The Book of the Order of Chivalry by Ramon Llull, Translated by Noel Fallows

Believed to have been written between 1274 and 1276, this book is one of the earliest writings of Ramon Llull and represents a manifesto that evolved from his own experiences.  Llull was, in his youth, a carefree knight, seneschal, and courtier in the Spanish court of James I the Conqueror, King of Aragon.  According to tradition, he was composing a love song and had visions of Christ, and the rest is conversion history.  To this end, he wrote this book with the mind that knights of the realm (meaning Christendom as a whole, not just Spain) should follow a single code of chivalry and be part of a single order to that effect.

To put this into perspective, the age of the Crusades had already hit hard and faded.  Constantinople had fallen.  The deeds of Richard the Lionheart, Louis IX, and Frederick II… all in the past.  The fervor that surrounded the idea of Crusade had gone, and to Llull, the knight was more a physical brute than a spiritual dynamo.  This symptom connected up to the larger problem, and the idea was that in reforming the concept of the knight from the ground up, Christendom would find the strength to continue into Crusade and “convert the infidel.”

At least, that was the idea.  To some extent, it worked, and it might have worked better had the next century not been compromised with little things like the Black Death and the Hundred Years War.  At any rate, this manual is one of the first of its kind, a treatise on ennobling the very offices of chivalry, written by a knight for his peers, with the aim of a high tide raising all boats, so to speak.  The influence of this book can be seen in how many others of its kind came to be written in the next 50-100 years.

On its own merits, it’s not a bad little book.  It’s well-meaning, and there is a great deal of wisdom to be found here.  Many of the lines and paragraphs can be meditated upon by themselves for personal reflection.  The function for which they were written was to invite discussion among fellow knights, and to that end, Llull quite probably delivered a public service by helping to mute the brutality of the noble class men-at-arms.  That’s not to say it’s without fault, however.  It does exclude those not of the noble class and makes it very clear that knighthood is for the elite, mostly in taking into account the sheer cost factor in maintaining the services and equipment required for the knight.  But since good and righteous behavior is for the masses, it is assumed the knight is to set a higher example for those masses, and this book is designed to set that higher example into motion.  There are points in this book where you can imagine Llull pounding the pulpit at certain points.  That’s when this book truly demonstrates itself to be a product of its time.  It’s not a thing for an historian, but it’s more than a bit uncomfortable at times for a modern reader.

What makes this book unique, however, is the translation.  William Caxton’s translation of 1483-1494 is the most popular and ubiquitous English translation, and his is translated from the French, not from the original Catalan sources.  Think about that for a second, if you will.  It’s of dubious practice for modern translators to even consider such a thing.  Noel Fallows has, in this book, given us the first direct translation to modern English from its original source.  That in itself makes this invaluable.  In addition, the commentary accompanying the text (which is roughly the same length as the text itself, effectively doubling the book’s content) is enlightening.

Sadly, it’s also incredibly dry reading, even for me, and I would readily consider myself the modern equivalent of the target audience, both in interest and in practice.  As a solo exercise, I’d recommend it as a point of curiosity and as a benchmark against which to weigh other manuals of its kind, but that’s about it.  As a point of discussion among the like-minded, this is probably worthy of an additional star on the rating.  Hard to say for certain as I don’t exactly have anyone else to talk to about such things in my circles, being that the active pursuit of the ideal of chivalry isn’t a standard practice anymore.  Go figure.

3 stars

Book of Order of Chivalry