Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
History of literature
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

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 in the first sentence above.

Table of contents
1 The Beginnings of Literature
2 The Greeks and the Romans
3 Chinese literature
4 Indian literature
5 Medieval European literature
6 Arabic literature
7 European Renaissance Literature
8 European Enlightenment Literature, 18th century
9 Modern European Literature, 19th century
10 Literature in the New World, 1500-1900
11 Modernism
12 Structuralism, Deconstruction, Poststructuralism, and Postmodernism
13 Modern Asian Literature
14 Modern Literature in the Americas
15 African Literature
16 Digital literature
17 History of Western Literature

The Beginnings of Literature

Literature and writing, though obviously connected, are not synonymous. The first writings from ancient Sumeria by any reasonable definition do not constitute literature—the same is true of the 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 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. Early orally transmitted tales such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (8th century BC) or the Eve story of Lilith (16th century BC) were eventually written down. The stories in The Bible most certainly qualify as early literature, as do two other orally transmitted and subsequently transcribed epics, the stories usually attributed to Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In China, a mystical collection of poems attributed to Lao Tze, the Tao te Ching was assembled. The myths and legends of the Norsemen again were an orally transmitted tradition, in a culture in which poetry was highly prized: some of this vibrant oral culture survives having been written down many centuries later (in the Elder Edda, for example).

The Greeks and the Romans

The Greeks

The first society in Western civilization that emphasized literature was the ancient Greeks. 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 Rex. 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 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.

The Romans

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. 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 Revelation, though not the first of its kind, essentially defines apocalypse as a literary genre. Augustine and his 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.

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. Some authors feel that China originated the novel form with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, although others feel that this epic is distinct from the novel in key ways. Lyric poetry advanced far more in China than in Europe prior to 1000 CE, 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 Li Po.

Still needs expansion

Indian literature

Indian epics such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavad Gita have influenced countless other works, including Balinese Kecak and other performances such as shadow puppetry (wayang), and many European influenced works.

Medieval European literature

After the fall of Rome (in roughly 476 CE), 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.

Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", are frequent among early medieval texts. The writings of BedeHistoria 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. Poetry flourished, however, in the hands of the troubadors, whose courtly romances and chanson de geste amused and entertained the upper classes who were their patrons. 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.

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.

Arabic literature

After 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.

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.

This section needs more

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.

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 published by a Polish astronomer entitled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium: in it, 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.

Plays for entertainment (as opposed to religious enlightenment) return to Europe's stages in the early modern period. William Shakespeare is the most notable of the early modern playwrights (and singlehandedly seems to have reinvented the tragedy and comedy that had been left almost dormant since the end of Rome's heyday), but numerous others made important contributions, including Christopher Marlowe, Molière, and Ben Jonson.

A form of writing now commonplace across the world—the novel—dates only to this period in time. Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote has been called "the first novel" by many literary scholars (certainly the first European novel). Other early novels include Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

European Enlightenment Literature, 18th century

Needs to be added

Modern European Literature, 19th century

Needs to be added

Literature in the New World, 1500-1900

Needs to be added


Needs to be added

Structuralism, Deconstruction, Poststructuralism, and Postmodernism

See: Thomas Pynchon.

Modern Asian Literature

Needs to be added

Modern Literature in the Americas

Needs to be added

African Literature

Needs to be added

Digital literature

Needs to be added

History of Western Literature

See also: western canon