The Medieval Review 14.09.33

Murrin, Michael. Trade and Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. x, 327. $45.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780226071572 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Markus Cruse
Arizona State University

Michael Murrin's Trade and Romance examines the ways in which the expansion of commercial routes and contacts between Europe and Asia from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries influenced the composition of western European romances, particularly those of late medieval and Renaissance Portugal and Renaissance England. Murrin argues that this influence is pervasive, as visible in themes, characterization, and plot developments as it is in references to and descriptions of places and objects. Concurrently, Murrin examines the ways in which these romances appeal to both aristocratic and mercantile audiences, and thereby mingle values and ambitions that were not always consonant. For Murrin, "Distance creates romance" (42), and the evolution of the genre in Europe is inextricably bound to the texts, oral traditions, and goods that commercial activity and travel produced.

The first section, "The Mongols," opens with a chapter entitled "Marco Polo and the Marvelous Real, "which argues that the European encounter with Mongol realms and Asian trade networks in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries both expanded Europeans' geographical knowledge, and altered the manner in which they imagined and represented place. Murrin contrasts the relatively restricted geography of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Arthurian romances to later works in which the East "gave romancers definite geographic goals and, therefore, not only new distances but a set of itineraries and endpoints toward which action is newly driven" (14). He cites as early examples of this shift Huon de Bordeaux, Méliacin, and the Entrée d'Espagne. The crux of this chapter is a comparison of Marco Polo's Divisament dou monde to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century romances, which shows that reports of Asia often surpassed the traditional merveilleux and offered new possibilities for poets. Chapter 2, "A Paradise for Killers: Marco Polo and the Garden of the Assassins," is largely devoted to a history of the Assassins and to an examination of the reasons for the Assassin story's popularity in late medieval Europe. Murrin argues that the account of a "demonic paradise" (36) fascinated Europeans and was easily rewritten and given new meanings. The tale also shows how stories of the East transcended generic boundaries, as it appeared in texts ranging from Polo's account, to chronicles, to the Orlando innamorato. Chapter 3, "The Squire's Tale: Romance as Mask," discusses the mixed audience of aristocrats and merchants that consumed Eastern stories, as illustrated by the class elements in Chaucer's Squire's Tale. Arguing that the squire inhabits the fringe area between upper and middling social levels, Murrin presents the text as a combination of high and low registers. He then proposes that this tale reflects Chaucer's extensive contact with Italians, and with Genoese in particular, during his career. Romance is a "mask" because it imagines an East dominated and explored by nobles, thereby disguising the central role of the merchant class in both eastern trade and wealth production. Chapter 4, "Morgana and Manodante: Boiardo and the Aristocratic Response to Mercantilism," elaborates on this analysis of romance as a form of interaction between aristocratic and mercantile values by focusing on the relationships between Orlando, Morgana, and Manodante's family. Murrin reads Orlando as the embodiment of the noble disdain for commercialism, while Morgana and Manodante, who are associated with the exploitation of gold, represent mercantile values. Yet even as he "attacked a system alien to his own" (80), Boiardo raised the question as to who was more heroic or, at least, productive--knights (and thus nobles) or merchants?

The second section, "The Portuguese," opens with chapter 5, "Huon at the Castle of Adamant." Murrin states that the Huon de Bordeaux "cycle was part of a response to the great development of Eurasian commerce" (89) in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and argues that the Rock of Adamant episode is an example of how the poet was influenced by accounts of travel in the Indian Ocean. The interest in the prosified Huon de Bordeaux in the fifteenth century at the Burgundian court, ruled by Philip the Good and his wife Isabella of Portugal, reflected the impact of contemporary Portuguese exploration and trade. This romance was thus another example of a work that brought noble and commercial aspirations together. Chapter 6, "First Encounter: The Christian-Hindu Confusion When the Portuguese Reached India", is a brief discussion of the cultural misperceptions that led Christians and Hindus to think the other belonged to their faith. For Murrin, this persistent misunderstanding is indicative of the political, linguistic, social, and epistemological challenges that the Portuguese faced as they expanded their presence in India and the Indian Ocean. Chapter 7, "Camões and the Discovery of India: The Negative Side," is mainly devoted to an analysis of cantos 7, 8, and 9 of Camões' Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), which recounts in heroic fashion Vasco da Gama's first voyage to India in 1497-99. The greed, fear, and machinations involved in the establishment of trade networks by the Portuguese are for Camões not only an ethical problem but an aesthetic one, as these are not subjects suited to epic. As a result, Os Lusíadas exhibits tensions between mercantile and elevated discourses similar to those in earlier romances of the East. Chapter 8, "Surviving Enchantment: Vasco da Gama's First Voyage in Os Lusíadas-- The Interplay between Experience and Classical Models, "argues that Camões' description of the great storm in canto 6 invokes both Vergilian models, and Camões' own experience of India. Camões could thus implicitly surpass classical epic by adding to his poem his own authority as witness.

The final section, "The English, "begins with chapter 9, "Spenser, Marlowe, and the English Search for Asian Silk." The sixteenth-century travel accounts of agents of the Muscovy Company influenced the settings and heroic actions of The Faerie Queen, books 1 and 2, and of Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Part 1. Equally important is that both works highlight the importance of risk and reward, which also shows the effect of merchants' accounts and of the practice of investment in international trade more generally. Chapter 10, "The Audience of The Faerie Queene," argues that this work, like earlier romances, was written for a mixed audience. Although The Faerie Queene is predominantly a high-register work, it nonetheless appealed to merchants because of escapism and the desire to improve self and social station. Chapter 11, "Waning of a Dream: A Brief History of Moscovia and Paradise Lost," compares these two works of Milton, which "make a dyad" (227). Paradise Lost is marked by what Murrin terms an "aesthetic blur" in which classical geography and references mingle with those of later eras, including the poet's time. This can lead to imprecise or mistaken geographical descriptions, but Murrin argues that these "errors" often are in fact intentional and a demonstration of the poet's power to change historical facts. Chapter 12, "A Wood in the Desert," elaborates on the problem of accurate geographical representation in Boiardo and Milton. Murrin focuses on the fact that both poets incorrectly interpret the word "desert" to mean an uninhabited forest instead of a dry zone, which reflects the way in which geographical knowledge of some places faded in the Renaissance rather than grew. The volume concludes with three appendices: the first, "The Devaluation of the Squire and his Tale, "provides a brief review of post-war criticism of this text; the second, "Henry's Search for Spices," is a brief discussion of the thesis that Prince Henry sought a route to India; the third, "Vergil in Camões," lists Vergilian references in Os Lusíadas. There is a bibliography and index.

As this summary suggests, this is a wide-ranging book that puts a variety of texts in dialogue and approaches literature as one product of a larger, multi-faceted, and interconnected field of cultural activity. A strength of the book is the way in which Murrin's close reading of specific literary passages draws not only on obvious intertexts such as mythology or earlier romances, but on travel accounts, chronicles, and geographical works, among others. In this way this book contributes to the ongoing examination in medieval and Renaissance studies of the attitudes, intellectual habits, and conceptual frameworks that made literary and other forms of representation possible and meaningful. Although the book is entitled Trade and Romance, of necessity it touches on fields including anthropology, cartography, climatology, comparative religion, and natural science.

This book is also a useful exhibit against strict periodization and its nefarious sibling, nationalistic interpretation. Even if one does not agree with every aspect of Murrin's account of the evolution of western European romance, his demonstration of the persistence and, indeed, growing importance of mercantile themes in romance over four centuries offers a potent example of a phenomenon that transcends the Middle Ages/Renaissance divide. Equally important, even though he organizes his book by nation, Murrin is attentive to the international nature of romance, as shown by his discussions of the role of early romance traditions, of translation, and of oral traditions and folklore.

Given this book's sweep, there are also several aspects with which readers might take issue. One example concerns methodology and is worth citing at length: "I take a strictly historical view of this material, that is, what people thought and said then, rather than what we might think and say now. Postcolonial approaches, for example, initially developed by Edward Said for the study of later periods, are not required for the four hundred years covered in this book. The merchants and clerics who traveled east in the Mongol period discussed in part 1, and the English agents of the Muscovy Company discussed in part 3, similarly had no designs for conquest. Even the Portuguese do not need such a methodology, since writers like Camões and Pinto provide all the criticism necessary" (3). Leaving aside the debate about the possibility of being "strictly historical" in one's own present, this is surely a misrepresentation of postcolonialism, which is not only about critiquing what "we" do "over there," but about examining how encounters "over there" change "us". To the extent that it presents romance and its audiences as transformed by contact with the East, Murrin's book is in sympathy with postcolonialism, and his study might have benefited from embracing rather than rejecting it. Moreover, here and elsewhere, Murrin downplays or outright avoids the crucial fact that trade, travel, and romance were linked to conquest and colonialism. Marco Polo's account, with which Murrin begins his book, was read by western kings and potentates eager for geopolitical insight and hopeful of an alliance with the Khan against the Muslims. As the prologue to Columbus' journal demonstrates, the dream of this alliance was still alive in the sixteenth century. While the Genoese and Venetians did not send armies into Asia, they were nonetheless military powers whose navies were central to European campaigns in the Mediterranean for centuries. Even if the merchants Murrin discusses did not aim to conquer, noble readers did, as the late history of the Crusades demonstrates. The conquest of the Americas shows the extent to which commerce, chivalry, and colonialism were intertwined in the late medieval European imagination.

One might also take issue with Murrin's dualistic approach to romance. He sees romance as composed of high and low elements and registers, and written for an audience that is both aristocratic and mercantile or urban. Throughout the book, he refers to the tensions inherent in this situation, which he frames as requiring explanation given the antagonism involved. As he writes, "one wants to know what interest Boiardo and for that matter many earlier poets of aristocratic romance had in these lands, and what such places tell us about romance itself, its social pretensions and fears" (64). One could argue that Murrin has erected a straw man here. The distinction between wealthy merchants and nobles was far from clear by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when in much of western Europe the two "classes" were mutually dependent, frequently intermarried, and shared political and financial power. From a sociological perspective, it is not at all surprising that merchants were interested in romances, especially those about lands with which they were familiar.

Another reason that poets of "aristocratic romance" wrote about Asia is literary tradition. It is telling that Murrin makes only one mention of the Alexander Romance, since this work shows that European writers and readers were interested in Asia well before the rise of the Mongols. The Alexander Romance does not disprove Murrin's larger point about the impact of Asian trade and travel on romance, but its absence from his analysis is more than striking. It was one of the most widely translated, copied, and illustrated works, in verse and prose, of the Middle Ages, and it surely played a part in stoking European fascination with the Far East.

These critiques are a product of the ambition of Murrin's book, which is engaging even when the reader is unconvinced or perceives holes in the argument. Murrin has taken on an immense question and, within the limits he sets for himself, composed a clear, accessible, and often illuminating study. Those who work on or are interested in the history of romance will find many useful observations, not the least of which is an extended proof of the genre's historical centrality and inexhaustible riches.

Copyright (c) 2014 Markus Cruse

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