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Work in Progress


You go to a library and then you want to read a manuscript, you take a deep breath because manuscripts are scary and challenging. Then sometimes what shows up is not the expected ideal copy, a polished volume with nice capital letters and beautiful scripture. On the contrary, what you receive at your table is something way messier and more exciting. In this post, I will try to talk about a single manuscript and how I think this manuscript mirrors the process of construction of the Art of Ramon Llull. Also, I will deal with a remark that a professor made once about my work saying that I was too interested in the study of ideas and very little in practices, which was probably true.

Madrid, Biblioteca Histórica Complutense, BH MS 106, f. 90v. (or, a Face in the Crowd.)

There was once a discussion about a paper of mine at the conference room of the Casa Hispánica. During that meeting, a professor told me he thought my paper was fine, but that it was also his opinion that I was describing an intellectual process without actually describing its practice, this is, I was dealing with a change in writing practices without taking in account the actual practices almost at all. His point seems very obvious now. Nonetheless, I was inside the rabbit hole of my primary sources to such an extent at that time, that I could not see it immediately. The idea that intellectual or institutional history should describe processes and not only be a history of ideas as if ideas had an agency is easier to affirm than to assume on one’s own work. My training is not that of a historian, I am much more confortable commenting a single text than making a synthesis of a whole bunch of them. My sources are mostly about interactions that 16th century intellectuals had with the Art of Ramon Llull so seeing something more than a Platonic dialogue of ideas can be sometimes hard. Moreover, there are not many sources that describe the practice of the Art in terms of how it is being used outside printed books and highly edited commentaries that are normally a defense of Lullism. So, I sometimes I discover myself worrying about not having much talk about practice in my highly polite discussion about ideas.

That all changed. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down at the reading room of the Biblioteca Histórica Complutense – Marqués de Valdecilla (right next to the subway station Noviciado) and took a long-hard look at the manuscript MS BH 106, according to the catalogue it is a copy of Ramon Llull’s Ars generalis. Oddly enough, the folia are paper based and not parchment. (I had encountered very few medieval paper-made manuscripts and it feels weird passing pages.) The reality of this volume is much more complex. The first book copied in the volume is a nice version of the Tabula artis with capital letters in red and blue adorned with beautiful pen flourishing marks. Before the next treatise begins, there is a quicker hand that takes notes about the interpretation of figura (“que linea aut lineis describitur”) and camera (“per se distincta linea aut lineis quod termino aut terminis assisstens”) related to the Art. After the Liber correlatis, the plot thickens with a series of treatises in which it is difficult to establish clear incipit and explicit point, fact acknowledged by the few that have ventured in the territories of this volume (it feels good to know that other people experienced cluelessness reading this book before me, I guess it means that it’s just not only my own incompetence). The book named Principia artis (78r-80v) and the following Artis generalis commentaria (81r-104r) show two apparent things: 1) there is hardly any distinction between what comes from Ramon Llull and what comes from the copyist trying to make sense of what he is reading, therefore, 2) the operation of copying is not just moving letters from one page to another.

After that point, the manuscript contains other books that are very difficult to recognize as such but that have been traced to more polished copies, some hard to read schematizing exercises that represent practices in the use of the Art, and also two large blank spaces of several pages (157v-159r; also a space of 15 ff. that is not taken in account in the numeration of the volume between 174v and 175r). My theory is that the manuscript started as a polished copy and ended up being something entirely different. In order to understand, what this manuscript ended up being, I have to assume that a manuscript is not only a vehicle for letters placed somewhere else but also a working space. Only considering the manuscript a working space would allow to understand what is happening here. The first book would be a proper copy and the subsequent experiments that go or less far from the original Lullist texts are essays in the etymological sense of the word, which is, they are trying to make sense of the Art as an impenetrable center that resists explanation. Then, if the manuscript is a working space, reading only polished copies that move letters from one page to another, we are reading only a solved problem. What I am reading at BH MS 106 is what my professor wanted me to pay more attention to years ago (not that many), it is the process of solving the problem and not only the result that matters.

Ultimately, I think this process of work in progress that the manuscript makes visible, mirrors the genesis of the Art itself. Ramon Llull was constantly travelling and receiving new intellectual stimuli, and that fact makes the Art difficult to pin down in terms of a finished product. Llull’s assistants copied, re-copied, and rewrote the Art offering different versions of it to different auditoria. Llull was traveling to different places were he was leaving copies. The genesis is bumpy because we have a very varied set of sources in different languages that Llull’s disciples were trying to hold together. Actually, Thomas Le Myésier curated the first important polished of the Art (the Breviculum) in order to offer it to the queen Marguerite of France, so the curiosity that the court felt about it would be satisfied. Once the mess of the genesis of the Art and its apostle were out of the way, somebody could organize the existing materials. Unfortunately, the process of learning, using, and copying the Art, which is, its portability, returns it always to its original instability. If the Art is a practice that happens outside the book, but it is transmitted in books, the space where one is supposed to learn the Art is always left unclear. The manuscript BH MS 106 shows that the space of copy and the space of learning are not different and that, if it was perceived that such was the case, the reason is that history of Lullism has decided to pay attention only to beautifully written, definitive versions, and not to working copies.

There is a paradox about the fact that the more polished copies (or the older existent) have been favored as sources for the modern editions, while the great amount of early modern Lullist manuscripts go unstudied. Those manuscripts are sometimes working copies, copies of existing printed editions containing other books, copies of books that were listed on the Index at different periods during 16th and 17th century, or personal copies belonging to curious readers such as Cisneros himself. In terms of value for the purposes of editions, these manuscripts are worthless. Nonetheless, they prove that the construction of the Art of Ramon Llull is inseparable from the copy of Lullist manuscripts and moreover that the practice of the Art is linked to the exercise of copying the Art as well. This makes the portability – ie., the textual manifestation of Lullism – not only an physical iteration of texts, but much more interestingly the production of an unpredictable, almost infinite, amount of variations on those texts. Although the manuscript cannot tell us the ultimate goal of the process of transmission and practice that is going on inside it, this is, what is the copyist-Artist using the Art for; this is information we can try to get from other sources. I say try to get and not a more definitive get because I can only hypothesize here. The place of Llull in San Ildefonso’s library in the central body of the library and the attacks of Pedro Ciruelo among others justify thinking that Nicolas de Pacs was teaching the Art of Llull as a new discipline that combined logic and dialectic, a technique that would provide a single science for everything.

Last Updated 3 years ago


  • Bonner, Anthony. The Art and Logic of Ramon Llull. A User’s Guide. Leiden & Boston: BRILL, 2008. Print.
  • Llull, Ramon. Ad omnes scientias ars brevis. Madrid, Biblioteca Histórica Complutense – Marqués de Valdecilla. BH MS 106. Manuscript.
  • —. Breviculum ex artibus Raimundi Lulli electum. Ed. Thomas le Myésier. ca. 1322. Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek, St. Peter perg. 92. Manuscript.



Noel Blanco Mourelle, « Work in Progress », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 26, 2014. Full URL for this article

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