History of literature

History of literature

The history of literature is the historical development of writings in prose or poetry which attempt to provide entertainment, enlightenment, or instruction to the reader/hearer/observer, as well as the development of the literary techniques used in the communication of these pieces. Not all writings constitute literature. Some recorded materials, such as compilations of data (e.g., a check register) are not considered literature, and this article relates only to the evolution of the works defined above.

The Beginnings of Literature

Literature and writing, though obviously connected, are not synonymous. The very first writings from ancient Sumer by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature—the same is true of some of the early Egyptian hieroglyphics or the thousands of logs from ancient Chinese regimes. Scholars have always disagreed concerning when written record-keeping became more like "literature" than anything else; the definition is largely subjective.

Moreover, it must be borne in mind that, given the significance of distance as a cultural isolator in earlier centuries, the historical development of literature did not occur at an even pace across the world. The problems of creating a uniform global history of literature are compounded by the fact that many texts have been lost over the millennia, either deliberately, by accident, or by the total disappearance of the originating culture. Much has been written, for example, about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC, and the innumerable key texts which are believed to have been lost forever to the flames. The deliberate suppression of texts (and often their authors) by organisations of either a spiritual or a temporal nature further shrouds the subject.Certain primary texts, however, may be isolated which have a qualifying role as literature's first stirrings. Very early examples are "Epic of Gilgamesh", in its Sumerian version predating 2000 BC, and the "Egyptian Book of the Dead" written down in the "Papyrus of Ani" in approximately 250 BC but probably dates from about the 18th century BC. Ancient Egyptian literature was not included in early studies of the history of literature because the writings of Ancient Egypt were not translated into European languages until the 19th century when the Rosetta stone was deciphered.

Many texts handed down by oral tradition over several centuries before they were fixed in written form are difficult or impossible to date. The core of the Rigveda may date to the mid [2nd millennium BC] . The Pentateuch is traditionally dated to the 15th century, although modern scholarship estimates its oldest part to date to the 10th century BC at the earliest.

Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" date to the 8th century BC and mark the beginning of Classical Antiquity. They also stand in an oral tradition that stretches back to the late Bronze Age.

Indian śruti texts post-dating the Rigveda (such as the Yajurveda, the Atharvaveda and the Brahmanas), as well as the Hebrew Tanakh and the mystical collection of poems attributed to Lao Tze, the Tao te Ching, date to the Iron Age, but their dating is difficult and controversial. The great Hindu epics were also transmitted orally, likely predating the Maurya period.

Other oral traditions were fixed in writing much later, such as the "Elder Edda", written down in the 12th or 13th century.

There are various candidates for the first novel ever written.



The first great author on military tactics and strategy was Sun Tzu, whose "The Art of War" remains on the shelves of many modern military officers (and its advice has been applied to the corporate world as well). Philosophy developed far differently in China than in Greece—rather than presenting extended dialogues, the "Analects" of Confucius and Lao Zi's "Tao Te Ching" presented sayings and proverbs more directly and didactically.

Classical Antiquity

Greek literature

Ancient Greek society placed considerable emphasis upon literature. Many authors consider the western literary tradition to have begun with the epic poems "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey", which remain giants in the literary canon for their skillful and vivid depictions of war and peace, honor and disgrace, love and hatred. Notable among later Greek poets was Sappho, who defined, in many ways, lyric poetry as a genre.

A playwright named Aeschylus changed Western literature forever when he introduced the ideas of dialogue and interacting characters to playwriting. In doing so, he essentially invented "drama": his "Oresteia" trilogy of plays is seen as his crowning achievement. Other refiners of playwriting were Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles is credited with skillfully developing irony as a literary technique, most famously in his play "Oedipus the King". Euripedes, conversely, used plays to challenge societal norms and mores—a hallmark of much of Western literature for the next 2,300 years and beyond—and his works such as "Medea", "The Bacchae" and "The Trojan Women" are still notable for their ability to challenge our perceptions of propriety, gender, and war. Aristophanes, a comic playwright, defines and shapes the idea of comedy almost as Aeschylus had shaped tragedy as an art form—Aristophanes' most famous plays include the "Lysistrata" and "The Frogs".

Philosophy entered literature in the dialogues of Plato, who converted the give and take of Socratic questioning into written form. Aristotle, Plato's student, wrote dozens of works on many scientific disciplines, but his greatest contribution to literature was likely his "Poetics", which lays out his understanding of drama, and thereby establishes the first criteria for literary criticism.

Latin literature

In many respects, the writers of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire chose to avoid innovation in favor of imitating the great Greek authors. Virgil's "Aeneid", in many respects, emulated Homer's "Iliad"; Plautus, a comic playwright, followed in the footsteps of Aristophanes; Tacitus' "Annals" and "Germania" follow essentially the same historical approaches that Thucydides devised (the Christian historian Eusebius does also, although far more influenced by his religion than either Tacitus or Thucydides had been by Greek and Roman polytheism); Ovid and his "Metamorphoses" explore the same Greek myths again in new ways. It can be argued, and has been, that the Roman authors, far from being mindless copycats, improved on the genres already established by their Greek predecessors. For example Ovid's "Metamorphoses" creates a form which is a clear predecessor of the stream of consciousness genre. What is undeniable is that the Romans, in comparison with the Greeks, innovate relatively few literary styles of their own.

Satire is one of the few Roman additions to literature—Horace was the first to use satire extensively as a tool for argument, and Juvenal made it into a weapon. The New Testament is an unusual collection of texts--Paul's epistles are the first collection of personal letters to be treated as literature, the Gospels arguably present the first realistic biographies in Western literature, and John's "Book of Revelation", though not the first of its kind, essentially defines apocalypse as a literary genre. Augustine of Hippo and his "The City of God" do for religious literature essentially what Plato had done for philosophy, but Augustine's approach was far less conversational and more didactive. His "Confessions" is perhaps the first true autobiography, and certainly it gives rise to the genre of confessional literature which is now more popular than ever.


Indian epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, have influenced countless other works, including Balinese Kecak and other performances such as shadow puppetry (wayang), and many European works. Pali literature has an important position in the rise of Buddhism. Classical Sanskrit literature flowers in the Maurya and Gupta periods, roughly spanning the 2nd century BC to the 8th century AD.

The Middle Ages


After the fall of Rome (in roughly 476), many of the literary approaches and styles invented by the Greeks and Romans fell out of favor in Europe. In the millennium or so that intervened between Rome's fall and the Florentine Renaissance, medieval literature focused more and more on faith and faith-related matters, in part because the works written by the Greeks had not been preserved in Europe, and therefore there were few models of classical literature to learn from and move beyond. What little there was became changed and distorted, with new forms beginning to develop from the distortions. Some of these distorted beginnings of new styles can be seen in the literature generally described as Matter of Rome, Matter of France and Matter of Britain.

Following Rome's fall, Islam's spread across Asia and Africa brought with it a desire to preserve and build upon the work of the Greeks, especially in literature. Although much had been lost to the ravages of time (and to catastrophe, as in the burning of the Library of Alexandria), many Greek works remained extant: they were preserved and copied carefully by Muslim scribes.

In Europe Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", are frequent among early medieval texts. The writings of Bede—"Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum"—and others continue the faith-based historical tradition begun by Eusebius in the early 300s. Playwriting essentially ceased, except for the mystery plays and the passion plays that focused heavily on conveying Christian belief to the common people. Around 400 AD the "Prudenti Psychomachia" began the tradition of allegorical tales. Poetry flourished, however, in the hands of the troubadours, whose courtly romances and "chanson de geste" amused and entertained the upper classes who were their patrons. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote works which he claimed were histories of Britain. These were highly fanciful and included stories of Merlin the magician and King Arthur. Epic poetry continued to develop with the addition of the mythologies of Northern Europe: "Beowulf" and the Norse sagas have much in common with Homer and Virgil's approaches to war and honor, while poems such as Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" take much different stylistic directions.

In November 1095 - Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. The crusades would affect everything in Europe and the Middle East for many years to come and literature would, along with everything else, be transformed by the wars between these two cultures. For instance the image of the knight would take on a different significance. Also the Islamic emphasis on scientific investigation and the presevation of the Greek philosophical writings would eventually affect European literature.

Between Augustine and "The Bible", religious authors had numerous aspects of Christianity that needed further explication and interpretation. Thomas Aquinas, more than any other single person, was able to turn theology into a kind of science, in part because he was heavily influenced by Aristotle, whose works were returning to Europe in the 1200s.

Islamic World

The most well known fiction from the Islamic world was "The Book of One Thousand and One Nights" ("Arabian Nights"), which was a compilation of many earlier folk tales told by the Persian Queen Scheherazade. The epic took form in the 10th century and reached its final form by the 14th century; the number and type of tales have varied from one manuscript to another.John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Arabian fantasy", p 51 ISBN 0-312-19869-8] All Arabian fantasy tales were often called "Arabian Nights" when translated into English, regardless of whether they appeared in "The Book of One Thousand and One Nights", in any version, and a number of tales are known in Europe as "Arabian Nights" despite existing in no Arabic manuscript.

This epic has been influential in the West since it was translated in the 18th century, first by Antoine Galland. [L. Sprague de Camp, "Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy", p 10 ISBN 0-87054-076-9] Many imitations were written, especially in France.John Grant and John Clute, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy", "Arabian fantasy", p 52 ISBN 0-312-19869-8] Various characters from this epic have themselves become cultural icons in Western culture, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba. However, no medieval Arabic source has been traced for Aladdin, which was incorporated into "The Book of One Thousand and One Nights" by its French translator, Antoine Galland, who heard it from an Arab Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo. Part of its popularity may have sprung from the increasing historical and geographical knowledge, so that places of which little was known and so marvels were plausible had to be set further "long ago" or farther "far away"; this is a process that continues, and finally culminate in the fantasy world having little connection, if any, to actual times and places. A number of elements from Arabian mythology and Persian mythology are now common in modern fantasy, such as genies, bahamuts, magic carpets, magic lamps, etc. When L. Frank Baum proposed writing a modern fairy tale that banished stereotypical elements, he included the genie as well as the dwarf and the fairy as stereotypes to go. [James Thurber, "The Wizard of Chitenango", p 64 "Fantasists on Fantasy" edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski, ISBN 0-380-86553-X]

A number of stories within the "One Thousand and One Nights" ("Arabian Nights") also feature science fiction elements. One example is "The Adventures of Bulukiya", where the protagonist Bulukiya's quest for the herb of immortality leads him to explore the seas, journey to the Garden of Eden and to Jahannam, and travel across the cosmos to different worlds much larger than his own world, anticipating elements of galactic science fiction;citation|title=The Arabian Nights: A Companion|first=Robert|last=Irwin|publisher=Tauris Parke Paperbacks|year=2003|isbn=1860649831|page=209] along the way, he encounters societies of jinns, [citation|title=The Arabian Nights: A Companion|first=Robert|last=Irwin|publisher=Tauris Parke Paperbacks|year=2003|isbn=1860649831|page=204] mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, and other forms of life. In another "Arabian Nights" tale, the protagonist Abdullah the Fisherman gains the ability to breathe underwater and discovers an underwater submarine society that is portrayed as an inverted reflection of society on land, in that the underwater society follows a form of primitive communism where concepts like money and clothing do not exist. Other "Arabian Nights" tales deal with lost ancient technologies, advanced ancient civilizations that went astray, and catastrophes which overwhelmed them. [citation|title=The Arabian Nights: A Companion|first=Robert|last=Irwin|publisher=Tauris Parke Paperbacks|year=2003|isbn=1860649831|page=211-2] "The City of Brass" features a group of travellers on an archaeological expedition [citation|title=An Allegory from the Arabian Nights: The City of Brass|first=Andras|last=Hamori|journal=Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies|volume=34|issue=1|year=1971|publisher=Cambridge University Press|pages=9-19 [9] ] across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn, [citation|title=Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights|first=David|last=Pinault|publisher=Brill Publishers|year=1992|isbn=9004095306|pages=148-9 & 217-9] and, along the way, encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants, [citation|title=The Arabian Nights: A Companion|first=Robert|last=Irwin|publisher=Tauris Parke Paperbacks|year=2003|isbn=1860649831|page=213] life-like humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, [citation|title=An Allegory from the Arabian Nights: The City of Brass|first=Andras|last=Hamori|journal=Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies|volume=34|issue=1|year=1971|publisher=Cambridge University Press|pages=9-19 [12-3] ] and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city. "The Ebony Horse" features a robot in the form of a flying mechanical horse controlled using keys that could fly into outer space and towards the Sun, [citation|title=One Thousand and One Arabian Nights|last=Geraldine McCaughrean|first=Rosamund Fowler|publisher=Oxford University Press|year=1999|isbn=0192750135|pages=247-51] while the "Third Qalandar's Tale" also features a robot in the form of an uncanny boatman.citation|title=Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights|first=David|last=Pinault|publisher=Brill Publishers|year=1992|isbn=9004095306|pages=10-1] "The City of Brass" and "The Ebony Horse" can be considered early examples of proto-science fiction. [ [http://www.islamscifi.com/?Academic_Literature Academic Literature] , Islam and Science Fiction]

A famous example of Arabic poetry and Persian poetry on romance (love) is "Layla and Majnun", dating back to the Umayyad era in the 7th century. It is a tragic story of undying love much like the later "Romeo and Juliet", which was itself said to have been inspired by a Latin version of "Layli and Majnun" to an extent. [ [http://www.shirazbooks.com/ebook1.html NIZAMI: LAYLA AND MAJNUN - English Version by Paul Smith] ]

Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy", considered the greatest epic of Italian literature, derived many features of and episodes about the hereafter directly or indirectly from Arabic works on Islamic eschatology: the "Hadith" and the "Kitab al-Miraj" (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly beforeI. Heullant-Donat and M.-A. Polo de Beaulieu, "Histoire d'une traduction," in "Le Livre de l'échelle de Mahomet", Latin edition and French translation by Gisèle Besson and Michèle Brossard-Dandré, Collection "Lettres Gothiques", Le Livre de Poche, 1991, p. 22 with note 37.] as "Liber Scale Machometi", "The Book of Muhammad's Ladder") concerning Muhammad's ascension to Heaven, and the spiritual writings of Ibn Arabi. The Moors also had a noticeable influence on the works of George Peele and William Shakespeare. Some of their works featured Moorish characters, such as Peele's "The Battle of Alcazar" and Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", "Titus Andronicus" and "Othello", which featured a Moorish Othello as its title character. These works are said to have been inspired by several Moorish delegations from Morocco to Elizabethan England at the beginning of the 17th century. [Professor Nabil Matar (April 2004), "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Stage Moor", Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (cf. Mayor of London (2006), [http://www.london.gov.uk/gla/publications/equalities/muslims-in-london.pdf Muslims in London] , pp. 14-15, Greater London Authority)]

Arabic literature

Ibn Tufail (Abubacer) and Ibn al-Nafis were pioneers of the philosophical novel. Ibn Tufail wrote the first fictional Arabic novel "Hayy ibn Yaqdhan" ("Philosophus Autodidactus") as a response to al-Ghazali's "The Incoherence of the Philosophers", and then Ibn al-Nafis also wrote a fictional novel "Theologus Autodidactus" as a response to Ibn Tufail's "Philosophus Autodidactus". Both of these narratives had protagonists (Hayy in "Philosophus Autodidactus" and Kamil in "Theologus Autodidactus") who were autodidactic feral children living in seclusion on a desert island, both being the earliest examples of a desert island story. However, while Hayy lives alone with animals on the desert island for the rest of the story in "Philosophus Autodidactus", the story of Kamil extends beyond the desert island setting in "Theologus Autodidactus", developing into the earliest known coming of age plot and eventually becoming the first example of a science fiction novel. [Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn Al-Nafis as a philosopher", "Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis", Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. [http://www.islamset.com/isc/nafis/drroubi.html Ibn al-Nafis As a Philosopher] , "Encyclopedia of Islamic World").] [Nahyan A. G. Fancy (2006), "Pulmonary Transit and Bodily Resurrection: The Interaction of Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in the Works of Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288)", p. 95-101, "Electronic Theses and Dissertations", University of Notre Dame. [http://etd.nd.edu/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-11292006-152615] ]

"Theologus Autodidactus", written by the Arabian polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288), is the first example of a science fiction novel. It deals with various science fiction elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology, the end of the world and doomsday, resurrection, and the afterlife. Rather than giving supernatural or mythological explnations for these events, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time. His main purpose behind this science fiction work was to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy through the use of fiction.Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn Al-Nafis as a philosopher", "Symposium on Ibn al Nafis", Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. [http://www.islamset.com/isc/nafis/drroubi.html Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher] , "Encyclopedia of Islamic World").]

A Latin translation of Ibn Tufail's work, "Philosophus Autodidactus", first appeared in 1671, prepared by Edward Pococke the Younger, followed by an English translation by Simon Ockley in 1708, as well as German and Dutch translations. These translations later inspired Daniel Defoe to write "Robinson Crusoe", regarded as the first novel in English. [Nawal Muhammad Hassan (1980), "Hayy bin Yaqzan and Robinson Crusoe: A study of an early Arabic impact on English literature", Al-Rashid House for Publication.] [Cyril Glasse (2001), "New Encyclopedia of Islam", p. 202, Rowman Altamira, ISBN 0759101906.] Amber Haque (2004), "Psychology from Islamic Perspective: Contributions of Early Muslim Scholars and Challenges to Contemporary Muslim Psychologists", "Journal of Religion and Health" 43 (4): 357-377 [369] .] Martin Wainwright, [http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,918454,00.html Desert island scripts] , "The Guardian", 22 March 2003.] "Philosophus Autodidactus" also inspired Robert Boyle to write his own philosophical novel set on an island, "The Aspiring Naturalist". The story also anticipated Rousseau's "" in some ways, and is also similar to Mowgli's story in Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" as well as Tarzan's story, in that a baby is abandoned but taken care of and fed by a mother wolf. [ [http://www.muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?ArticleID=808 Latinized Names of Muslim Scholars] , FSTC.]

Among other innovations in Arabic literature was Ibn Khaldun's perspective on chronicling past events—by fully rejecting supernatural explanations, Khaldun essentially invented the scientific or sociological approach to history.

Persian literature

From Persian culture the book which would, eventually, become the most famous in the west is the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam". The Rubáiyát is a collection of poems by the Persian mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyám (1048-1122). "Rubaiyat" means "quatrains": verses of four lines.

Ferdowsi's "Shahnameh", the national epic of Iran, is a mythical and heroic retelling of Persian history. "Amir Arsalan" was also a popular mythical Persian story, which has influenced some modern works of fantasy fiction, such as "The Heroic Legend of Arslan".

Examples of early Persian proto-science fiction include Al-Farabi's "Opinions of the residents of a splendid city" about a utopian society, Al-Qazwini's futuristic tale of "Awaj bin Anfaq" about a man who travelled to Earth from a distant planet, and elements such as the flying carpet. [Achmed A. W. Khammas, [http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/23/23713/1.html Science Fiction in Arabic Literature] ]

Ottoman literature

The two primary streams of Ottoman written literature are poetry and prose. Of the two, poetry—specifically, Divan poetry—was by far the dominant stream. Moreover, it should be noted that, until the 19th century, Ottoman prose did not contain any examples of fiction; that is, there were no counterparts to, for instance, the European romance, short story, or novel (though analogous genres did, to some extent, exist in both the Turkish folk tradition and in Divan poetry).

Until the 19th century, Ottoman prose never managed to develop to the extent that contemporary Divan poetry did. A large part of the reason for this was that much prose was expected to adhere to the rules of "sec"' (سجع, also transliterated as "seci"), or rhymed prose, [Belge, 389] a type of writing descended from the Arabic "saj'" and which prescribed that between each adjective and noun in a sentence, there must be a rhyme.


Early Medieval (Gupta period) literature in India sees the flowering of Sanskrit drama, classical Sanskrit poetry and the compilation of the Puranas. Sanskrit declines in the early 2nd millennium, late works such as the "Kathasaritsagara" dating to the 11th century, to the benefit of literature composed in Middle Indic vernaculars such as Old Hindi.


Lyric poetry advanced far more in China than in Europe prior to 1000, as multiple new forms developed in the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties: perhaps the greatest poets of this era in Chinese literature were Li Bai and Du Fu.

Printing began in Tang Dynasty China. A copy of the "Diamond Sutra", a key Buddhist text, found sealed in a cave in China in the early 20th century, is the oldest known dated printed book, with a printed date of 868. The method used was block printing.

The scientist, statesman, and general Shen Kuo (1031-1095 AD) was the author of the groundbreaking "Dream Pool Essays" (1088), a large book of scientific literature that included the oldest description of the magnetized compass. During the Song Dynasty, there was also the enormous historical work of the "Zizhi Tongjian", compiled into 294 volumes of 3 million written Chinese characters by the year 1084 AD.

Some authors feel that China originated the novel form with the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong (in the 14th century), although others feel that this epic is distinct from the novel in key ways.

The true vernacular novel was developed in China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).


Classical Japanese literature generally refers to literature produced during the Heian Period, what some would consider a golden era of art and literature. "The Tale of Genji" (early eleventh century) by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the pre-eminent masterpiece of Heian fiction and an early example of a work of fiction in the form of a novel. It is sometimes called the world's first novel, the first modern novel, the first romance novel, the first psychological novel, or the first novel to still be considered a classic.

Other important works of this period include the "Kokin Wakashū" (905), a waka-poetry anthology, and "The Pillow Book" (990s), the latter written by Murasaki Shikibu's contemporary and rival, Sei Shōnagon, as an essay about the life, loves, and pastimes of nobles in the Emperor's court. The "iroha" poem, now one of two standard orderings for the Japanese syllabary, was also written during the early part of this period.

The 10th century Japanese narrative, "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter", can be considered an early example of proto-science fiction. The protagonist of the story, Kaguya-hime, is a princess from the Moon who is sent to Earth for safety during a celestial war, and is found and raised by a bamboo cutter in Japan. She is later taken back to the Moon by her real extraterrestrial family. A manuscript illustration depicts a disc-shaped flying object similar to to a flying saucer.citation|title=The Halstead Treasury of Ancient Science Fiction|first=Matthew|last=Richardson|publisher=Halstead Press|publication-place=Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales|year=2001|isbn=1875684646 (cf. citation|title=Once Upon a Time|journal=Emerald City|issue=85|date=September 2002|url=http://www.emcit.com/emcit085.shtml#Once|accessdate=2008-09-17)]

In this time the imperial court patronized the poets, most of whom were courtiers or ladies-in-waiting. Editing anthologies of poetry was a national pastime. Reflecting the aristocratic atmosphere, the poetry was elegant and sophisticated and expressed emotions in a rhetorical style.


Had nothing occurred to change literature in the 1400s but the Renaissance, the break with medieval approaches would have been clear enough. The 1400s, however, also brought Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press, an innovation (for Europe, at least) that would change literature forever. Texts were no longer precious and expensive to produce—they could be cheaply and rapidly put into the marketplace. Literacy went from the prized possession of the select few to a much broader section of the population (though by no means universal). As a result, much about literature in Europe was radically altered in the two centuries following Gutenberg's unveiling of the printing press in 1455.

William Caxton was the first English printer and published English language texts including "Le Morte d'Arthur" (a collection of oral tales of the Arthurian Knights which is a forerunner of the novel) and Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales". These are an indication of future directions in literature. With the arrival of the printing press a process begins in which folk yarns and legends are collected within a frame story and then mass published.

In the Renaissance, the focus on learning for learning's sake causes an outpouring of literature. Petrarch popularized the sonnet as a poetic form; Giovanni Boccaccio's "Decameron" made romance acceptable in prose as well as poetry; François Rabelais rejuvenates satire with "Gargantua and Pantagruel"; Michel de Montaigne single-handedly invented the essay and used it to catalog his life and ideas. Perhaps the most controversial and important work of the time period was a treatise printed in Nuremberg, entitled "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium": in it, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus removed the Earth from its privileged position in the universe, which had far-reaching effects, not only in science, but in literature and its approach to humanity, hierarchy, and truth.

Early Modern Period

A new spirit of science and investigation in Europe was part of a general upheaval in human understanding which began with the European invasion of the New World in 1492 and continues through the subsequent centuries, even up to the present day.

The form of writing now commonplace across the world—the novel—originated from the early modern period and grew in popularity in the next century. Before the modern novel became established as a form there first had to be a transitional stage when "novelty" began to appear in the style of the epic poem.

Plays for entertainment (as opposed to religious enlightenment) returned to Europe's stages in the early modern period. William Shakespeare is the most notable of the early modern playwrights, but numerous others made important contributions, including Christopher Marlowe, Molière, and Ben Jonson. From the 16th to the 18th century Commedia dell'arte performers improvised in the streets of Italy and France. Some Commedia dell'arte plays were written down. Both the written plays and the improvisation were influential upon literature of the time, particularly upon the work of Molière. Shakespeare, and his associate Robert Armin, drew upon the arts of jesters and strolling players in creating new style comedies. All the parts, even the female ones, were played by men ("en travesti") but that would change, first in France and then in England too, by the end of the 17th century.

The epic Elizabethan poem "The Faerie Queene" by Edmund Spenser was published, in its first part, in 1590 and then in completed form in 1597. "The Fairie Queen" marks the transitional period in which "novelty" begins to enter in to the narrative in the sense of overturning and playing with the flow of events. Theatrical forms known in Spenser's time such as The Masque and the Mummers' Play are incorporated into the poem in ways which "twist tradition" and turn it to political propaganda in the service of Queen Elizabeth I.

The earliest work considered an opera in the sense the work is usually understood dates from around 1597. It is "Dafne", (now lost) written by Jacopo Peri for an elite circle of literate Florentine humanists who gathered as the "Camerata".

Miguel de Cervantes's "Don Quixote de la Mancha" has been called "the first novel" by many literary scholars (or the first of the modern European novels). It was published in two parts. The first part was published in 1605 and the second in 1615. It might be viewed as a parody of "Le Morte d'Arthur" (and other examples of the chivalric romance), in which case the novel form would be the direct result of poking fun at a collection of heroic folk legends. This is fully in keeping with the spirit of the age of enlightenment which began from about this time and delighted in giving a satirical twist to the stories and ideas of the past. It's worth noting that this trend toward satirising previous writings was only made possible by the printing press. Without the invention of mass produced copies of a book it would not be possible to assume the reader will have seen the earlier work and will thus understand the references within the text.

The new style in English poetry during the 17th century was that of the metaphysical movement. The metaphysical poets were John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan and others. Metaphysical poetry is characterised by a spirit of intellectual investigation of the spiritual, rather than the mystical reverence of many earlier English poems. The metaphysical poets were clearly trying to "understand" the world around them and the spirit behind it, instead of accepting dogma on the basis of faith.

In the middle of the century the king of England was overthrown and a republic declared. In the new regime (which lasted from 1649 to 1653) the arts suffered. In England and the rest of the British Isles Oliver Cromwell's rule temporarily banned all theatre, festivals, jesters, mummers plays and frivolities. The ban was lifted when the monarchy was restored with Charles II. Thomas Killigrew and the Drury Lane theatre were favorites of King Charles.

In contrast to the metaphysical poets was John Milton's "Paradise Lost", an epic religious poem in blank verse. Milton had been Oliver Cromwell's chief propagandist and suffered when the Restoration came. "Paradise Lost" is one of the highest developments of the epic form in poetry immediately preceding the era of the modern prose novel.

An allegorical novel, "The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come" was published by John Bunyan in 1678.

Other early novelists include Daniel Defoe (born 1660) and Jonathan Swift (born 1667).

Modern Literature

18th century

The early 18th century sees the conclusion of the Baroque period and the incipient Age of Enlightenment with authors such as Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The late 18th century in Germany sees the beginning Romantic (Novalis) and "Sturm und Drang" (Goethe und Schiller) movements.

19th century

In Britain, the 19th century is dominated by the Victorian era, characterized by Romanticism, with Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Lord Byron or Samuel Taylor Coleridge and genres such as the gothic novel.

In Germany, the "Sturm und Drang" period of the late 18th century merges into a Classicist and Romantic period, epitomized by the long era of Goethe's activity, covering the first third of the century. The conservative "Biedermeier" style conflicts with the radical "Vormärz" in the turbulent period separating the end of the Napoleonic wars from the Revolutions of 1848.

In the later 19th century, Romanticism is countered by Realism and Naturalism. The late 19th century, known as the "Belle Époque", with its "Fin de siècle" retrospectively appeared as a "golden age" of European culture, cut short by the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

20th century

The main periods of 20th century literature are captured in the bipartite division, Modernist literature and Postmodern literature, flowering from roughly 1900 to 1940 and 1945 to 1980 respectively, divided, as a rule of thumb, by World War II. Popular literature develops its own genres such as fantasy and science fiction. For the most part of the century mostly ignored by mainstream literary criticism, these genres develop their own establishments and critical awards, such as the "Nebula Award" (since 1965), the "British Fantasy Award" (since 1971) or the "Mythopoeic Awards" (since 1971).

History of the Book

Related to other forms of literary history, the history of the book is a field of interdisciplinary enquiry drawing on the methods of bibliography, cultural history, literary criticism, and media theory. Principally concerned with the production, circulation, and reception of texts and their material forms, book history seeks to connect forms of textuality with their material aspects.

Among the issues within the history of literature with which book history can be seen to intersect are: the development of authorship as a profession, the formation of reading audiences, the constraints of censorship and copyright, and the economics of literary form.

ee also

* History of the book
* History of theater
* History of science fiction
* History of ideas
* Intellectual history

External links

* [http://www.litencyc.com/ The Literary Encyclopedia]

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