A Journey Through the History of Literature

Explore the evolution of the history of literature from antiquity to the present day.

Literature is one of the oldest art forms in human history. Although the term itself began to be used, according to some studies, after the fifteenth century, the idea of expressing through words, either orally or in writing, comes from many years ago.

Literary history has a wide range of writers, who are a sample of how our society has evolved over the centuries. From the religious writings of Enheduanna to the fantastic world of J. R. R. Tolkien, passing through millions and millions of artists of the word who have left us a little piece of their vision of life through their books.

In general terms, some experts divide literary history into four main stages: ancient literature, medieval literature, modern literature, and contemporary literature. Here we will tell you more about each of these stages.

Ancient Literature (Up to the 5th Century)

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Although the term literature as such was not used at this stage, we must go back to the origins of the use of the word as a tool of artistic expression to understand literature today. From prehistoric times and until approximately the 5th century, literature was used as a way of narrating events considered as real, mainly centered on the adventures of the gods and the epics of war.

Here we must highlight a name, Enheduanna, since she is the first person to be recognized as having a literary work and is a woman. She lived in 23 B.C. and created several religious works that praised the goddesses of the moon and love. In addition to being a writer, she was a priestess and princess.

Likewise, we cannot speak of the first stage of the history of literature without mentioning four regions of the world: Sumer, where Enheduanna came from; China, with writings more than 3,000 years old; Greece, the cradle of writing for the Western world; and Rome, with the Roman Empire as the main disseminator of literature through writings such as those of Ovid and Virgil.

Medieval Literature (From the 5th to the 15th Century)

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With the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, literature on this side of the world began to focus more on religious texts, with hagiographies (biographies of saints) as the most common works.

However, on the other side of the globe, in Japan, the 11th century saw the appearance of what is considered the first novel in history, a work that, like Enheduanna, was written by a woman. It is the work Genji Monogatari, written by Murasaki Shikibu, which narrates the life and love affairs of Prince Genji at the Kyoto court.

In addition, the importance of vernacular literature, with Dante Alighieri as one of its most important representatives, should also be noted during this period. During these centuries several writers emerged who decided to abandon the formal language normally used for literature and use a more traditional one, the one spoken in everyday society. Thus, works such as The Divine Comedy by the aforementioned Alighieri or The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, emerged.

Modern Literature (From the 15th to the 19th Century)

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The third stage of literary history encompasses what is known as modern literature and takes place between the end of the Middle Ages and the 19th century. Experts speak of three periods within this stage of literature: the Renaissance, the Baroque, and the Enlightenment.

During the Renaissance period, stories that left aside religious themes to give way to love, nature, and reason were back in fashion. This is the era of great European writers such as William Shakespeare or Molière, but what should be highlighted here is the appearance of what is considered to be the first modern novel in Europe, the famous Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes.

In the same period as Renaissance literature, Baroque literature developed, characterized by a much more pessimistic content. From the New World began to arrive works that would remain forever in history, such as the writings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a true jewel of literature.

Along with the Enlightenment came the Enlightenment literature, which pursued the same principles as this movement, that is, it spoke about reason, with a deeply critical spirit and in which the human experience is discussed. Here, the names of authors such as Voltaire, Hume, and Kant are well known, but also some women contributed with the feminine thought to the enlightened literature, such as the Spanish Josefa Amar y Borbón.

Contemporary Literature (From the 19th Century to the Present)

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From the 19th century to the present day, literature has experienced unprecedented growth, not only because of a much larger number of publications but also because of the international cultural exchange that has allowed the development of technology and communication systems in general.

According to UNESCO, 2.2 million books are published every year, which is as wide a range as there are tastes in the world. Thus, we can approach stories from faraway places, such as Nigeria by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Japan by Murakami, or Nicaragua by Gioconda Belli.

Not only do we participate as readers, but the dream of writing a book goes through the minds of many citizens of the world who want to tell their own story. If you too have ever thought about starting a novel, but don't know how to do it, we recommend you join the course Writing a Novel Step by Step and embark on the adventure of literature.

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