Michael Murrin. History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 371pp
James Loxley
University of Leeds

Loxley, James. "Review of History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 12.1-4 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_lox1.html>.

  1. History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic is nothing if not an ambitious piece of work, almost on the scale--despite its comparative brevity--of the very texts with which it concerns itself. Michael Murrin has read broadly and deeply in European romance and epic from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, tackling the labours of Italian, Spanish, Portugese, French and English writers. Within this impressive frame of reference, Murrin is concerned to probe the effects of developments in warfare on the practice of heroic literature. Technological change is the fundamental motor of all such developments in Murrin's account: we are treated, for example, to an engaging discussion of changes in the technological basis of naval warfare and their impact on strategy and tactics, an impact which in turn influences the ways in which imaginative literature may represent such warfare.

  2. At the heart of History and Warfare, however, sits the fundamental technological innovation which altered warfare and its literature most profoundly--the increasing, and increasingly effective, deployment of gunpowder. The "gunpowder revolution," Murrin contends, was responsible in no small measure for the transformation and replacement of romance, a genre whose outlines, conventions and codes were established before the effect of the gun really began to be felt. The response of writers as various as Ariosto, Milton and Camoes to the full range of the gun's effects on the European culture of war provide not only the centre but also the most compelling section of Murrin's book.

  3. That is not to say that the rest of History and Warfare is lacking in interest to any degree. In addition to the cogent account of the poetry of naval warfare mentioned above, Murrin offers an illuminating comparison between the literature of war on the continent of Europe and the simultaneous literature of Iberian colonialism, tracing differences in form to the determining force of the very different modes of fighting that these contrasting circumstances required.

  4. Murrin justifies his singular focus on the changing technology and tactics of conflict with the assertion that "war was the main activity in the West during the early modern period" (9). While this may be true, the claim can also be used to highlight what seems to me the particular failing of this always interesting book. War's very ubiquity in Renaissance European culture means that its impact was never simply or centrally a matter of hardware, and a literature of war responded to conflict in ways which go far beyond the representation of battle on which Murrin focuses. The book's declared intention to concentrate on such a circumscribed range of material determinants means that there can be no space for the more diverse impact of conflict on poetry, an exclusion which leads to sometimes eccentric judgements. For example, the assumption that an absence of detailed representations of the Armada engagements of 1588 corresponds to a literary neglect of those events is surely unsustainable. Murrin's reluctance to integrate his detailed examination into an account of the period's broader representations of military conflict makes his work, inevitably, less of an achievement than it might otherwise have been.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 19, 1996)