Trade and Romance

Trade and Romance

by Michael Murrin

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Trade and Romance by Michael Murrin

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, Luís de Camões, Fernão 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226071602
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/16/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Michael Murrin is the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, the Department of Comparative Literature, and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. He is the author of History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic, The Allegorical Epic, and The Veil of Allegory, all published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Chicago.

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Trade and Romance

By Michael Murrin


Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07157-2


Marco Polo and the Marvelous Real

Around the middle of the thirteenth century Europe discovered that it was but a peninsula of Asia. The Mongol Eurasian system of khanates, by then nearly stabilized after, the wars of conquest, enabled exploration and travel across Asia. Not long after, the nature of heroic narrative began to change in the West, as Arthurian romance gave way to the composite romance, a form that had "an inexhaustible appetite for marvels," and the chansons de geste similarly took over traits of Arthurianism. The interplay between travelers' accounts and the new narratives produced a different kind of wonder, that quintessential ingredient for heroic stories, a kind that I call the marvelous real as opposed to the Celtic fantastic. The new heroic narrative with Eastern settings and wonders depended upon real places that could be found on a map but real places that were very, very far away. In this vast new world, travelers had found things quite as marvelous for Europeans as those in traditional fantasy, and the real itself became marvelous. These new wonders gave Western heroic stories a hard material edge but, as we shall see, did not displace the older marvels. The result was a series of stories filled with many more wonders than their predecessors.

For the period I am discussing, the late thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, however, one must not think that all the authors or even the majority responded to the call of Farther Asia. Dante, for example, ignored the common locations for the Earthly Paradise, either at the sources of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers or at the ocean shore of East Asia, and put his own garden in the Southern Hemisphere. Others, like Jehan d'Arras in his Melusine (1478), were content with the Levant for parts of their stories, a zone familiar to Western authors since the First Crusade.

From the many travelers to the East I stress Marco Polo, who left for inner Asia in 1271 and only returned to Venice in 1295. His Le divisament dou monde or Description of the World opened up Asia to a broad readership in western Europe. Marco did not produce merely another travel account, though he was the first European explorer who crossed all Asia, from one end to another. Rather, relying on his travels and on informants whom he trusted, Marco composed a geography. His amanuensis, Rustichello of Pisa, begins the Divisament by saying that the book is written for all who wish to know the diverse generations of human beings and the diversities of the various regions there (Divisament, 1.305–6). Marco's work was an immediate success, the first vernacular text composed by an Italian that attracted a readership outside Italy. It was translated many times, several of them made while Marco was still alive. And it affected European maps. Marco himself had a Chinese map and marked out on it his journeys. His geographic work in turn caused changes in the famous Catalan map of 1375, and its scientific value grew in the following century. Finally, Marco profoundly affected European ambitions and dreams. Henry the Navigator may have used the Divisament, and Columbus had a copy when he sailed west to reach Asia, hence the adage: "Alive, Marco Polo discovered China; after his death, America." In fact, he created the myth of the faraway, a myth which is still with us.

For the fiction I draw some of my examples from the cycle of Huon of Bordeaux. The author, who lived near Arras, perhaps in Saint-Omer, a place he stresses, composed the original romance in the early 1260s, before Marco left for central and East Asia. The sequels followed between 1291 and 1311. An anonymous poet from the same area composed most of them, and the cycle itself diagrams the changes that affected European fiction, the difference between the original Huon and its first sequel, named after the hero's wife, Esclarmonde.

I emphasize, however, what followed—the matter that concerns much of this book: what happened in the fifteenth century, when another northerner turned the Huon cycle into prose (1454), which became a best seller in the age of print. Soon after this event the poet Matteo Maria Boiardo composed the Orlando innamorato or Roland in Love (1483, 1495), another best seller that spawned multiple continuations, the most famous being Ariosto's Orlando furioso. Boiardo set the new standards for Renaissance heroic narrative, which continued to presuppose the Silk Road on the eve of the voyages of Columbus, Gama, and Magellan.


Chrétien's romances in the twelfth century well illustrate the smaller spatial sense that Europeans had prior to the Mongols. In the Perceval or Conte du Graal, the Grail king lives in a forest wilderness, yet a town like Belrepeire is but forty leagues or a day's journey on horseback away. Other romances show the somewhat wider Mediterranean world opened up by the Crusaders. When he reworked Chrétien's Perceval, Wolfram von Eschenbach sent the hero's father to Cairo and North Africa, and the author of the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal (c. 1220) had the Grail return to Syria. This extension was as nothing, however, to what became possible once the Mongols had established their system. For the first time Asia knew no frontiers. Before the mid- thirteenth century Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, the first papal ambassador to the Great Khan (1245–47), had opened to Europe the long routes of Asia, and after the Polos Europeans and Mongol emissaries could go from one end of Eurasia to the other. The scholar Jean-Paul Roux aptly remarks that medieval explorers opened the door unwittingly to the limitless.

Quinsai or Hangzhou, a city near modern Shanghai and the old capital of the southern Song, provides a good example for the new, wider world. It is roughly 5,600 miles from the Atlantic coast of France by direct flight. One can surmise how much longer the distance would be overland. Such vast distances had an immediate effect on romance. Der jungere Titurel (c. 1275) sent the Grail not to Syria but to "India," then a vague geographic term for the lands at the limits or beyond the reach of Alexander's campaigns.

The Mongol system lasted about a century (mid-thirteenth to mid-fourteenth century). The collapse of the Il khanate in Iran after Abu Sa'id's death in 1336 and then the continuing war between the Ming and the Mongols after 1368 effectively ended travel to East Asia. Yet what remained still far surpassed the world known to the first romancers. Chaucer's Squire still envisages a large world for his tale (1390s). He begins it at Saraï on the Volga, considered then to be part of Asia, and its khan receives gifts from the "kyng of Arabe and of Inde" (SqT, 110). Some Chaucerians have accordingly talked of the vast background of space the poet presupposes, though it was actually a much smaller world than the one Marco Polo knew. In the next century Boiardo would have Angelica say she lived in Albracca, two hundred days' journey beyond the River Tana or Don (OI, 1.1.26), far away in inner Asia.

Distance creates a new dimension and a new problematic. Getting there becomes as much an adventure as being there. Carpine admits all he feared, and yet the trip was more difficult than he had thought. The journey, nevertheless, was reasonably safe later, after the initial explorations, according to Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, an employee of the Bardi Bank, who in 1340 described the way stations on the north or steppe route. Mongol infighting, though it might disrupt, never really stopped the trade. Security, however, did not protect the traveler from long, fatiguing days, extremes of temperature, and all the difficulties and frustrations that attend a journey through a constantly changing alien environment. Not that getting there had been without incident in the earlier romances. One thinks of Lancelot's journey to Gore with its series of duels, mysterious cemetery, and sword bridge, but as often Arthur's heroes were not concerned with travel to a specific place so much as proving themselves or learning the lessons of chivalry, which could be done just as well by wandering through the countryside, as Yvain and Perceval do in Chrétien. The East, in contrast, gave romancers definite geographic goals and, therefore, not only new distances but a set of itineraries and endpoints toward which action is newly driven. Wandering became travel, and the narratives gave specific routes, much like the travel brochures we look at today.

Most of these routes then went through the lands we loosely call central or inner Asia. Here was a zone of adventure, wonder, fear, and great difficulty, which Europeans coming from the West and Mongols and Chinese coming from the East experienced. In fact, much of our knowledge of the routes prior to the thirteenth century comes from the Chinese, who crossed the zone much earlier, between the fifth and seventh centuries. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a traveler could choose any of three routes across this zone: the steppe route to the north, which was followed by Carpine and by William of Rubruck and Bartholomew of Cremona (1253–55), and the two routes farther south, which constituted diff erent versions of the Silk Road, the routes normally used by merchants and that crossed a series of deserts and mountains. Actually, diverse combinations of these routes were possible, depending on one's destination. William of Rubruck had to cross the steppes to reach Karakorum, the old Mongol capital. If one's destination was Khan-balik (modern Beijing), one could follow some version of the Silk Road throughout.

Romancers accordingly had a set of itineraries across Asia, and the narration acquired geographical specificity. Boiardo's heroes follow standard routes between Europe and Asia. Rinaldo takes the steppe route back to western Europe (OI, 2.14.9–10), whereas Orlando and Angelica follow the more southerly version through Iran (2.19.51–52). On the way out Orlando, as well as Astolfo, mixes the two routes, as had the elder Polos, Marco's father and uncle, who had gone east on an earlier journey before they returned to Venice and picked up Marco for another such trek. Beyond the River Tana or Don, both heroes, Orlando and Astolfo, traveling separately, turn south through Circassia and so pass below rather than above the Caspian. Of the three routes, the northern one, that across the steppe, was the quickest and probably the easiest, since it had no significant obstacles. The Mongols themselves favored it. Yet even this route gave travelers stories to tell.

The Mongols did not mind winter travel. One slept under the snow, when one could not find hard ground or make an igloo, and many Europeans and Muslims, not brought up like Tatars, died. Bartholomew of Cremona became so hungry he cried and lost the memory of ever having eaten.

The other two routes, those that constitute the Silk Road proper, share similar difficulties—those of the mountains and those of the deserts—so I treat the two routes together. I begin with the mountains, the Pamirs or, for Marco, the areas of Badakshan and the Vakhan. Chinese pilgrims and Marco had many of the same experiences in this zone. Mostly travelers noted the great heights. Marco complained that in Badakshan he spent an entire day climbing what seemed to be a mountain and then discovered he had reached a plateau. Of the Pamirs he said they were so high and cold that birds did not come there (Divisament, 50.365). Now great heights bring altitude and weather problems. The Chinese blamed altitude sickness on the local onions, hence their name for the Pamirs: Tsung-ling or Onion Mountains. They also complained about vertigo. The Buddhist pilgrim Sung-yun (518) said of the highest point of the Pamirs: "From this point as a centre, looking downwards, it seems just as though one was poised in mid-air." He also has a moving description of the bridges in the Karakoram, which "were suspended on iron chains. Looking down, one cannot see the bottom, yet there are no side rails, and one dare not cross in high winds. A slip, and one could fall 10,000 fathoms."

The weather caused still more problems. One could cross the Pamirs only in summer and yet could experience terrible conditions, including snow. The Chinese explained the weather supernaturally. Faxian (AD 400) blamed dragons: "Moreover there are poison-dragons, who when evil-purposed spit poison, winds, rain, snow, drifting sand, and gravel-stones; not one of ten thousand meeting these calamities, escapes." In the following century Sungyun said that if the traveler pays some religious service to the dragon, he has less trouble. Xuanzang, the last of these pilgrims (seventh century), gave the same advice but blamed wicked spirits, just as Rubruck later would connect demons with snowy weather.

The desert zone offered its own set of problems, both the Taklimakan in Xinjiang, which travelers skirted, and the Ghashun Gobi, which they had to cross between Lop Nur and Dunhuang. Both areas really make a continuous desert, one of the driest in Asia, mostly because it is so far from the ocean, partially because mountains such as the Himalayas block rain-bearing clouds. Travelers worried about losing their way, but mostly they feared death by thirst and also starvation. The area between Lop Nur and Dunhuang still lacks a modern road, and it seems appropriate that the Chinese after World War II used Lop Nur for nuclear tests.

Such long and arduous journeys made sense only if the destination justified the effort and time of the European travelers. China certainly did in the form of goods, of course, but also for its wondrous cities themselves. Marco's reaction to Quinsai or Hangzhou, the old capital of the southern Song, well illustrates this fact. It was a city unlike any he had seen in Asia, and he kept adding to his initial description during his later life.

Marco saw the city shortly after it surrendered to the Mongols. There had been no looting, and the city was still the real center of China. Marco himself had grown up in an important urban center and loved cities, especially those of South China. Quinsai has the description in Marco's book, which he puts at its exact center. It exceeds in detail all his other descriptions. For it he drew on three sources, the first being his own experience. Ramusio says Marco was in the city frequently and took pains to learn everything about it, writing down the whole in his notes. Second, he drew information from texts. According to a Latin translation, he used among others the official account sent to Bayan, the conqueror of the city, as he approached. Third, he drew on oral report from knowledgeable people. A very old, rich merchant who had been a familiar of the Song emperor guided him through the palace, and he talked to a customs officer about the daily supply of pepper. In his presentation Marco stresses architecture, which was then the dominant artistic interest in Venice. One can compare his descriptions to a whole set of them in Chinese: three literary ones, not, however, composed by Mandarins, and three great monographs on the city, which represent the official views.

Marco says that the whole city is on water and surrounded by water (Divisament, 152.513). A river links Quinsai with its port twenty-five miles away, and the river is navigable well beyond the city (516). On its east side it has a channel to take the flood waters of the river, which also serves as a huge water moat. On its other side, the city has West Lake, and within, it is laced with canals, the main canal serving as the end of the transport system.

A city of canals surrounded by water, of course, suggested Marco's own Venice. In fact, the Venetian version of Marco's text, the earliest surviving manuscript of which goes back to the early fourteenth century, makes the comparison explicit. Marco is talking of the many bridges in Quinsai and says: "And let no one be surprised if there are so many bridges, because I tell you that this town is all situated [MS Z] in water of lagoons as Venese is [MS VA]." Other things strengthened the parallel. The only way into the Chinese province is by a causeway with water on either side (Divisament, 141.501), and in the city the tide cleans out the canals. The scholar Renouard accordingly suggests that Quinsai moved Marco so much because it recalled to him his homeland. Yet this parallel works only so far.

Excerpted from Trade and Romance by Michael Murrin. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Introduction: Asian Trade and Heroic Narrative from Marco Polo to Milton
Part 1 The Mongols
1 Marco Polo and the Marvelous Real
2 A Paradise for Killers: Marco Polo and the Garden of the Assassins
3 The Squire’s Tale: Romance as Mask
4 Morgana and Manodante: Boiardo and the Aristocratic Response to Mercantilism
Part 2 The Portuguese
5 Huon at the Castle of Adamant
6 First Encounter: The Christian-Hindu Confusion When the Portuguese Reached India
7 Camões and the Discovery of India: The Negative Side
8 Surviving Enchantment: Vasco da Gama’s First Voyage in Os Lusíadas—The Interplay between Experience and Classical Models
Part 3 The English
9 Spenser, Marlowe, and the English Search for Asian Silk
10 The Audience of The Faerie Queene
11 Waning of a Dream: A Brief History of Moscovia and Paradise Lost
12 A Wood in the Desert
Appendix 1: The Devaluation of the Squire and His Tale
Appendix 2: Henry’s Search for Spices
Appendix 3: Vergil in Camões

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