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 in the first sentence above.
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 always have and always will disagree concerning when the earliest records-keeping in writing becomes 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 BCE, 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 BCE, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead written down in the Papyrus of Ani in approximately 250 BCE but probably dates from about the 18th century BCE. 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 BCE. The Pentateuch is traditionally dated to the 15th century, although modern scholarship estimates its oldest part to date to the 10th century BCE at the earliest.
Indian śruti texts post-dating the Rigveda (such as the Yajurveda, the Atharvaveda and the Brahmanas), as well as the Hebrew Tanakh and the a 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.
Early Indian literature
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 influenced works. Pali literature has an important position in the rise of Buddhism.
Early Chinese literature
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.
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.
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.
The Medieval Period
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.
Early Islamic literature
Among the innovations of 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.
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.
Between the 9th and 11th centuries, there arose among the nomadic Turkic peoples of Central Asia/Turkistan a tradition of oral epics, such as the Book of Dede Korkut or the Manas epic. Among the early written prose Yusuf Has Hajib‘s Kutat-Ku Bilik (Blessings and Wisdom), the Divan-i Lugat-it Turk an encyclopedic dictionary written by Mahmut Kasgari and Mir Ali Shir Nava’i are early epic masterpieces.
Later Chinese literature
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.
European Renaissance Literature
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.
The early modern period in Western Europe
A new spirit of science and investigation in Europe was part of a general upheaval in human understanding which began with the discovery 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.
European literature of the 18th century refers to literature (poetry, drama and novels) produced in Europe during this period. The 18th century saw the development of the modern novel as literary genre, in fact many candidates for the first novel in English date from this period, of which Eliza Haywood‘s 1724 Fantomina is probably the best known. Subgenres of the novel during the 18th century were the epistolary novel, the sentimental novel, histories, the gothic novel and the libertine novel.
- French literature of the 18th century,
- The novel and new psychology in the 18th century
- List of years in literature: the 1800s
- Literary neoclassicism
- English literature: Augustan literature, British amatory fiction
- German literature: German Romanticism, Sturm und Drang
Modern Literature, 19th century
The 19th century was perhaps the most literary of all centuries, because not only were the forms of novel, short story and magazine serial all in existence side-by-side with theatre and opera, but since film, radio and television did not yet exist, the popularity of the written word and its direct enactment were at their height.
The early part of the century
The romantic movement was well under way and along with it developed the splintering of fiction writing into genres and the rise of speculative fiction. There was a romantic tendency toward the exploration of folk traditions and old legends. In 1802 Sir Walter Scott published Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Amelia Opie, another romantic, was publishing poetry in the early 19th century and was an active anti-war campaigner. Anne Bannerman (1765–1829) reworked legends of King Arthur and Merlin. William Blake worked in words and pictures to share his visions and mysticism. In 1807 Thomas Moore published Irish Melodies. Lord Byron produced many influential poems during this period. In 1808 Goethe published part one of Faust. In 1810 Sir Walter Scott published Lady of the Lake. Percy Shelley published a gothic novel: Zastrozzi. The term “Gothic” had, by this time, come to mean a desire for a romantic return to the times before the renaissance. Percy Shelley also published a gothic novella: St. Irvyne in 1811.
North Americans who would later produce great literature were being born in the first third of the century. In 1803 the great American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was born (May 25) in Boston and in 1804 Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1807 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and then Edgar Allan Poe in 1809. Phillipe-Ignace Francois Aubert du Gaspe, author of the first French Canadian novel was born in 1814 followed by Henry David Thoreau in 1817 and Herman Melville in 1819. Canadian poets Octave Crémazie and James McIntyre were both born in 1827. In 1830 was the birth of Emily Dickinson and, just over a third of the way through the century, in 1835 Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) arrived in this world. Before all of them was Washington Irving, said to be the first American “Literary Lion” and mentor to several other American writers. Washington Irving wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (a short story contained in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon) while he was living in Birmingham, England and it was first published in 1819.
In 1807 Charles and Mary Lamb published Tales from Shakespeare, a simple retelling of some of Shakespeare’s plays in the form of little stories accessible to a child readership. Along with all the other genres born in the 19th century came the genre of Children’s literature.
In 1812 George Crabbe published Tales in Verse. Byron published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II. Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Remorse. On February 7th Charles Dickens was born. On May 7 Robert Browning was born in London. On October 4, in London, Percy Shelley first met William Godwin (3 March 1756 – 7 April 1836), an English writer, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who would eventually marry Shelley and become Mary Shelley).
In 1813 Jane Austen published (anonymously) Pride and Prejudice. Byron published The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos. January 23 Drury Lane reopened with Coleridge’s Remorse. In May Percy Shelley published his poem Queen Mab. In September Sir Walter Scott declined the offer of being made Poet Laureate, Robert Southey accepted the post. Wilhelm Richard Wagner born 22 May.
In 1814 Sir Walter Scott published Waverley. Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park was published anonymously. Robert Southey published Roderick, the Last of the Goths. An English translation of Dante‘s Divine Comedy appeared. On July 28 Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (Mary Shelley) eloped. In 1814 Jane Austen published Mansfield Park and, in 1815, Emma.
In 1816 Thomas Love Peacock published Headlong Hall. Coleridge published Christabel and Kubla Khan. Jane Austen anonymously published Emma. E.T.A. Hoffmann published Undine. Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley went to Geneva and met Byron (with his physician John Polidori). At Byron’s villa they told ghost stories and invented the basic ideas which led eventually to Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein and Polidori’s novel The Vampyre. Their stay at Byron’s villa was one of the most famous events in the Gothic/Romantic movement.
In 1818 Mary Shelley anonymously published Frankenstein which came to be known, eventually, as the first science fiction novel and the template for the mad scientist subgenre. Byron published Childe Harold Canto IV. John Keats published Endymion. Thomas Love Peacock published Rhododaphne and Nightmare Abbey. Jane Austen‘s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously. Sir Walter Scott published Rob Roy.
In 1820 John Keats published Lamia, Isabella and Hyperion. Percy Shelley published Prometheus Unbound. Elizabeth Barrett published The Battle of Marathon. Sir Walter Scott published Ivanhoe, The Abbott and The Monastery. James Catnach: Street Ballads. A gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer was published by Charles Robert Maturin.
In 1821 February 23: John Keats died. Percy Shelley published Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats and Epipsychidion. Byron published The Prophecy of Dante. Sir Walter Scott published Kenilworth. Fyodor Dostoevsky was born.
In 1823 Mary Shelley published Valperga. Byron published The Age of Bronze and The Island. Charles Lamb published Essays of Elia. Sir Walter Scott published Quentin Durward. An English translation of Jacob Grimm, Grimms’ Fairy Tales appeared.
In 1832 Percy Shelley published his poem The Masque of Anarchy, a reaction to the Peterloo massacre. Johann Wolfgang Goethe published part II of Faust. On March 20 Goethe died. Jerrold Douglas published The Factory Girl, The Golden Calf and The Rent-Day.