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.
The Beginnings of Literature
A stone tablet containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh
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 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 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 some other orally transmitted and subsequently transcribed epics such as the stories usually attributed to Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Indian Mahabharata and other works considered in Indian literature to be "Shruti" are among the oldest known writings. Another example is the so called Egyptian Book of the Dead which was eventually written down in the Papyrus of Ani in approximately 250 BC but probably dates from about the 18th century BC. Egyptian literature was not included in early studies because the writings of Ancient Egypt were not translated into European languages until the 19th century when the Rosetta stone was deciphered. 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).
There are various different possible answers to the question "Which was the first novel ever written?" (See Candidates for the first novel).
See also: Literature, Pre 13th century in literature
Early 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.
See main articles:
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.
See main article: Chinese literature
The Greeks and the Romans
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 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.
See main article: Greek 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 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.
See main article: Latin literature
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.
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.
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 troubadors, 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.
From Arabic 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.
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.
See main articles: Medieval literature, Arabic literature, 13th century in literature, 14th century in literature
Later Chinese literature
Li Po Chanting a Poem, by Liang K'ai (13th century)
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 Li Po.
Printing began in 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.
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.
See main article: Chinese literature
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 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.
See also: 15th century in literature See main article: European Renaissance Literature
The 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 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. The Castle of Otranto (1529) is a Gothic novel which was later found and rewritten (in 1764) by Horace Walpole. The Castle of Otranto is generally held to be the first gothic horror novel, although it is a little ahead of its time. 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 narative 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 Cervantes's Don Quixote 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 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).
See also: 16th century in literature, 17th century in literature
European Enlightenment Literature, 18th century
The Age of Enlightenment refers mainly to the period beginning towards the end of the 17th century and continuing on throughout the 18th. It could also be called the Age of Revolution, for during this period scientists and mathematicians revolutionised human understanding, the Industrial Revolution got under way and the American and French political revolutions took place. During this period philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Thomas Paine were concerned with the rights of man and with the meaning of rights or right. The arts also shared in the concerns of reason, enlightenment and a new understanding of things. Literature explored themes of social upheaval, reversals of personal status, political satire, geographical exploration and the comparison between the supposed natural state of man and the supposed civilized state of man. Edmund Burke, in his A Vindication of Natural Society (1757), says: "The Fabrick of Superstition has in this our Age and Nation received much ruder Shocks than it had ever felt before; and through the Chinks and Breaches of our Prison, we see such Glimmerings of Light, and feel such refreshing Airs of Liberty, as daily raise our Ardor for more".
In 1700 William Congreve's play The Way of the World premiered.  (http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext98/wwrld10.txt) Although unsuccessful at the time The Way of the World is a good example of the sophistication of theatrical thinking during this period, with complex subplots and characters intended as ironic parodies of common stereotypes.
In 1703 Nicholas Rowe's domestic drama The Fair Penitent, an adaptation of Massinger and Field's Fatal Dowry, was pronounced by Dr Johnson to be one of the most pleasing tragedies in the language. Also in 1703 Sir Richard Steele's play The Tender Husband achieved some success.
In 1704 Jonathan Swift published A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books  (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/battle.html) and John Dennis published his Grounds of Criticism in Poetry. The Battle of the Books begins with a reference to the use of a glass (which, in those days, would mean either a mirror or a magnifying glass) as a comparison to the use of satire. Swift is, in this, very much the child of his age, thinking in terms of science and satire at one and the same time. He was one of the first English novelists and also a political campaigner. His satirical writing springs from a body of liberal thought which produced not only books but also political pamphlets for public distribution. Swift's writing represents the new, the different and the modern attempting to change the world by parodying the ancient and incumbent. The Battle of the Books is a short writing which demonstrates his position very neatly.
1707 Henry Fielding was born (22 April) and his sister Sarah Fielding was born 3 years later on 8 November 1710. In 1711 Alexander Pope began a career in literature with the publishing of his An Essay on Criticism. In 1712 French philosophical writer Jean Jacques Rousseau born 28 June and his countryman Denis Diderot was born the following year 1713 on the 5th of October. Also in 1712 Pope published The Rape of the Lock and in 1713 Windsor Forest.
Horace Walpole was born on 24 September 1717.
Daniel Defoe was another political pamphleteer turned novelist like Jonathan Swift and was publishing in the early 18th century. In 1719 he published Robinson Crusoe, in 1720, Captain Singleton and, in 1722, Moll Flanders.
Other authors publishing in 1722 included Sir Richard Steele, Penelope Aubin and Eliza Haywood.
From 1726 to 1729 Voltaire lived in exile mainly in England.
In 1728 John Gay wrote The Beggar's Opera which has increased in fame ever since. The Beggar's Opera began a new style in Opera, the "ballad opera" which brings the operatic form down to a more popular level and precedes the genre of comic operettas.
In 1729 Jonathan Swift published A Modest Proposal, a satirical suggestion that Irish families should sell their children as food. Swift was, at this time, fully involved in political campaigning for the Irish.
In 1731 George Lillo's play The London Merchant was a success at the Theatre-Royal in Drury Lane. It was a new kind of play, a domestic tragedy, which approximates to what later came to be called a melodrama.
1749 Henry Fielding published The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.
1751 Thomas Gray wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
1752 a satirical short story by Voltaire, Micromégas featured space travellers visiting earth. It was one of the first stories leaning toward what later became Science fiction. Its publication at this time is indicative of the trend toward scientific thinking prevalent in the age of enlightenment.
1754 Henry Fielding died 8 October.
1759 Voltaire published Candide. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller was born 10 November.
1760 - 1767 Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy.
1762 Rousseau published Émile.
1764 The Castle of Otranto (1529) is rewritten and published by Horace Walpole. Probably the first gothic horror novel.
1766 Oliver Goldsmith published The Vicar of Wakefield.
1767 August Wilhelm von Schlegel was born 8 September.
1768 Sarah Fielding died.
1770 April 7 birth of William Wordsworth.
1772 Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel was born 10 March.
1773 Oliver Goldsmith's play She Stoops to Conquer, a farce, was performed in London.
1774 Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel which approximately marks the beginning of the Romantic movement in the arts and philosophy. A transition thus began, from the critical, science inspired, enlightenment writing to the romantic yearning for forces beyond the mundane and for foreign times and places to inspire the soul with passion and mystery.
1777 the comedy play The School for Scandal, a comedy of manners, was written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
1778 Death of Voltaire. Death of Jean Jacques Rousseau 2 July.
1783 Washington Irving was born.
1784 Denis Diderot died 31 July. Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot have all passed away within a period of a few short years and French philosophy had thus lost three of its greatest enlightened free thinkers. Rousseau's thinking on the nobility of life in the wilds, facing nature as a naked savage still had great force to influence the next generation as the romantic movement gained momentum. Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro. Maria and Harriet Falconar publish Poems on Slavery. The anti-slavery movement was growing in power and many poems and pamphlets were published on the subject.
1786 Robert Burns published Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. The mood of literature was swinging toward more interest in diverse ethnicity. Beaumarchais' The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro) was adapted into a comic opera composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.
1789 James Fenimore Cooper was born 15 September in [United States|America]].
1792 Percy Bysshe Shelley was born (August 4).
1793 Salisbury Plain by William Wordsworth.
1794 Robert Goldsmith was born.
In 1795 Samuel Taylor Coleridge met William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. The two men published a joint volume of poetry, Lyrical Ballads (1798), which became a central text of Romantic poetry.
1796 Thomas Chandler Haliburton was born. Denis Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste was published posthumously.
1796 Charlotte Smith published her novel Marchmont.
See main article: European Enlightenment Literature
See also: List of years in literature:
1700s - 1710s - 1720s - 1730s - 1740s - 1750s - 1760s - 1770s - 1780s - 1790s - 1800s
The History of Literature continues with part two: (click here).
- History of theater
- History of science fiction
- History of ideas
- Intellectual history
- Literature by country
- The Literary Encyclopedia (http://www.litencyc.com/)