Ramon Llull’s Missionary Crusade in Blaquerna ca. 1280

I come with a (s)word. Ramon Llull in a manuscript of his Ars Magna, ca. 1320. (Source: Wikipedia)

Catalan author Ramon Llull’s Blaquerna (late thirteenth century) is the story of a Christian monk whose path to spiritual perfection takes the shape of a knightly romance. Just as the knight errant goes from one military challenge to the next, all the while gaining in power and prestige, the hero of Blaquerna ascends the spiritual ladder from monk to papacy, all the while pursing his goal of converting the infidel and saving the souls of all Europe. It is a great example of how medieval Iberian authors put fiction to work promoting ideologies of crusade and conversion in a specifically Iberian context. Blaquerna is the novel of ideas for his theories of missionizing and conversion. In it he repeats in fictional form the ideas he first put forth in his crusader writings such as Liber de fine. In Blaquerna, Llull lays his plan for universal missionary crusade in a novel patterned after the chivalric novels of the crusader age in which he advocates for an ambitious, military-backed program of forensic crusade that would bring all of Islam, and the pagan nations as well, into the Church.

It takes two. (Source: The DIstrict Post, Horsham, West Sussex, UK)

A missionary strategy for Iberian crusade

By the end of the thirteenth century it had become clear that the crusades as they had been imagined since the end of the eleventh century were not going to result in a Christian Jerusalem. Louis IX’s failed campaigns to Egypt and Tunis were from the start a compromise that had more to do with demonstrating piety and securing trade routes than actually winning Jerusalem. Crusading had become an important institution in Western Christendom whose utility went far beyond the romantic goal of a Christian Jerusalem. Correspondingly, while the idea and image of an Eastern crusade persisted in art and literature, it was no longer a military or political goal taken seriously at the highest levels. However, the relative success of the Christian conquest of al-Andalus had an important impact on the crusader imaginary of the thirteenth century. The crusades in Iberia were going far better than those in the East. This was good news for the Iberian military orders, whose participation in the conquests laid the foundation for the Iberian Christian political order.

Conversion of the infidel was not until the thirteenth century an important feature of the crusading project. From Urban’s first sermon’s preaching the First Crusade up until the middle of the twelfth century there are no voices calling for the conversion of Muslims and Jews, but rather for their annihilation, banishment, or at best, exploitation as subject minorities. This may be simply because the societies where the crusader movement emerged had no significant experience missionizing subject Jews and Muslims. However, as Christian kingdoms conquered more and more of the formerly Andalusi territories of the Iberian Peninsula, this situation began to change.

Poster for Fiestas de Moros y Cristianos in Abanilla, Murcia, Spain. (Source: www.regmurcia.com)

 The Iberian crusader imaginary

What was this Iberian contribution to the crusader imaginary? How did the Iberian experience transform the idea of crusading from its beginnings in France? The conquest of al-Andalus resulted in Christian kings ruling over substantial Muslim and Jewish minorities, creating massive captive markets for the missionary work of the Dominican and Franciscan orders who had, over the course of the thirteenth century, become increasingly important players on the spiritual and religious stage of Christian Iberia. Once the sword had done its work, it was time for the cross to take over. It was this social reality of massive missionary ambition that produced a new strain in crusading fiction on the Peninsula: missionary crusade, a crusading ideal whose goal was not only to conquer, but to convert as well.

Ramon Llull’s Blaquerna is a kind of chivalric novel remade in a spiritual, missionary key. It substitutes spiritual and theological values for chivalric and courtly ones The hero excels in faith, devotion, and works. His swordsmanship is lacking. He defeats enemies by preaching to them. His goal is to convert the entire world to Christianity, to lead by example, and to draw the infidel to Christianity through reason, debate, and logic. Blaquerna’s crusade comes not only with a sword, but also with a syllogism.

Blaquerna is the fictional component of Llull’s grand ideological and intellectual program of crusade and mission. His Ars magna (Great Art) is the engine of conversion, the science that has the potential to unlock the minds and therefore the hearts of the unbelievers. The Liber de fine (Book of the End) and other crusade treatises are meant to mobilize political will and resources among the Church, the nobility, and the crown. The Llibre de l’ordre de la cavalleria (Book of the Order of Chivalry) is a training manual for the knights entrusted with enforcing Christian rule and setting the stage for the missionary to move in and close the deal. But the matador in this bullfight is the philosopher-preacher, who armed with Llull’s Ars, accomplishes with syllogisms in this new era of missionary crusade what the Templar and the Knight of St. James once accomplished with the sword: the conquest of the souls.

It’s a sword, no, it’s a cross, no, wait….. Sword of Santiago, (Source: Wikimedia)

The Missionary Knight Crusader

Llull expounds this vision of the spiritual role of the knight in his Llibre de la orden de la cavalleria, in which he describes the knight as a kind of armed religious, a fitting ideology for the crusading age (Fallows 2). Following the doctrine of crusader as pilgrim that goes back at least to the sermons of Urban IX preaching the first crusade, the crusader knights, “cross the sea to the Holy Land on pilgrimage and take up arms against the enemies of the Cross.” (Van los cavalers en la Sancta Terra d’Oltramar en peregrinació, e fan d’armes contra los enamics de la creu) (Llull, Order 71; Llull, Cavalleria 208, 6.4). Just as the clergy upholds the faith with words, so does the knight with the sword. Here the sword (itself conveniently shaped like a cross) substitutes the cleric’s cross as instrument of Christ’s will on earth:

Just as our Lord Jesus Christ vanquished on the Cross the death into which we had fallen because of the sin of our father Adam, so the knight must vanquish and destroy the enemies of the Cross with the sword.


Enaxí con nostro senyor Jesucrist vensé en la creu la mort en la qual érem caüts per lo peccat de nostro pare Adam, enaxí cavayler deu venscre e destruir los enamics de la creu ab l’espaa (Llull, Order 66; Llull, Cavalleria 201, 5.2).

Blaquerna transforms the knightly ideal of epic and Arthurian Romance under the twin influences of thirteenth-century crusading and of Llull’s specific vision of the role of the knight in the later age of crusade after the fall of Jersualem. This missionary chivalry, based as it is on the weapon of disputation and on learning, displays a sophisticated understanding of Islamic doctrine, which is hardly surprising coming from Llull, who in his autobiography relates having spent years learning Arabic for this very purpose.

Benedicta tu in mulieribus. Pere Serra, Altarpiece, Monastery de Sant Cugat, ca. 1390. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Knight of Mary against the Saracens

Llull demonstrates this knowledge in an episode in which Blaquerna converts a knight itinerant he encounters to the cause of the Virgin, inducting him into the chivalric order Benedicta Tu, a reference to the Angel Gabriel greeting Mary in Luke 1:28: Benedicta tu in mulieribus (Blessed art thou among women).

In imitation of Arthurian knights who challenge all comers in defense of their lady’s nobility, the knight travels to the court of a Saracen king, intending to convert him and his subjects to Christianity. He challenges the King and any knight of his court to single combat. The king refuses, citing his belief (correct according to Islamic doctrine) that

Our Lady was [not] Mother of God, but that he believed indeed that she was a holy woman and a virgin and the mother of a man that was a prophet.


Nostra Dona [no] fos mare de Deu, mas be crehia que fos dona santa e verge, mare de home profeta (Llull, Blaquerna 253–254; Llull, Romanç 294, II.64.14)

The king refuses to meet the knight in combat and suggests instead that they dispute the matter. Nonetheless, the missionary knight of the order of Benedicta Tu demands single combat because he lacks the education necessary to engage in formal debate with the Saracen king, who eventually agrees to have his champion fight the Christian. The Christian knight fights the Saracen to a standstill, and they continue the next day, at which point the Saracen finally converts, provoking the rage of the Saracen king, who has both knights executed:

So they became martyrs for Our Lady, who honoured them with the glory of her Son, because for her sake they had suffered martyrdom. Even so she is ready to honour all those who in like manner will do her honour.


Aquells foren martirs per Nostra Dona, qui los honrá en la Gloria de son Fill per ço cor per ella a honrar havien pres martiri; e está aparellada de honrar tots aquells qui per semblant manera la vullen honrar” (Llull, Blaquerna 255; Llull, Romanç 295, II.64.16)

Here Llull again deploys a well-known trope from the chivalric literature of the day: the knightly challenge to his opponent to admit the supremacy of his lady or face single combat. Instead of championing his damsel, he champions the virgin, and just as the vanquished knight of a chivalric romance must on his honor concede to the supremacy of the victor’s beloved above all other women, here he must pledge fealty to the Virgin. This challenge (of course) proves irresistible, and the Saracen, defeated in single combat, submits to the supremacy of the Christian knight’s lady by converting to Christianity.

The conversion of this Saracen knight vividly puts into practice Llull’s brand of spiritualized and intellectualized chivalry by which he places the chivalric ideal of service to one’s lady squarely in service to the Church, substituting the Virgin for the knight’s earthly beloved.

Works Cited

  • Fallows, Noel. “Introduction.” The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2013. 1–33. Print.
  • Llull, Ramon. Blanquerna: A Thirteenth Century Romance. Trans. E. Allison Peers. London: Jarrolds, 1926. Print.
  • —. Llibre de l’orde de cavalleria. Ed. Albert Soler i Llopart. Barcelona: Editorial Barcino, 1988. Print. Els Nostres clàssics. Col·lecció A volum 127.
  • —. Romanç d’Evast e Blaquerna. Ed. Joan Santanach and Albert Soler. Palma de Mallorca: Patronat Ramon Llull, 2009. Print.
  • —. The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2013. Print.

This blog post is part of a larger, book length project on Iberian crusade literature tentatively titled Spanish Crusade Fiction.

How Christian was Iberia in the Middle Ages? And how can you tell?

Festival of La Vijanera in Siló, Cantabria. Photo: J.L. Gómez Linares (Wikipedia)

Festival of La Vijanera in Siló, Cantabria. Photo: J.L. Gómez Linares (Wikipedia)

How Christian, or how Pagan, was the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages? And how do we go about answering this question? To do so we need both to define terms and to identify the evidence. By how Christian I mean to what extent did its inhabitants practice Christianity? By how Pagan I mean to what extent did its inhabitants practice pre-Christian cults? The two, as we will see, are not mutually exclusive, and the evidence ranges from plastic arts such as Romanesque buildings, to literary forms such as epic, ballad, and chronicle, to modern popular festivals in which clearly pagan practices and figures persist. In the North of the Iberian Peninsula, Celtic cults persisted well into the twentieth century as folk practices, and in some cases were Christianized. In the south and the Mediterranean coast, Roman cults were transformed into those of the Saints and the Virgin. All over the peninsula, the Church raised churches and hermitages at traditional cultic sites such as springs, rivers, and cliffs where locals paid tribute to pagan gods. Celebrations of solstices and other events marking the agricultural cycle were likewise covered with a veneer of Christian doctrine, but were essentially pagan in substance and symbology.

Shepards during the transhumance in Oncala, Soria Photo: C. Ortega (El Mundo)

Shepards during the transhumance in Oncala, Soria
Photo: C. Ortega (El Mundo)

The scholarly narrative of the Christianization of Iberia tends to assume that once Iberian monarchs became Christian, paganism was relegated to mountain villages and the high pastures. The further you get from the towns, the less Christianized people were. However, this narrative is based largely on Christian sources, which stands to reason: if the institutions producing durable art and letters are Christian, they are not likely to be openly promoting pagan values. If we take Christian literature as the sole measure of the impact and saturation of Christian cultic practice, we are looking at a badly skewed sample.

Iglesia de San Andrés, Pecharromano, Segovia, Spain Photo: Nicolás Pérez (Wikimedia)

Iglesia de San Andrés, Pecharromano, Segovia, Spain
Photo: Nicolás Pérez (Wikimedia)

However, even Christian cultural practice belies a lingering paganism in the Peninsula well after we assume the total defeat of organized pagan religion under Christianity: you just have to know where to look. Eleventh-century Romanesque art, much of it in churches, bears ample evidence of pagan traditions. Castilian epic poetry likewise preserves features of pre-Christian mythologies. Hagiographies and other representations of Christian Saints preserve characteristics, narrative features, and reminiscences of pre-Christian cultic practices. Popular pagan celebrations and beliefs related to the agricultural cycle are alive and well both in popular festivals and in medieval ballads sung at the festivals. Even the modern oral traditions of parts of Spain preserve folk mythologies that are at best uneasy companions to Christian doctrine. Fairies come out during summer solstice; white stags herald the appearance of fertility goddesses, and the Celtic rain god controls the weather.

13th-century representation of the Green Man, Bamberg, Germany Photo: Johannes Otto Först (Wikipedia)

13th-century representation of the Green Man, Bamberg, Germany
Photo: Johannes Otto Först (Wikipedia)

Pagan traditions, symbology, and iconography are represented in the Church art of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Amidst the secondary ornamentation in a number of Iberian Romanesque churches one can find representations of local mythological traditions, usually dismissed by art historians as fanciful or grotesque figures. Whole series of figures tucked away in corbel tables behind the central nave of churches, hidden under the lids of misericords, or in otherwise marginal positions in ornamental programs of churches and monasteries reveal nods to local mythological traditions that have evaded the gaze of most art historians, but that ethnographers recognize instantly as figures from local mythologies.

Many of these traditions, medieval and modern, are syncretistic: Celtic and Roman gods are refashioned as saints. Others are agonistic: saints and priests do battle with the old gods or spirits in a kind of popular mythomachia; the parish priest defeats the local dragon. The burning question is how to interpret this evidence: on the one hand, the transformation of a pagan God into a Christian saint is normally not taken as evidence of a persistent pagan cult. However as most aspects of human culture, religion is not necessarily a zero-sum game. We need to allow for for the possibility of elements of more than one cult to co-exist and for both to be meaningful. Scholars have long studied and celebrated the resilience of African and Indigenous cults to survive in an officially Christian context in the New World. We might likewise re-evaluate the evidence of pre-Christian cultic practices in Christian Europe with an eye toward assessing how popular religious practice and Christian art in medieval Iberia transmitted and transformed pre-Christian traditions.

a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Source: Wikimedia

a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Source: Wikimedia

Religions cross over, assimilate, and blend, and Christianity should not be considered different in this aspect. When Roman religion came to the Celts and the Germanic peoples, their gods assimilated to the Roman Gods. When Christianity overtook the Roman Gods, or their Roman-Celtic amalgams, a similar process obtained; in the loosely translated words of Pierre Saintyves, “these gods were often transformed and Christianized, topped with a golden halo and placed in a Christian heaven, where they might enjoy the glories and triumphs of the new Olympus.” In this process, Christian places of worship ended up with the same images, statues, and legends as the old temples, and the that the masses might confuse the Saints with the old Gods is understandable (Saintyves 11).

Richard Fletcher has written on the persistence of paganism in the countryside of Western Latin Christendom. He reminds us that country folk are “notoriously conservative” and that the cultures they developed over centuries “for managing their visible and invisible environments, were not going to yield easily, perhaps were not going to yield at all, to ecclesiastical injunction” (Fletcher 54). How to deal with the stiff-necked peasants? Work with them. Pagan-Christian syncretism was likely equal parts hegemony from above and resistance from below.

All Souls’ Day in Skogskyrkogården, Sweden Source: Wikimedia

All Souls’ Day in Skogskyrkogården, Sweden
Source: Wikimedia

Pierre Saintyves pointed out as early as 1907 that priests found it more convenient or expedient to allow the people to persist in their popular practices, provided they subordinated these to the Christian cult. I am suggesting that the Church partnered with the rustic pagans in order to maintain hegemony. There is, in my opinion no other way to explain some of the Iberian evidence upon which I am about to touch. None other than Saint Jerome makes the same argument. After the Council of Elvira in 300 banned the pagan practices associated with All Souls’ Day such as burning candles in cemeteries to honor the dead, many churchmen worked to enforce the ban and wean the people off of their traditions. Baronius argued that burning candles would upset the souls of the dead. Jerome is more pragmatic. He argued that provided they burned candles to honor the Saints instead of their dead relatives or local gods, there was no reason not to accept the practice (Saintyves 89).

Other examples are more convoluted. One explanation for many saints’ miracles, according to Pierre Saintyves, is the literal interpretation of symbolic imagery. For example, there are a number of saints that are said to have picked up their decapitated heads before ascending to heaven. This is a symbol of preparing to meet your Lord, just as a wounded warrior would present himself before his lord after battle for formal review before mustering out. Here a rhetorical figure is interpreted as a physical miracle.

St. George slays the dragon in the De Grey Hours (Flanders, late 14th c.) f.31v (Wikimedia)

St. George slays the dragon in the De Grey Hours (Flanders, late 14th c.) f.31v (Wikimedia)

Another example, also from Saintyves, is the saint fighting the dragon, meant to be taken as a symbol for evil, but interpreted as a literal, physical beast (Saintyves 124). One wonders if Christian preachers and writers purposefully used these images because they had value in pre-Christian traditions of the proselytes, but then backfired. For example, if in preaching about a saint, one describes him as defeating all evil, here personified as a dragon. The audience might then rely on their own traditions and imagine this saint defeating the local dragon that in turn symbolizes (in a less abstract way) the vicissitudes of nature. This is borne out in modern ethnography in which informants report (as late as the twentieth century) that local priests defeated the dragon that had been harassing the village for centuries.

The converse is also sometimes true: Charles Plummer, in his study of Irish Saints’ lives, noted that epithets of Celtic gods that were meant to be taken literally were often interpreted as metaphoric in Christian sources. By this logic, a Celtic sun god who is described as having a face “as brilliant as the sun at midday” becomes a Saint whose beatific face radiates only metaphorically (Plummer cxl). All of this evidence points up a long, slow syncretic process that begins with the arrival of Christianity to the Peninsula, but that is still in play. Pagan cultic practices, now classified as superstition or local tradition, persist, sometimes aided and abetted by Christianity, other times in despite it.

Works Cited

  • Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. Print.
  • Plummer, Charles. Vitae sanctorum Hiberniae. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910. Print.
  • Saintyves, P. Les saints successeurs des dieux. Paris: E. Nourry, 1907. Print. Essais de mythologie chrétienne.

This is the text of a position paper I gave at a roundtable titled “How Monotheistic was the Mediterranean?” moderated by Prof. Sergio La Porta (CSU Fresno) and including Profs. Fred Astren, Samuel Cohen (Sonoma State), and Roberta Ervine (Nersess Armenian Seminary), during the Spring 2016 Mediterranean Seminar Workshop at CSU Fresno. Many thanks to Mediterranean Seminar co-directors, Profs. Sharon Kinoshita (UC Santa Cruz) and Brian Catlos (U Colorado) and to conference organizer, Prof. Sergio La Porta.