights were doing.

Together with his new dedication to contemplation, Ramon Llull came up with a new life purpose for himself. He decided that his mission in life was going to be to convert everyone to Christianity. That is what he dedicated the rest of his life to.

In order to be able to reach the Arabs in their own language, he started learning Arabic. Becoming fluent in Arabic exposed him to a new, wider world of knowledge. He came in contact with many works of Arabic/Muslim scientists and philosophers, which influenced him significantly.

Llull lived in an era of constant war, but also of rich cultural exchanges between the different cultures. The Arabic and Muslim world managed to preserve many of the writings and scientific discoveries of the ancient world and improve upon them. The works of antiquity, but also of the many Muslim scientists were becoming known in Europe thanks to this melting pot that was Iberia in the Middle Ages. Especially the translation school in Toledo was very well-known and a source of many valuable documents.

The Ars Magna

One device that Llull most likely came across was the zairja. This was a mechanical combinatorial device that the Arab astrologers used to generate ideas for their predictions. Several medieval Arabic manuscripts describing how it worked have survived and supposedly many powerful people used it.

This probably gave him the idea for the main output of his life’s work, his system of “Ars Magna”. The Ars was supposed to serve as his main method for winning over Muslims to the Christian faith.

He thought long and hard over how the Muslims (and Jews) could be converted to Christianity and decided to start with the lowest common denominators of the religions. He found certain concepts that all three religions would agree on, things like goodness, wisdom, eternity and other things. These would serve as the starting points of discussion.

The method was based on a simple premise that Martin Gardner described in his book “Logic Machines and Diagrams”: “In every branch of knowledge, he believed, there are a small number of simple basic principles or categories that must be assumed without questions. By exhausting all possible combinations of these categories we are able to explore all the knowledge that can be understood by our finite minds. To construct tables of possible combinations we call upon the aid of both diagrams and rotating circles.”

Llullian Circle

To implement the Ars, Llull created a tool, which is now called the llullian circle. The circle works by placing two or more sets of terms on concentric circles. These can then be rotated in order to obtain different types of combinations of terms.


In some versions of his circle, Llull used letters to represent certain ideas. A stood for God, but the other letters stood for his attributes. For example, B was goodness, C was greatness, and D was eternity. These could then be combined in different ways.

So if you rotated the circle and got a combination of BC, you could form the statement that “God is good and great“, and if you got BD, you could say “God is good and eternal.” In this way, you could come up with a vast number of combinations. They can then be used to argue many different points.

One tip that can help you make a million dollars

This type of method can be applied for many different subject matters and can be used in several practical ways. One example that comes from Llull himself is a book he wrote on how this method can be applied in real life by preachers. They can spin the wheel and come up with hundreds of sermons that they can give to their congregation!

This has been used in practice in various ways. For example in the 1930s, writers could purchase a device, based on a llullian circle, which was called the “Plot Genie”. Basically, there were different plot elements spread around different parts of the circle. By turning the wheel, a writer could obtain hundreds of combinations of elements with which he could spin the story.

You too can use this in practice. Let’s imagine, you want to become an aspiring pick up writer. You can create your own llullian circle to spin a bunch of stories in order to never run out of things to write about. You can combine numerous plot elements to come up with an “original” story every time!

So for example, you would be in the center of the circle. One circle could contain the place (street, night game, internet), another circle the number of girls you picked up (1, 2, 30, 100), within what time frame (1 minute, 1 hour, day, month), in what country (UK, New York, Poland, Thailand, Ghana)…etc. You just spin the wheel and voila, immediately you have an exciting new adventure that happened to you. A million dollar idea, there for the taking (please remember to send me 10% of every dollar you make 🙂 )!

End of a life

Ramon Llull was not just a theoretician in the art of conversion, but tried to apply his theories in practice. Twice he went to North Africa to try to preach to the Muslims on the streets, twice he got kicked out by the authorities.

The third time, he was not so lucky. He was preaching in the streets, trying to convert the local Muslims to Christianity, when the crowd started throwing rocks at him. He escaped to a merchant boat in the nearby harbor, but ended up severely injured.

He died a year later, the wounds that he sustained in North Africa greatly contributing to his demise. He was 83.

There was great controversy over his legacy after his death. Some people thought him a genius, and others a madman. His teachings and books were condemned by the Catholic Church, however he was rehabilitated later.

After his death, there survived a considerable number of his followers who continued to promote his methods. His ideas found themselves used in practice in many different ways, including in some very occultic practices of Francis Bacon, an English scientist and statesman.

His combinatorial theories also influenced Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, one of the fathers of calculus. Leibniz’s first book was called “On the Art of Combinations” and included ideas based on the works of Llull. Through this link, Llull is sometimes described as one of the founders of computation theory and computer science.

Lessons we can learn from his life

1) Have a sense of purpose

Llull was floating through life without much of an idea of what he wanted to do or who he wanted to be. He spent his time writing poems and trying to seduce women, but deep internally he felt lost. Then one day, he found his sense of purpose.

He created a mission for himself and this would drive him for the rest of his life. You too need to find a purpose for yourself. Don’t drift aimlessly through life, but instead create a mission for yourself.

2) Look for inspirations and then use them to come up with solutions

Llull worked hard on himself. He taught himself a new language (Arabic), promoted the learning of other languages and was wide-read. He read many books, which then inspired him to come up with his own Ars Magna and his llullian circle.

Being able to connect disparate things is a good asset to have, one that can help you be creative. This is the defining mark of a Renaissance Man. Even though Llull lived before the Renaissance and his ideas are controversial, sometimes even described as “confused”, it cannot be denied that his ideas have remained inspirational for generations.

Having a wide base of knowledge can inspire you and make you a better, more refined man. You don’t need to look only at the example of Llull’s life for inspiration, but also at his work on knights and chivalry. Knights were supposed to form the backbone of society. They not only needed to work their body, but also their minds and spirits. They too had a strong sense of purpose in upholding law and order and protecting the weak.

Modern society is sometimes missing its own version of the knights. Of course even in the Middle Ages, theory and practice were different, but the ideal version of a knight was something that many men aspired to become.

Today, we lack that moral and personal compass. However the beautiful thing about life is that you can keep on learning forever and you can remodel yourself. You should look at the positive examples of the past and see how you too can use them as your guiding light.



Read more: What makes a Renaissance Man?

Create a Vision for yourself:
How to create a Vision

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