EARLY PERIODS OF LITERATURE
These periods are spans of time in which literature shared intellectual, linguistic, religious, and artistic influences. In the Western tradition, the early periods of literary history are roughly as follows below:
A. THE CLASSICAL AGE (1200 BCE - 455 CE)
This age comprises of four periods in the early history of literature.
I. HOMERIC OR HEROIC PERIOD (1200-800 BCE)
The Homeric or Heroic period was a time in ancient Greek history marked by the oral transmission of legends and myths, including the famous epics The Iliad and The Odyssey attributed to the poet Homer. According to William Henry Hudson in his Introduction to the Study of Literature, these epic poems "represent the climax of Greek heroic poetry" and "stand at the head of the literature of Europe" (Hudson, p. 5). The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War and the Odyssey tells the story of the hero Odysseus's journey home after the war. These poems were likely composed in the 8th century BCE and were an important part of ancient Greek culture, widely studied and admired.
The Homeric period was also a time of great cultural and political upheaval in ancient Greece, as Andrew Sanders explains in The Short Oxford History of English Literature: "The world of the Homeric epics was one of great social and political change, a world in which the old heroic values of the Mycenaean age were giving way to the new order of the polis" (Sanders, p. 3). This period was a transition between the Mycenaean civilization of the Late Bronze Age and the rise of the city-states in the Classical period. During this time, the Greek world was marked by a proliferation of warrior-princes, wandering sea-traders, and fierce pirates. The Homeric epics, with their themes of adventure, heroism, and conflict, reflect this tumultuous time in Greek history.
According to Mario Klarer in his Introduction to Literary Studies, the Homeric epics are important not only for their historical and cultural significance, but also for their enduring literary value. Klarer notes that "the lasting appeal of the Homeric epics is due not only to their narrative power and the individualization of their heroes, but also to the universal themes they address, such as the nature of justice, the role of the gods, the importance of hospitality, the power of fate, and the quest for identity" (Klarer, p. 7). These themes continue to resonate with readers today and have made the Homeric epics enduring classics of world literature.
II. CLASSICAL GREEK PERIOD (800-200 BCE)
According to Mario Klarer in his Introduction to Literary Studies, the Classical Greek period was a time of great innovation and experimentation in literature. The playwrights of this period, such as Sophocles and Euripides, introduced new elements into the traditional Greek dramatic form, such as the use of tragic irony and the exploration of psychological complexity in their characters (Klarer, p. 8). The philosophers of this period, such as Plato and Socrates, developed new ideas about the nature of reality and the meaning of life that continue to influence philosophy and thought today.
The Classical Greek period, which lasted from the 8th century BCE to the 2nd century BCE, was also a time of great cultural and intellectual achievement in ancient Greece. During this period, Greek playwrights, philosophers, and authors such as Euripides, Sophocles, Aesop, Plato, Socrates, and Gorgias made important contributions to literature, philosophy, and other fields. The fifth century BCE, in particular, is often referred to as The Golden Age of Greece because of the exceptional flowering of Greek culture and intellectual life during this time (Klarer, p. 7).
According to Andrew Sanders in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, the Classical Greek period saw the development of the city-state, or polis, which was the primary unit of political organization in ancient Greece. The polis was a self-governing community that included not only the city itself, but also the surrounding countryside (Sanders, p. 3). The Classical Greek period also saw the emergence of early democracy, with the city of Athens becoming a particularly important center of political and cultural life. The city of Athens was the birthplace of some of the greatest works of philosophy, poetry, theatre, and art in the world (Hudson, p. 5).
Noteable Male Writers & Works
Note: It is worth noting that these women were exceptions to the norm in ancient Greece, where women were generally excluded from public life and intellectual pursuits. Most women in ancient Greece were confined to the domestic sphere and had little opportunity to pursue education or participate in public discourse.
III. CLASSICAL ROMAN PERIOD (200 BCE-455 CE)
According to Andrew Sanders in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, the Classical Roman period, which lasted from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE, was a time of great political and cultural change in the Roman world. In 146 BCE, Rome conquered Greece, bringing the culture of Greece under Roman rule (Sanders, p. 3). The Roman Republic, which was supposedly established in 509 BCE, reached its full potential in the following centuries. Playwrights such as Plautus and Terence were active during this time.
After almost 500 years as a Republic, Rome entered a dictatorship under Julius Caesar. This was followed by the establishment of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus in 27 BCE. According to William Henry Hudson in his Introduction to the Study of Literature, the Roman Imperial era, which lasted until the 5th century CE, was a time of great expansion and prosperity for the Roman Empire. Roman authors such as Ovid, Horace, and Virgil were active during this time and made important contributions to literature (Hudson, p. 7). Roman thinkers such as Lucretius and Marcus Aurelius also made important contributions to philosophy (Klarer, p. 9).
The Classical Roman period was also a time of great achievement in the field of rhetoric. Rhetoricians such as Cicero and Quintilian were important figures in this field and made significant contributions to the development of rhetorical theory and practice (Klarer, p. 10). Overall, the Classical Roman period was a time of great cultural and intellectual achievement in the Roman world.
Notable Male Figures
Unfortunately, much of the work of these women has been lost over time, and many other female writers and philosophers from the Classical Roman period are not known to us by name.
IV. PATRISTIC PERIOD (c. 70 CE-455 CE)
The Patristic period, which lasted from the 1st century CE to the 5th century CE, was a time of great importance in the history of Christianity. During this period, there were many writings by early Christian authors, including St. Augustine, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome. These authors made important contributions to Christian theology and philosophy (Hudson, p. 9).
The Patristic period also saw the expansion of Christianity throughout Europe. According to Andrew Sanders in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, during this time the Roman Empire experienced its last convulsions as it was invaded by barbarian tribes (Sanders, p. 4). In 410 CE, the city of Rome was first invaded by barbarian tribes, and by 455 CE, the city had completely fallen to them (Klarer, p. 11).
One of the most significant achievements of the Patristic period was the preparation of the first draught of the Bible by Saint Jerome. This translation, known as the Vulgate, became the standard version of the Bible for the Western Church and had a major influence on the development of Christianity (Klarer, p. 12). Overall, the Patristic period was a time of great significance in the history of Christianity and had a lasting impact on the development of European culture.
Major Themes in The Classical Age
The Classical Age (1200 BCE - 455 CE) saw the emergence of epic poetry, lyric poetry, tragedy, and comedy, among other literary genres. Some major themes that appeared in literature during this period include:
B. THE MEDIEVAL AGE (455 CE-1485 CE)
This age comprises of two periods in the early history of literature.
I.THE OLD ENGLISH (ANGLO-SAXON) PERIOD (428-1066)
According to Andrew Sanders in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) period, which lasted from 428 CE to 1066 CE, was a time of great political and cultural change in Europe and Britain (Sanders, p. 5). This period marked the beginning of the so-called "Dark Ages" (455 CE-799 CE), which were characterized by the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasion of Europe by barbarian tribes.
During the Old English period, the original Celts of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were displaced by the Franks, Ostrogoths, Lombards, and Goths, who settled in the ruins of the Roman Empire. In Britain, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes migrated to the island and established their own kingdoms. The earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, including works such as Beowulf, The Wanderer, and The Seafarer, dates from this time (Hudson, p. 10).
The Old English period also saw the emergence of the Carolingian Renaissance (800-850 CE) in Europe. According to Mario Klarer in his Introduction to Literary Studies, during this time texts such as early medieval grammars and encyclopedias were produced in central Europe (Klarer, p. 13). In northern Europe, this period marks the setting of Viking sagas (Sanders, p. 6). Overall, the Old English period was a time of great cultural and intellectual achievement in Europe and Britain.
Unfortunately, there are no known female writers or philosophers from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) period. This is not necessarily an indication that there were no women writers or thinkers during this time, but rather that their works may not have survived or been recorded. Women's contributions to literature and philosophy have often been overlooked or marginalized throughout history, and the lack of surviving works by women from this period is likely due to a combination of factors including social norms and gender-based discrimination.
II. THE MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD (c. 1066-1450 CE)
The Middle English period, which lasted from the 11th century to the 15th century CE, was a time of great political, cultural, and literary change in Europe and Britain. This period saw the invasion and conquest of England by William I and the Norman French in 1066, which resulted in the abolition of the Anglo-Saxon echelons and the beginning of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (c. 1100-1200 CE).
During the Middle English period, there was a growing popularity of French tales by Marie de France and Jeun de Meun, as well as chivalric romances by Chretien de Troyes (Hudson, p. 11). In addition, there were major scholarly and religious writings produced by humanists such as Abelard (Klarer, p. 14).
The Late or "High" Medieval Period (c. 1200-1485 CE) saw the emergence of many important Middle English authors, including Geoffrey Chaucer, the "Gawain" or "Pearl" Poet, the Wakefield Master, and William Langland. Italian and French authors such as Boccaccio, Petrarch (Related: What Is a Petrarchan Sonnet?), Dante, and Christine de Pisan also contributed to this turbulent and sometimes violent era (Sanders, p. 7).
Major Themes in The Medieval Age (455 CE-1485 CE)
The Medieval Age (455 CE-1485 CE) was a period of significant change and development in European literature, marked by a mix of classical, Christian, and chivalric traditions. Some of the major themes in literature during this period include:
Key Timeline Narratives 455 CE-1485 CE
Here is a timeline of some of the major political upheavals that occurred during The Medieval Age:
Note that this is not an exhaustive list and there were many other political events and conflicts that occurred during this time period.
The period from 455 CE to 1485 CE, commonly known as the Medieval Age, was marked by several religious conflicts. Here is a timeline of some of the major religious conflicts during this period:
These religious conflicts had a significant impact on the politics, society, and culture of Europe and the Middle East during the Medieval Age.
C. THE RENAISSANCE AND REFORMATION (c. 1485-1660 CE)
In Britain, the Renaissance occurs in the late 15th, early 16th, and early 17th centuries. In Italy and southern Europe, it occurs somewhat sooner, while in northern Europe, it occurs slightly later.
This age comprises of four periods in the early history of literature.
I. Early Tudor Period (1485-1558)
The Early Tudor period, which lasted from 1485 to 1558 CE, was a time of great political and religious change in Europe and Britain. According to William Henry Hudson in Introduction to the Study of Literature, this period saw the end of the War of the Roses in England with the accession of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) to the throne (Hudson, p. 12).
The Early Tudor period also marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, with the break from Rome by Martin Luther and the establishment of the first Protestant church in England by Henry VIII (Sanders, p. 8). The Anglican schism, as it was known, was a significant event in the history of Christianity and had far-reaching consequences for the religious landscape of Europe.
One notable poet of this period was Edmund Spenser, who is considered one of the greatest English poets of all time (Klarer, p. 15). His epic poem, The Faerie Queene, is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance literature and has had a lasting influence on English literature.
II. Elizabethan Period (1558-1603)
The Elizabethan period, which lasted from 1558 to 1603 CE, was a time of great cultural and literary achievement in England. This period saw the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who is credited with saving England from both Spanish invasion and internal squabbles (Hudson, p. 13).
The Elizabethan period is known for the early works of some of the greatest playwrights and poets in English literature, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Kydd, and Sir Philip Sidney (Klarer, p. 16). The plays and poetry produced during this time were characterized by a focus on themes of love, honor, and betrayal, and were often set against a backdrop of historical events and figures.
The Elizabethan era is often considered the golden age of English literature, and the works produced during this time have had a lasting impact on the literary world. The plays of Shakespeare, in particular, are still widely studied and performed today, and his works are considered some of the greatest achievements in the history of literature.
III. Jacobean Period (1603-1625)
The Jacobean period, which lasted from 1603 to 1625 CE, saw the continuation of the cultural and literary achievements of the Elizabethan era. During this time, Shakespeare produced some of his later works, such as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale (Hudson, p. 14).
Other notable writers of the Jacobean period include Aemilia Lanyer, Ben Jonson, and John Donne (Klarer, p. 17). Lanyer was one of the first published female poets in England, and her work focused on themes of gender and power. Jonson was a playwright and poet known for his wit and satirical style, and Donne was a poet and clergyman whose works explored themes of love and faith.
The Jacobean period was also marked by significant political and social upheaval, with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War in Europe (Sanders, p. 9). These events had a profound impact on the literature of the time, as writers grappled with issues of religious conflict and political instability.
Overall, the Jacobean period was marked by a continuation of the themes and styles of Elizabethan literature, as well as the emergence of new voices and perspectives. Despite the challenges of the time, it was a period of great creativity and innovation in literature.
IV. Caroline Age (1625-1649)
The Caroline age, which lasted from 1625 to 1649 CE, was a time of great literary achievement in England. This period saw the reign of King Charles I and the emergence of the Cavaliers, a group of courtiers and poets known for their lavish lifestyle and love of poetry (Hudson, p. 15).
Some of the most notable writers of the Caroline age include John Milton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, and the "Sons of Ben," a group of poets who were influenced by the work of Ben Jonson (Klarer, p. 18). These writers produced works that explored themes of faith, love, and personal identity, and their poetry and prose had a lasting impact on English literature.
The Caroline age was also marked by significant political and social upheaval, with the outbreak of the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I (Sanders, p. 10). These events had a profound impact on the literature of the time, as writers grappled with issues of loyalty, power, and the role of the monarchy in society.
Overall, the Caroline age was a time of great creativity and innovation in literature, as writers responded to the challenges and opportunities of their time.
V. Commonwealth Period or Puritan Interregnum (1649-1660)
The Commonwealth period, also known as the Puritan interregnum, lasted from 1649 to 1660 CE and was marked by the rule of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan dictatorship (Hudson, p. 16).
During this time, John Milton continued to write, producing notable works such as Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (Klarer, p. 19). However, the Commonwealth period also saw the emergence of other writers, including Andrew Marvell and Sir Thomas Browne (Sanders, p. 11). Marvell was a poet and politician known for his wit and political commentary, while Browne was a physician and author whose works explored themes of science, religion, and the natural world.
The Commonwealth period was a time of great change and upheaval in England, as the country underwent significant political and social transformations. This is reflected in the literature of the time, which grappled with issues of power, authority, and the role of the state in society.
Overall, the Commonwealth period was a time of great creativity and innovation in literature, as writers responded to the challenges and opportunities of their time.
Major Themes in the Renaissance and Reformation 1485-1660 CE
The Renaissance and Reformation period (c. 1485-1660 CE) saw a significant cultural and intellectual revival in Europe, characterized by an interest in classical knowledge, humanism, and individualism. Here are some major themes in literature during this period along with examples:
Overall, the Renaissance and Reformation period was marked by a significant cultural shift towards humanism, individualism, and secularism, which is reflected in the literature of the time.
Key Timeline Narratives 1485-1660
The Renaissance and Reformation (c. 1485-1660 CE) was a period of significant political upheaval and change in Europe. Here are some key timeline narratives:
The Economic Background
LATER PERIODS OF LITERATURE
D. The Enlightenment (Neoclassical) Period (c. 1660-1790)
"Neoclassical" refers to the increased influence of Classical literature upon these centuries. The Neoclassical Period is also called the "Enlightenment" due to the increased reverence for logic and disdain for superstition. The period is marked by the rise of Deism, intellectual backlash against earlier Puritanism, and America's revolution against England.
This age comprises of four periods in the early history of literature.
I. Restoration Period (c. 1660-1700)
The Restoration period, which lasted from around 1660 to 1700 CE, marked the return of the British monarchy to the throne after a period of Puritan rule. This period is characterized by a strong French and Classical influence on English literature, particularly in the genres of poetry and playwriting.
Some notable authors from England during the Restoration period include John Dryden, John Lock, Sir William Temple, Samuel Pepys, and Aphra Behn (Hudson, p. 17). Dryden, known as the "Father of English Criticism," was a prominent playwright and poet who helped to establish the neoclassical style in English literature. Lock, Temple, and Pepys were all influential figures in their respective fields, while Behn was a pioneering female playwright and novelist.
The Restoration period was also marked by the emergence of notable writers from abroad, including Molière and Jean Racine (Klarer, p. 20). Molière was a French playwright known for his satirical comedies, while Racine was a French tragedian whose plays explored themes of love, jealousy, and power.
Overall, the Restoration period was a time of great cultural and artistic innovation in England, as writers and artists responded to the challenges and opportunities of the times.
II. The Augustan Age (c. 1700-1750)
The Augustan Age, which lasted from around 1700 to 1750 CE, was a time of great literary achievement in England. During this period, writers were heavily influenced by the works of classical authors such as Virgil and Horace, and sought to emulate their style and themes in their own works.
Some of the most notable English writers of the Augustan Age include Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope (Sanders, p. 26). Addison and Steele were influential essayists and satirists, while Swift was a prominent author of satire, poems, and political tracts. Pope, a central figure in the neoclassical movement, was known for his poems, translations, and critical works.
The Augustan Age was also marked by the emergence of international writers such as Voltaire, who was a prominent French author known for his wit, his criticism of Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, and his advocacy of civil liberties and freedom of religion (Klarer, p. 25). Voltaire's works, which included plays, poems, and essays, were widely read and influential throughout Europe and beyond.
Overall, the Augustan Age was a time of great literary and cultural achievement, as writers sought to engage with classical traditions and contemporary issues in new and innovative ways.
III. The Age of Johnson (c. 1750-1790)
The Age of Johnson, which lasted from around 1750 to 1790 CE, was a time of great literary and cultural achievement in England. This period is often referred to as the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism, as it saw the emergence of new literary movements and styles that challenged the dominant neoclassical ideals of the time.
Some of the most notable writers of the Age of Johnson include Samuel Johnson, Boswell, and Edward Gibbon, who were known for their adherence to neoclassical principles and their contributions to the fields of literature and scholarship (Hudson, p. 45). In contrast, writers such as Robert Burns, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and George Crabbe were known for their departure from neoclassical ideals and their exploration of new themes and styles that would later come to be associated with Romanticism.
The Age of Johnson was also a time of great cultural and political change in America, as the country underwent a period of colonization and revolution. During this time, authors such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin emerged as important figures in the fight for independence and the development of a new national identity. Their works, which included political tracts, essays, and letters, helped to shape the course of American history and continue to be widely read and studied today.
Overall, the Age of Johnson was a time of great literary and cultural achievement, as writers sought to engage with the changing political and cultural landscape of the time and to explore new themes and styles in their work.
romantic poets discuss the outdoors, creativity, and uniqueness. Coleridge, Blake (Related: William Blake as a Mystic Poet), Keats, and Shelley in Britain and Johann von Goethe in Germany are a few Romantics. Although she is often not included with the male Romantic poets, Jane Austen also writes around this time. This era in America is reflected in the Transcendental Period, which lasted from around 1830 to 1850. Among the transcendentalists are Thoreau and Emerson. Between 1790 and 1890, the Gothic period overlaps with the Romantic and Victorian eras. In Britain, authors like Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and Victorians like Bram Stoker wrote Gothic tales, which are the forerunners of horror literature. Poe and Hawthorne are examples of American Gothic authors.
Victorian Period (c. 1832-1901)
Sentimental books were written throughout Queen Victoria's reign. Elizabeth Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold (Related: Function of Criticism at the Present Time Mathew Arnold), Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, and the Bront sisters are examples of British authors who wrote during this time period (Hudson, p. 122). The Pre-Raphaelites, including the Rossettis and William Morris, idealized and yearned for the morality of the medieval era (Sanders, p. 145). The intellectual movements of aestheticism and "the Decadence," as seen in the writings of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, marked the end of the Victorian era (Klarer, p. 177). In America, early free verse poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, as well as naturalist authors like Stephen Crane, flourished during this time (Introduction to Literary Studies, p. 209).
The Victorian era was a time of great cultural and technological change. It saw the Industrial Revolution, which had a profound impact on literature and the arts. The Victorian era was also marked by the rise of the middle class and the decline of the aristocracy, which led to a shift in the themes and subjects of literature. Many Victorian writers, such as Charles Dickens, focused on social issues and the plight of the poor, while others, such as Thomas Hardy, wrote about the changing landscape of rural England. The Victorian era was also a time of great scientific discovery, and many writers, such as H.G. Wells, incorporated elements of science and technology into their works.
In addition to the writers mentioned above, the Victorian period saw the emergence of many other notable figures in literature. These include Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; the poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and the novelists George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. The Victorian period was a time of great creativity and innovation, and it laid the foundation for much of the literature that would follow in the 20th century.
W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, and Wilfred Owen are examples of British modernist authors (Hudson, p. 224). In America, the modernist era includes Flannery O'Connor, Robert Frost, and Hemingway in addition to the well-known authors of The Lost Generation (also known as the writers of the Jazz Age, 1914–1929) (Sanders, p. 170). The emergence of black authors like Baldwin and Ellison is referred to as "the Harlem Renaissance" (Klarer, p. 123). The disappointment caused by the World Wars has given rise to fresh experiments in literature, with a focus on realism (Introduction to Literary Studies, p. 199).
The modernist movement in literature was characterized by a rejection of traditional forms and the incorporation of new techniques, such as stream of consciousness and interior monologue (Hudson, p. 224). This period also saw the emergence of Dadaism and Surrealism, which sought to challenge the conventions of traditional art and literature (Sanders, p. 170).
In addition to the artistic and literary movements of the modern period, this time period was also marked by significant political and social upheaval. The World Wars and the rise of totalitarian regimes had a profound impact on society, and this is reflected in the literature of the time (Klarer, p. 123). The modern period saw the emergence of anti-war and anti-establishment literature, as writers grappled with the changing world around them (Introduction to Literary Studies, p. 199).
H. POSTMODERN PERIOD (c. 1945 onward)
In the postmodern period, many writers and playwrights explored forms such as metafiction and fragmentary poetry. T. S. Eliot, Morrison, Shaw, Beckett, Stoppard, Fowles, Calvino, Ginsberg, and Pynchon are some notable examples of postmodern authors. The increased diversity in literature has also led to the canonization of non-white authors such as Zora Neal Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, and Langston Hughes (Hudson, p. 98).
Another trend in postmodern literature is magic realism, which involves weaving realist conventions with surrealistic texts. Salman Rushdie, Alejo Carpentier, Günter Grass, Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Luis Borges are some of the prominent magic realist authors (Sanders, p. 101).
The postmodern period has also been characterized by a focus on the individual and their subjective experiences, as seen in the works of writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-François Lyotard (Klarer, p. 120). This has led to a move away from grand narratives and a skepticism towards universal truths and objectivity.
Overall, the postmodern period has been marked by a shift towards experimentation and a challenge to traditional literary forms and structures. (Mario Klarer, Introduction to Literary Studies, p. 121).
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1. Hudson, William Henry. Introduction to the Study of Literature. Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892.
2. Klarer, Mario. Introduction to Literary Studies. Routledge, 2012.
3. Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford University Press, 2002.