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Llull and the catalan language

Ramon Llull wrote two lengthy narrative works in Catalan, Blaquerna (1283) and the Felix or the Book of Wonders (1287-1288), and a certain number of works in verse (from 1274 onwards) in Occitan: he was the first great, multi-faceted, literary author in the history of Catalan letters. Despite what certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics have said of him, it is not correct to emphasise this circumstance by saying that Llull is ‘the Catalan Dante’, in the sense that Llull always conceived of literature as a means of spreading his Artistic message when he was addressing a specific audience. If it was a case of a novel-reading public, for instance, Llull would offer it a ‘new’ form of novel, as a lure with which to attract it and lead it gently towards the science which brings salvation. He also used Catalan to write his first monumental work, the Book of Contemplation, which belongs to a mixed genre, between literature and treatise, and partly comparable to an encyclopedia. He composed in Catalan a religious polemic, the Book of the Gentile, collections of proverbs, a treatise on medicine and another on astronomy, works of philosophy and of logic and the Tree of Science, which is presented as a dynamic route of access to all branches of knowledge. The use of Catalan to promote the spread of science is extensively documented within the Crown of Aragon during the 14th and 15th centuries. From this point of view, Llull would only have anticipated by a few decades an eruption of considerable proportions, stimulated by the receptive potential of the urban public. The works of moral or catechetical content, such as Blaquerna and the Doctrina pueril, on the other hand, also demand a particular receptive sensibility, namely that of the spiritual concerns of the laity. Llull himself was among the number of ‘religious laypeople’ who, without giving up their worldly condition, had experienced a certain form of conversion.

The same pragmatism which made Llull a pioneer in the use of Catalan as an integral vehicle for cultural communication, suggested to him the possibility of turning versions of his works into other Romance languages or of having the majority of his writings circulated in Latin. In fact, multilingualism is one of the most distinguishable features of the intellectual personality of Ramon Llull, who began writing in Arabic (no written evidence in this language has been preserved, however) and knew how to combine the different languages of his potential readers.

In any case, Llull was a great writer, in the sense that he wrote a form of prose which was syntactically linked and enriched by a very extensive lexical repertory at once literary, scientific and philosophical, without failing to mention the neologisms particular to his system of thought. This is an unusual phenomenon within a linguistic tradition which had only just begun to be able to offer translations of devout, historical and scientific works as well as chronicle accounts of greater or lesser degrees of ambition to the public. Contrary to the Dantean reference, however, it must be emphasised that Llull’s immense efforts did not represent the beginning of a continuing influence nor the genuine starting point of cultural history. The uniqueness of the Artistic project and the accidents of transmission meant that the history of medieval Catalan letters was constructed along other paths.

See: Josep M. Nadal i Modest Prats, Història de la llengua catalana, 1, Dels inicis al segle XV (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1982), pp. 302-356.