In Trade and Romance, Michael Murrin examines the complex relations between the expansion of trade in Asia and the production of heroic romance in Europe from the second half of the thirteenth century through the late seventeenth century. He shows how these tales of romance, ostensibly meant for the aristocracy, were important to the growing mercantile class as a way to gauge their own experiences in traveling to and trading in these exotic locales. Murrin also looks at the role that growing knowledge of geography played in the writing of the creative literature of the period, tracking how accurate, or inaccurate, these writers were in depicting far-flung destinations, from Iran and the Caspian Sea all the way to the Pacific. With reference to an impressive range of major works in several languages - including the works of Marco Polo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Matteo Maria Boiardo, Luis de Camoes, Fernao Mendes Pinto, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and more - Murrin tracks numerous accounts by traders and merchants through the literature, first on the Silk Road, beginning in the mid-thirteenth century; then on the water route to India, Japan, and China via the Cape of Good Hope; and, finally, the overland route through Siberia to Beijing. All of these routes, originally used to exchange commodities, quickly became paths to knowledge as well, enabling information to pass, if sometimes vaguely and intermittently, between Europe and the Far East. These new tales of distant shores fired the imagination of Europe and made their way, with surprising accuracy, as Murrin shows, into the poetry of the period.
“Both immensely erudite and fun to read, Michael Murrin’s Trade and Romancechronicles three stages of Europe’s premodern commercial engagements with Asia: the traversing of the Silk Route, the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, and the exploration by Englishmen and Russians of a northern land route to China. It examines, in turn, the role of Asia in inspiring the Western literary imagination. Writing as a geographer who has seen at first hand the Central and South Asian sites and terrain reached by medieval and Renaissance merchants, Murrin examines the relationships between trade and heroic adventure, between geographical distance and fantasy. Spanning the texts of Marco Polo, Chaucer, Huon of Bordeaux, Boiardo, Marlowe, Camões, Mendes Pinto, and Milton, Murrin demonstrates how the experiences of traders—the vast distances traversed, the risks and hardships endured, the wondrous sights and strange peoples encountered, the wealth and exotic products brought back—could be transformed by literature into the stuff of heroism and romance. Beneath the seemingly incredible marvels of romance fiction lurk real historical places, human actors, and events; literary genres designed for aristocratic soldier heroes find themselves accommodating, often uneasily, commercial actors and activities. Murrin is a good storyteller. Trade and Romance will be enjoyed not only by historians and literary scholars for whom it will be essential reading, but also by a broader educated public that shares Murrin’s interest in historical geography.”
Charles Ross, Purdue University
“A man of many travels, Michael Murrin brings together his years of patient detective work and scholarship to explain how the mystery, wealth, and glitter of distant Asia added a new romance dimension to Renaissance epic poetry. Each chapter sets off through various textual labyrinths in quest of hidden meaning, whether tracing the influence of the Mongol conquests in Asia, the enterprises of the Portuguese around Africa to India, or the English explorations of the 1550s through Russia. The sometimes gnomic but always alluring style of the book is a master teacher’s tool to make us feel the ‘dark cold and empty desolation’ faced by traders in distant lands before Professor Murrin reveals the ‘deeper communion’ that our new knowledge of places and vast distances reveals. Literary history will have to be rewritten, for Trade and Romance gives us new worlds, different visions beyond the Mediterranean and the Americas.”
H. J. S. Alves, University of Évora
“How travel feeds literature and feeds on literature: this could well be a subtitle for Trade and Romance, a book that fires our imagination about places and peoples at the same time as it enhances scholarship. The section on the Portuguese enters both deeply and audaciously into central issues of Renaissance literature and imperial history, happily supplementing work from Murrin’s earlier books Allegorical Epic and History and Warfare. As a climax to the section, the new interpretations of the sea-storm and its mythological ending in The Lusíads will stand as one of the most brilliant moments in the history of Camões criticism.”
We tend to forget that the Crusaders and the Mongols had been the first to open up European horizons. The Mongols in particular kept the huge spaces of inner Asia and the places along the Silk Route open for nearly a century (1250s—1368). Under their protection Europeans for the first time went all the way to China and discovered again Alexander’s route to India. Their travels opened up a zone of wonders that affected heroic literature for centuries.
Who’d have guessed the Mongols had such an effect on medieval romance? I didn’t, and I love them both. You have to look at the spatial sense Europeans had in the romances of Chretien de Troyes in the late 1100s, and set that against the vast spaces available to the imagination in Farther Asia – spaces and information. Romance changed from the ‘Celtic fantastic’ to the ‘marvelous real’, whose tutelary spirit was Marco Polo. The poets followed his passion for accuracy – funnily enough, as this book is set out to demonstrate. Its parts are specific. If I have a crit, it's that the book deals too much in specifics, so that I feel I'm hopping from island to island on an archipelago.
Did you know Marlowe’s Tamburlaine engages with the Muscovy Company out of London and its search for a Siberian route to the silk supplies in Cathay? Neither did I, but Murrin quotes chapter and verse, why Timur is shifted a thousand miles west, how his comrades are names known for their anti-Ottoman activities, how his goals were English goals. His atrocities, too, have less to do with the historical Timur than with what these Muscovy English witnessed of Ivan the Terrible’s. A topical Tamburlaine. Make of it what you will, but it is background.
Merchants were the heroes of these great ventures into Asia, and that sat uneasily with traditional romance. So you have the gap between Chaucer’s Knight and his son, the Squire. The Knight has fought in the usual places, but his world looks circumscribed when we come to the Squire’s Tale, set in Sarai, capital of the Golden Horde – whose king is Cambyuskan (that’s Genghis Khan disguised). Soldiers didn’t visit Sarai, merchants did. As Murrin doesn’t need to tell me, since I remember Chaucer class, theSquire’s Tale has been so out of fashion it’s not funny – however, when Milton thinks of Chaucer it’s the Squire’s Tale he names. Until he changed his mind on the whole Asia-exploration thing and festooned Satan and his devils with Eastern metaphor. – Satan’s an Ottoman Sultan in his palace.
Even more out of fashion are other romances Murrin hangs his arguments on. Huon of Bordeaux, hard to get, poorly thought of when it’s got. Yet its plot must be of historical interest: Huon visits Kumans on the steppe, he converts the admiral of Persia and marches with him on the Mamluks. As these romances explored Asia in the footsteps not of nobles but of a lower sort, their reputation goes into decline. Romance fights hard for reputation anyhow, in my lifetime, and these have been called ‘composite romances’ – whatever that may mean. Late and impure? They are composite in that they fed on travel tales, and the cult of the ‘marvelous real’ discovered things undreamt – Quinsai with canals like Venice but forty times the size. The merchants had found and could visit lands more wonderful than knights could ever see.
I haven’t mentioned a large section on the Lusiads and the Portuguese adventure in India – because I still haven’t read theLusiads, and Inner Asia is my beat. I wish he had told me more on Spenser's fairyland as Asia, but he says he's written about that elsewhere, so elsewhere I'll have to go.
2013 must be the year of Asia in the romances. First I had the wonderful The World Beyond Europe in the Romance Epics of Boiardo and Ariosto by Jo Ann Cavallo and at the end of the year this. Mind, they can clash with each other. Murrin spends time telling Boiardo he’s got the landscape wrong about Bukhara – and never airs the possibility that Albracca can be other than Bukhara. But Cavallo argued against this old equation, and found that the siege of Albraca invokes other parts of Mongol history. I think they have different ideas on Boiardo altogether. Read them both.