Introduction - Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800

From the early 14th century, the cultural movement known as the Renaissance began to spread across Europe from the Italian city of Florence. It was marked by a change from medieval attitudes — which were dominated by the dogma of the Christian Church — to a far more humanist perspective that was inspired by a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and culture. But this was more than a simple rebirth of classical ideas — the period was also a time of innovation.


The epic and the everyday

In literature, although inspiration came from classical style and forms, writers chose to work in vernacular languages, as opposed to Latin or Greek, and to create their own stories rather than retell those of the past. Among the first to write in this way was the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, whose The Divine Comedy was not only an epic poetic journey through the afterlife but also served as an allegory for the contemporary world.

At the same time, other writers chose to turn away from the realm of epics and legends altogether, and focus on the lives, autonomy, and ingenuity of ordinary people. In The Decameron, published in 1353, Giovanni Boccaccio presented a collection of 100 “novellas” in prose in the Florentine vernacular. Shortly afterwards Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a similar collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales. Both works contained a variety of tales of everyday life — from love stories to moral parables. With their discussions of human vices, accounts of licentiousness, and bawdy practical jokes, they soon became popular reading.

The birth of the novel

In the 15th century, the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press hastened the spread of ideas, and this technology also made it easier to cater to audiences in vernacular languages. Popular demand for books had been stimulated in particular by the prose storytelling of Boccaccio and Chaucer. From these early stories emerged a form of literature as a long, prose narrative that is now ubiquitous, but was then very much “novel”.

During the 16th century, prose narratives gradually replaced the epic poem as the predominant literary form in most of Europe, and readers particularly responded to humorous stories, such as François Rabelais’ satirical adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Miguel de Cervantes of Spain continued in this tradition, albeit with a gentler wit, in Don Quixote. However, Cervantes’ satire about chivalry has a more serious undercurrent, and rather than a hero, the eponymous knight is depicted as all too human. Don Quixote is often considered to be the first modern novel, or at least the first European novel — China’s four great classical novels and Japan’s The Tale of Genji were all written much earlier.

Life on stage and page

In England, the prose narrative took longer to capture popular attention. Poets such as Edmund Spenser and John Milton continued to reinterpret the epic poem, but it was the theatre that most attracted the public. The plays of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson built on the ideas of Greek tragedy and comedy with their dramas, but even they were eclipsed by Shakespeare’s mastery of the form, which allowed him to depict very human characters in a catalogue of comedies, histories, and tragedies.

Novels began to appear in England soon after Shakespeare, and rapidly overtook the theatre in popularity. From the start, English novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding presented believable characters in their novels, which contain vivid descriptions of time and place that give the works a degree of realism. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe professes to be a “true” autobiographical account. Both Laurence Sterne’s comic Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Swift’s fantastical Gulliver’s Travels also use the autobiographical voice, but do so in ways that test the reader’s willingness to believe the narrator.

In 17th-century France, the theatre was also at the heart of literature, and was even more indebted to classical models than in England, with Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille striving to follow the “rules” of Greek drama. However, the public tended to call the tune, and it was Molière’s comedies of manners that seemed more in keeping with the times. Poking fun at the contemporary mores continued to be a part of the French literary scene in the 18th century, with Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire wittily satirizing the conventions of the establishment.