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New Instruments: Early Modern Lullism and the Teaching of Grammar


In this talk (Oxford, MIMSS, 5.8.15), I will link the idea of portability of the works of Ramon Llull to the shifts in the use of the Art in printed editions. The example that will concentrate most of the text is Pedro de Guevara, at the same time, preceptor for the daughters of the king Philip II and one of the major collaborators of Juan de Herrera in the foundation of the Real Academia Mathematica (1584). My thesis is that the use Guevara makes of combinatory circular models in his manual for teaching grammar to Philip II's daughters points to a greater goal of repurposing of medieval mnemonic devices in early modern Spain.

San Lorenzo del Escorial, BRM, f.IV.12, f. 7r

Let me start this talk with two examples of people who owned books. We all have to admit we have or, at some point in our lives, have had books. Depending in our personal inclinations and budgets, we may have possessed a greater or lesser quantity of books. Intellectually speaking, authors are what they read. The fact that people who read tend to buy and keep books does not constitute a particularly risky affirmation, but let me proceed in this direction just for a minute.

Almost five centuries ago, a famous mathematician, humanist, scientist, full-blown nut, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, named John Dee (1527-1609) began reading for the first time the works of Ramon Llull while he was a student at Cambridge University. Dee was able to get his hands on other Lullist manuscripts and printed books at other points in his life, while studying in Leuven and during his stay in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612). Another somewhat famous Cambridge scholar, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), possessed a copy of the pseudo-Lullian treatise Theatrum chemicum (ed. 1659-61) and translated himself some fragments of a lapidary in verse entitled Lux obnubilata suapte natura refulgens (ed. 1666), written by the Italian Lullist Francesco Maria Santinelli (1627-97).

On one side of history, there is the crazy magician devoting his energies to alchemy, machines of perpetual motion, and astrology. On the other, there is the father of modern physics. From a historically teleological perspective, a confrontation of Dee versus Newton may offer us the perfect picture of plain wrong versus plain right. You can think about that twice, though. If we take a closer look at their libraries, we get a slightly more nuanced picture. Dee and Newton are intellectuals pretty much engaged with their times, curious about any fragment of knowledge they could get their hands on. Now, at this point, you may be asking to yourselves: why am I making this point? Am I trying to make Dee and Newton’s intellectual legacies equivalent as both are linked to their historical context in terms of their book consumption? Am I some sort of out of his mind relativist? Am I really trying to suggest all cool early modern British intellectuals studied at Cambridge University and not at Oxford? Wasn’t this supposed to be a talk about Iberian stuff? The answer to all these questions is yes, but only partially, because they are not the point I am trying to make in order to open my talk.

My point is more modest and more ambitious at the same time, which is, that Ramon Llull was widely read in late medieval and early modern Europe. Apart from Dee and Newton, intellectuals such as Nikolaus von Kues, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, René Descartes, G.W. Leibniz, and Athanasius Kircher are involved in the acquisition, copy, comment, exchange, and edition of Lullist books. They are all Lullists, as followers of Ramon Llull were called for centuries. More interestingly, from the perspective of the history of the book, they all had some commerce with the works of Ramon Llull. Even more interestingly, they are all Lullists, but they are rarely known or studied as such. The practices of diffusion and reading of Ramon Llull during the early modern period are the concern of my dissertation, but in order to unpack the influence of Lullism and Lullists I have to confront a paradox that is at the core of this talk: Ramon Llull is a key reference to many early modern intellectuals, yet Ramon Llull rarely made part of the public discourse because he was a controversial reference to namedrop.

Maybe you are asking yourselves, why was he such a controversial reference? Many of the propositions contained in the works of Ramon Llull were condemned in Nicolau Eimeric’s Directorium Inquisitorum (both in the original 1376 version and in Francisco Peña’s 1578 Roman edition), many of his works were included in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum during the 16th century, and many universities such as Paris and Seville forbid teaching the works of Ramon Llull in their classrooms.

While dealing with the impact of the works of Ramon Llull in early modern cultural history, particularly in Iberian cultural history, I want to study such impact not as if it were a matter of authors, but as a phenomenon that integrates several institutions. This does not mean that I dismiss the role of individuals in my dissertation. My interest in the presence of Ramon Llull in Iberian history comes as the necessity of explaining the anomaly that the Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros and the king Philip II were both Lullists. They were arguably the most powerful followers of Ramon Llull who ever lived. They were not authors, so their discourse is performed through institutions.

Any definition of institution is going to be problematic, here I will talk of institutions as structures constituted by a group of individuals united for the pursuit of a common endeavor in which some sort of political power facilitates the frame. There four main institutions in the understanding of early modern Iberian Lullism: the Colegio de San Ildefonso, the Monastery of El Escorial, the Real Academia Mathematica, and the Causa Pia Luliana. The diffusion and repurposing of the works of Ramon Llull defines these institutions. Today, I will talk about a specific pedagogic use of the Art of Ramon Llull and its political and cultural outcomes.

This will be the story of three circles. They are all made of paper and they allow the combination of single components that can be articulated forming structures with a complex meaning.


The Art of Ramon Llull was born at the same time as a method of conversion and as a method of interpretation of the world. Ramon Llull’s hopes were not small as the Art was partially preaching method and partially a possible model for a substitution of Aristotelian logic.

The Art is the result of a double process, after devoting himself to God and abandoning a courtesan life of sin, Ramon Llull devoted eight years to studying Arabic, philosophy, and theology. It is impossible to know exactly what Ramon Llull read in these eight years although it is probable that he was versed in Aristotle and Arabic logic. Harvey Hames among other scholars has argued that he studied the Jewish Cabala as well, since the combinatory part of the Art has a hint of it. Ramon Llull’s formative years have to be reconstructed from the finished product of the Art. This is hard since the Art tries to digest all its influences so they become invisible making it one of the most idiosyncratic cultural products of the Middle Ages.

Moreover, in his autobiographical writing entitled Vita coetanea (Paris, 1311) Ramon Llull states that God revealed the Art to him after several days of meditation in the Mount Randa (a hill in the island of Majorca) in 1274:

After this, Ramon went up a certain mountain not far from his home, in order to contemplate God in greater tranquillity. When he had been there scarcely a full week, it happened that one day while he was gazing intently heavenward the Lord suddenly illuminated his mind, giving him the form and method for writing the aforementioned book against the errors of the unbelievers. ([Ed. Bonner, 1993:] 241)

The Art had many versions as Ramon Llull tried to perfect it, preach to Muslims in the North of Africa and Tunisia, and present it to many both noble and royal courts and academic auditoria so it will be accepted and promoted. The most simple and latest version of it is the known as Ars brevis written in Siena in 1308. The quarta figura is going to be the one that will be at the center of my paper since from all the four figures that constituted the practice of the Art, the fourth is the one that performs the combinatory process and thus the one that would captivate the imagination of the aforementioned early modern intellectuals.

Whenever I am introducing the complexities of the textual transmission of Ramon Llull, I like to introduce the tale of Nikolaus von Kues as a Lullist. As many of you know, Kues was an important Cardinal and theologian of German origin who lived in during the 15th century. He was one of the fathers of early modern Ecumenism and Neo-Platonic philosopher.

First and foremost, Kues was a Lullist. The repositories of Lullist manuscripts had to be sought so he travelled as young man from Germany to Pavia to read and copy them. Repositories marked hive-like points in the history of Lullism designing an itinerary that Ramon Llull had travelled himself during his life (Majorca, València, Barcelona, Montpelier, Paris, Pavia, Siena) and had their own history. By traveling and copying the manuscripts and commenting them afterwards, he was creating a different repository (preserved today at Kues) and also setting the basis for his writings. Treatises such as De docta ignorantia (1440) and De Beryllo (1458) have their foundations on such commentaries, yet in the treatises the Lullist influences had to be downplayed because the controversial position of Ramon Llull in 15th century intellectual and religious history. Kues is an example of how diffusion, reception, and shifts on the interpretation of the works of Ramon Llull are completely inseparable.

In order to bypass the complexity of the fact that writing, textual transmission, and reception of Ramon Llull are inseparable, I have decided to not talk about all those phenomena separately, but in an integrated manner using the term portability. Portability encompasses at the same time the writing the diffusion, and the reception of the works of Ramon Llull. Llull was all the times dictating to scribes who had a better Latin than him and changing and re-writing the same ideas for different religious, noble, and academic publics, and copyists were at the same repurposing their value during the early modern period. Thus, my thesis is that portability is not an indicator of early modern Lullism, but something that determines the genesis of the works of Ramon Llull.

Many Castilian manuscripts of the Art and other works of Ramon Llull dated from the 15th century and were copies sent from the Mediterranean either purchased by Castilian curious or powerful men with more than a passing interest in the Art. Nonetheless, the fact was that there is very few parchment manuscripts of the works of Ramon Llull preserved in Castile. That makes this manuscript from the Escorial f.IV.12, belonging to the personal library of the Condeduque de Olivares, such a rare thing as a parchment based manuscript of the Art, probably a collector’s item in Castile even at the time. The articulation of the wheels of the Art is particularly problematic in the representation of the Quarta Figura as this is the one that is supposed to contain moveable parts and it is the most susceptible to damage in any kind of book. This why the reparation on the copy of the Ars brevis conserved in the Monastery of El Escorial is not surprising but also interesting in itself.

Since the Art is supposed to allow the reader to ascend from a nature to divine knowledge, it is fitting that the basis for the attainment of knowledge has to be the skin of a dead animal. The skin of a dead animal has become in this manuscript a malfunctioning machine that needs to be repaired. Hence, the necessity of repairing a device made of dead skin conduces to a technological cheaper upgrade: paper-based wheels. The paper wheels included to the manuscript are not unknown, as they are clearly modeled after or maybe extracted from Pedro de Guevara’s edition of the Ars brevis entitled Arte general y breve (1584). So, here we have a new kind of example of technological feedback phenomenon that denies the linear trajectory from manuscript copy to a printed volume. The fact that the paper completes a parchment manuscript is fitting here as paper is not only the basis for most of the early modern popularity of Ramon Llull in the Iberian Peninsula, but shows also the permeable nature of the portability of the Art, a phenomenon that combines under handwriting and printed letter, parchment and paper under the same binding.


In this part, I will focus on Pedro de Guevara’s intervention on the early modern portability of the Art of Ramon Llull. There are very few things in order to document the life of Pedro de Guevara. He was a bachelor in theology and he was the preceptor of Isabel and Clara, Philip II’s daughters. He collaborated with Juan de Herrera and João Baptista Lavanha in the foundation of the Real Academia Mathemica in 1584. After his Lullist manual of rhetoric entitled Escala del entendimiento in 1593, the traces of his life disappear.

Pedro de Guevara does not pretend he has found a grammar, nor does he invent a method of universal language as Ramon Llull did with the Art. Pedro de Guevara has found a valid method in order to explain grammar, which is, the method already devised by Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas (1523-1600) in his Minerva parva (1562). Guevara wants only to optimize the process of Latin education through Francisco de las Brozas’s conceptualization of grammar. The connection between Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas and Ramon Llull as main ingredients of Guevara’s Nueva y sutil yvencion deserves an explanation because at the core of this connection lies the quid of the transformation of the Art of Ramon Llull in the early modern period through portability. The Art of Ramon Llull is an instrument for the learning of subjects outside itself. As Guevara explains in his correspondence:

[…] yo di a sus altezas un juego de letras para que con sus damas por vía de juego y exercicio con todo el contento del mundo se aprendiese todo el estilo de la latinidad y sus altezas se holgaron mucho con él y pidiéndome que quería dixe que me faboreciesen con el Conde de Barajas para que me señalase dos o tres damas a quien yo lo declarase para que ellas lo declarasen a sus altezas. (IVDJ, Envío 96, 785)

Ramon Llull invented a form of logic. Ideally, the early modern Lullist trained in the Art, called the Artist, would be subjected to a new academic language valid for everything. Nevertheless, this language had to be learned from the basis of an old already acquired one, which was Latin grammar and Aristotelian philosophy. Many university professors thought the Art carried a potential catastrophe in the process of learning since the Art had the potential to destroy academic established language. Pedro de Guevara performs an important twist in that logic in his Nueva y sutil ynvencion.

Instead of transforming academic language through the Art, Pedro de Guevara transforms the Art into an instrument at the service of the purpose of the learning of grammar. Guevara takes advantage of the mnemonic potential of the Art in order to make it instrumental to the consecution of a goal outside itself. The Art is a machine of discourse that will reduce every possible understandable thing to its own principles. Guevara’s strategy is revolutionary as turns the Art into a series of instruments that are helpful in order to learn other things. Guevara take on portability is transforming the end into an instrument.

Guevara’s book systematizes Brocense’s grammar taking advantage of the cognitive model of the Art. The way the book procedes is not by a series of grammar explanations, but as a series of instructions. This is, the book does not teach grammar theory but explain the way in which its readers should use the devices (instruments) the book includes, as Llull’s Ars brevis. Such explanations make the book sort of superfluous in terms of reading. Guevara’s Nueva y sutil ynvencion was not assembled it so it could be read in a linear fashion. This book was something in order to be taught, something in order to learn from, and something to use. The distinction between reading and use is not based on the activity of reading as our contemporary casual reading, but as the idea that meditation upon the content of the pages that a volume contains has a value in terms of acquiring information. On the contrary, here, what counts is the reading as a means of use for the mnemonic devices included inside the book and that are based on theoretical content that has previously established and that is barely discussed at all in the book.

As with the Art itself, what is important in this book is not what it is said, but the practice that it triggers. The practice of the Art is different and this is a testament at the same to the success of the Art of Ramon Llull and to its failure. It is was a success because it kept being relevant long after its invention and attracting the imagination and efforts of numerous authors during the whole early modern period, yet it was a failure as well since this relevance was accompanied of a crucial shift. In its original version, the Art turned other discourses into extensions of its constitutive principles. Here, the Art does not transform the discipline of grammar, but it provides with a set of tools with its study. Nonetheless, this is more complex as Guevara subsequently would propose a model in which the liberal arts are portals of entrance to the Art of Ramon Llull.

Guevara’s wheels would be unable spin here since the system is too complex, as the wheels are unable to spin in the first two figures of the Art. Nevertheless, the circular configuration presents two advantages that a list of cases would not be able to present to the infantas in the learning of grammar. The first one is the relational quality of the categories presented inside the wheel that appear in subsections that are related always in two vectors. The second is that even though the wheels do not spin, they do present categories in an integrated way allowing to contemplate the whole of the wheel with all the categories and to focus on a single section.

So, wheels are at the same a cognitive and a mnemonic tool, yet Guevara presents them as game and exercise. They also demarcate a space of learning far from the collective space of the room where students copied and imitated the style of Latin texts until they achieve the mastery of style. Even though this manual carries not the slightest mention to the Art of Ramon Llull, it is pretty obvious that the model of the wheel at that time was associated with the portability of Ramon Llull. Moreover, Guevara was a translator of Ramon Llull and prepared new versions of Llull’s circular figurae, also called volvelles. It is easy to see him putting them to use, as he may have wanted to ease the way in which the diagrams of the Art were going to be received in educational contexts. Guevara’s instruments have a twofold purpose. They would help teaching Latin, but also they would help permeating the Art of Ramon Llull beyond its own original purpose, which is, to guide its portability beyond the original limits of Lullism. Thus, using the Art of Ramon Llull to teach Latin grammar to the infantas serves the repurposing of the Art of Ramon Llull, marrying it with humanist grammar, and its popularization in early modern Castile.


Teaching language using printed materials allows reaching a wider audience. This may seem like a contradiction with the use of the Art in the case of the Nueva y sutil invencion, as it was a method intended for the use of the infantas. If they represent quite an atomized public, they represent also a door to the popularization of the influence of the Art of Ramon Llull. The price of this popularization is the Art becoming a pure instrument of alphabetization. Nevertheless, other books targeted wider audiences and addressed the problematic nature of teaching not grammar, but teaching the vernacular to publics that were not alphabetized, or that were alphabetized in systems other than the Latin alphabet. A case of this is João de Barros’s Gramatica da lingua portuguesa cos mandamentos da santa madre igreja (1539). Whereas Guevara deploys the wheels as combinatory models for teaching a language that is only going to be heard (Latin), Barros has to teach how to speak, read, and write all the competences of a language that has become the vehicle of all the operations in everyday life as the Iberian Expansion adds new territories as Barros himself explains in the prologue to his work:

Qual será lógo a linguágem que nesta tenrra & dilicáda idade de uóssa alteza mais natural & obediente uos deue ser, senam a uóssa portuguesa, de que uos deos fez principe & rey em esperança. Aquella que em Európa ae estimada, em Africa & Assia por amor, armas & leis tam amáda & espantósa: que per iusto titolo lhe pertençe a monarchia do már & os tributos dos infiaees da taerra. Aquella que como hum nouo apóstolo, na força das mesquitas & pagódes de todalas seitas & idolátrias do mundo, despraega praegãdo & uençendo as reáes quinas de Christo: com que muitos pouos da gentilidade sam metidos em o curral do senhor. (Aiiii)

In order to teach Portuguese in all the newly conquered territories belonging to the Portuguese crown he does not only rely on a circular form of combinatory, but also in other mnemonic devices. Thus, João de Barros produces a mash up between the arts of memory the Dominicans friars popularized during the late middle Ages including a visual alphabet and the Art of Ramon Llull including a circular combinatory model. Barros eclectic position regarding mnemonic techniques is a direct consequence of the portability of Ramon Llull. The continuous repurposing of the Art of Ramon Llull makes it a more plastic cultural element that is practiced by Artist experimenting with it. If Guevara’s goal was to use the Art of Ramon Llull as a way of systematizing Latin grammar, Barros’s goal was to use the Art of Ramon Llull among other mnemonic devices in order to be able to turn a defined body of knowledge into an instrument of the Iberian expansion.

The use of combinatory in the case of Barros is much simpler than Guevara because Barros is not trying to combine unites of sense, but unities of sound. He builds language by showing the possibilities of combinations of sounds, after showing how to write, pronounce, and memorize letters. The wheel shows in a way all the articulatory possibilities of language connecting them at the same time with discrete morphological conglomerates. At first sight, two things are striking in the wheel displayed in Barros’s cartilha. The first is that it relates the learning of writing and speaking abilities. On the one hand, learning how to write and pronounce letters and literally learning the articulatory limits of Portuguese are inseparable operations; on the other, the circular presentation helps presenting the letters as signs that are composed in a manner that helps not only pronouncing but also reading.

Even though the integrated approach to the teaching a second language may seem very modern, Barros’s cartilha used it already presenting a sort of survival guide for the settlement the Portuguese made mostly on the coasts of the territories they explored. Barros’s wheel was and the combinatory principle of the wheel of Ramon Llull is not coincidental. Barros had been schooled at the court where the Art of Ramon Llull was one of the intellectual influences. Moreover, he had showed an interest on the Art of Ramon Llull on other works of his. If his manipulation of the Art seems more superficial than the one Guevara operates, this means that his degree of implication with the Art is lesser, or, in other words, that he turns the Art into an instrument even more so it will serve the intellectual purpose of the territorial expansion. As Juan de Yciar and others, Barros is not primarily a Lullist as Guevara, but somebody who uses the power of the printing press in order to transform tools used mostly in learned circles during the Middle Ages into something entirely different.

This something is what I am trying to conceptualize in my dissertation combining the detailed perspective of history of Lullist books and the broader contexts of intellectual and institutional history in early modern Spain. This something fed Leibniz’s imagination in his youth. This something is what Borges addresses in every reference he has made to the Art of Ramon Llull in his pages. During the early modern period the Art of Ramon Llull changes becoming less an art of preaching and more an all-encompassing theory of everything. As such, the technical complexities of the Art of Ramon Llull have confused many of those who have interested in it – maybe my talk is a product of this historical succession of confusions and misunderstandings. Nevertheless, my point is that the epistemological transformation of the Art of Ramon Llull is incomprehensible without the chapter of his Iberian portability during the 16th century. In simpler words: without Cisneros and Philip II Lullism, the Art of Ramon Llull would have never become the cultural product that captivated the imagination of Leibniz and Borges. The political and institutional value of the circulation of the Art in courts, universities, and private libraries in early modern Iberia cannot be left out of history.

Without taking this value in account, we risk reducing intellectual history to its idealistic minimum common denominator. Taking it in account, we could be able to repurpose the terms of the opposition between Dee and Newton that I referred at the beginning. Asking different questions and building different narratives that revalue the Iberian archive during the early modern period could be helpful not only in order to vindicate the place of such Iberian archive, but also to paint a different picture of the rise of modernity.

Last Updated 3 years ago


  • Dobbs, B.J.T., The Janus Faces of Genius. The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.
  • Llull, Ramon. “Vita coetanea” in Doctor Illuminatus. Ed. & Trans. Anthony & Eve Bonner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1994. 11-40. Print.
  • —. Ars brevis. San Lorenzo del Escorial, Biblioteca del Real Monasterio, f.IV.12. Manuscript.
  • Llull, Ramon [Pseudo]. Theatrum Chemicum. Strasbourg: Zetzner, 1659-61. Print.
  • Guevara, Pedro de. Arte general y breue, en dos instrumentos, para todas las sciencias: recopilada del Arte magna, y Arbor scientiae, del Doctor Raimundo Lulio. Madrid: Herederos de Alonso Gómez, 1584. Print.
  • —. Nueua y sutil inuencion, en seys instrumentos, intitulada juego y exercicio de letras de la serenissimas Infantas doña Ysabel y doña Catalina de Austria. Madrid: Herederos de Alonso Gómez, 1581. Print.
  • Santinelli, Francesco Maria. Lux obnubilata suapte natura refulgens, vera de lapide philosophico theorica metro italico descripta et ab auctore innominato commenti gratia ampliata. Venezia: Zatta, 1666. Print.


Noel Blanco Mourelle, « New Instruments: Early Modern Lullism and the Teaching of Grammar », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on May 7, 2015. Full URL for this article

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