Further reading - Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800

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

Further reading
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800



Structured as a frame narrative, The Decameron by Italian writer, poet, and scholar Giovanni Boccaccio (1313—75) is a collection of 100 tales. The frame story uniting them is that of 10 young adults — seven women and three men — who flee plague-ridden Florence to an attractive villa in nearby Fiesole. The group decides that every day, each of them should tell a story, resulting in 100 stories over 10 days. Whoever is nominated leader for the day chooses the subject and stipulates rules for the stories to be told. Each day ends with one person singing a canzone or song, while the others dance. The result is a dazzling collection of exquisitely written tales — ranging from stories of tragic love and bawdiness through to the power of human will and tricks that women play on men — that inspired writers of the Renaissance and beyond.

"A kissed mouth does not lose its freshness, for like the moon it always renews itself."

The Decameron

Giovanni Boccaccio



Consisting of some 2,500 lines, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the best-known examples of Middle English alliterative verse. Of unknown authorship, the poem is a chivalric romance set in the early days of the legendary King Arthur’s court. A beautifully written tale of enchantment that is full of psychological insight, the poem describes a series of challenges and temptations faced by the hero, Sir Gawain, following an encounter with the mysterious Green Knight.



The Well Cradle (Izutsu) is a classical Noh play by Zeami Motokiyo (1363—1443), the greatest dramatist and theorist of the Japanese Noh theatre. The play, which takes its name from the protective railing around a well, is framed within an encounter between a Buddhist monk and a village woman, who tells the monk a story. Highly stylized, the play is based on a visionary Noh story of a boy and girl who meet at a well, fall in love, and marry.



Printed by William Caxton in 1485, although an earlier manuscript version from around 1470 exists, Le Morte d’Arthur is a compilation of stories about the legendary King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Deriving from older French romances, the stories were translated into English prose and compiled by English knight, soldier, writer, and Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Malory (d.1471). Malory arranged the stories in chronological order, starting with the birth of Arthur, and chose to focus on the brotherhood of the knights rather than the theme of courtly love so popular with the French.

"Therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point … Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England."

Le Morte d’Arthur

Sir Thomas Malory



A chivalric prose romance written in Spanish by Montalvo (c.1450—1504), Amadis of Gaul probably had its origins in the early 14th century, but its original date and authorship is uncertain. Written in four volumes, Montalvo’s version recounts the story of Amadis — a handsome, valiant, yet gentle knight — and his love for Princess Oriana, in whose service he undertakes chivalric adventures and bold feats against giants and monsters. Its high ideals, gallantry, and romance set the standard for chivalric works that followed.


(1516, 1518, 1519), GIL VICENTE

A devotional work, the Barcas (“Ships”) trilogy by Portuguese playwright Gil Vicente (c.1465—1573) — often described as the “father of Portuguese drama” — consists of three one-act plays: The Ship of Hell; The Ship of Purgatory; and The Ship of Heaven. Satirical and allegorical, these three plays — which together are considered Vicente’s most masterful work — portray the passengers, who reflect all classes of Lisbon society, and their mainly unsuccessful attempts to enter Heaven.



Often regarded as Portugal’s national epic, The Lusiads is a 10-canto epic poem by the great Portuguese poet de Camões (1524—80) recounting Vasco da Gama’s sea route to India. After the introduction, an invocation to river gods, and a dedication to King Sebastian, the poem includes orations by a series of narrators, including a history of Portugal, recounted by da Gama, as well as descriptions of adventures, storms, and interventions by Greco-Roman gods. Overall it is a homage to the Portuguese and their achievements.


(1590, 1596), EDMUND SPENSER

The defining work of English poet Spenser (c.1552—99), and one of the great long poems of the English language, The Faerie Queene is a religious, moral, and political allegory. Set in a mythical Arthurian world, symbolizing Tudor England, the poem consists of six books, each of which describes the exploits of a knight who represents a moral virtue, such as Chastity. The knights serve Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, who represents Queen Elizabeth I. Spenser had planned 12 books, but died in London at the age of 46 before completing his great work.



A verse tragedy in five acts, Le Cid by French tragedian Pierre Corneille (1606—84) is seen as the defining example of French neoclassical tragedy. Inspired by the story of Spain’s national hero, El Cid, the play relates Le Cid’s coming of age and an incident when he is asked by his father to challenge his future father-in-law to a duel. In so doing, he is forced to choose between the woman he loves and family honour.



Milton’s masterwork, and a supreme triumph of rhythm and sound, the epic poem Paradise Lost relates the biblical story of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve, and hence of all humanity. Organized into 12 books for the final 1674 edition (the first edition contained 10 books), the poem interweaves two themes: the rebellion of Satan against God and Heaven; and the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

John Milton

English poet John Milton is best known for Paradise Lost, considered the greatest epic poem in the English language. Born in Cheapside, London, in 1608, he began writing while still a student. But with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, he devoted himself to revolutionary politics, producing pamphlets defending religious and civil liberties. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the overthrow of the English monarchy, he became secretary to the council of state. Completely blind by 1654, he was able to continue working by dictating his verse and prose to an assistant. Following the Restoration in 1660, he devoted himself to producing his greatest literary works. He died in 1674 in London at the age of 65.

Key works

1644 Areopagitica, A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing

1667 Paradise Lost

1671 Paradise Regained

1671 Samson Agonistes



The dramatic tragedy Phèdre by French playwright Jean Racine (1639—99) is a supreme example of French neoclassicism. It consists of five acts written in verse, and takes its subject matter from Greek mythology that had already been explored by the classical dramatists Euripides and Seneca. Racine’s play portrays the incestuous love of Phèdre (Phaedra), married to the king of Athens, for her stepson Hippolyte (Hippolytus) who, shocked and in love with another woman, rejects her advances.



The Princess of Cleves by French author Madame de La Fayette (1634—93) appeared at a time when women could not openly declare authorship, and was published anonymously. Seen as the first novel to explore the psychology of character, events take place at the royal court of Henry II of France, which La Fayette reproduces with historical accuracy. Her heroine, the Princess of Cleves, suppresses her love for a young nobleman, but misunderstandings and court intrigues damage her marriage.



An influential satirical novel by Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667—1745), Gulliver’s Travels is narrated by ship’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver, who visits various fantasy regions: Lilliput, where inhabitants are six inches tall; Brobdingnag, a land of practical giants; Laputa, a flying island; Glubdubdrib, the Island of Sorcerers; and the land of the Houyhanhnms. Humorous and fantastical, Swift’s novel lampoons travel books and pokes fun at much of contemporary society, satirizing political parties, religious dissenters, scientists, and philosophers, as well as mocking small-minded attitudes.



Clarissa, also entitled The History of a Young Lady, is an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson and, at over a million words, is one of the longest novels in the English language. It traces the tragic history of the virtuous heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, who is rejected by her family and abused by the unscrupulous Lovelace. Events are recounted mainly through a four-way correspondence of letters between Clarissa and her friend Miss Howe, and Lovelace to his friend John Belford.

Samuel Richardson

A true man of letters, English novelist Samuel Richardson was born in Derbyshire in 1689 and is best remembered for developing the innovatory epistolary novel, in which the story is told through letters. Moving to London, where he had only a meagre education — something that would always trouble him — he became a master printer. Richardson’s domestic life was tragic: his first wife died, as did his six children, and he married again. He was 50 when he wrote his first novel, becoming a popular and respected author. He died in 1761 of a stroke in London.

Key works

1740 Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded

1747—48 Clarissa

1753 The History of Sir Charles Grandison



A comic novel by English writer Henry Fielding (1707—54), Tom Jones (originally titled The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling) is one of the earliest works to be defined as a novel. It follows the adventures of the eponymous hero, a foundling who is brought up by the wealthy Squire Allworthy, and his pursuit of the virtuous Sophia Western. Rich in coincidences and misadventures, the novel makes a moral point in highlighting differences between the lusty but essentially well-meaning Tom Jones, and his hypocritical half-brother, Blifil.


(1759—1767), LAURENCE STERNE

A bawdily humorous novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Irish clergyman and writer Laurence Sterne (1713—68), was published in nine volumes over eight years, and is a fictionalized biography of its hero and a parody of the novels of its day. Narrated in an endless series of digressions and speculations by Shandy, the novel begins with his botched conception (though he is not born until Volume II) and then ambles through his life, introducing unfinished anecdotes, shifts in time, and various colourful characters — Shandy’s parents, his Uncle Toby and his servant Trim, the parson Yorick, and household servant Obadiah. Its experimental approach — as well as the erratic narrative, Sterne left some pages blank and littered others with asterisks — has led some to describe it as a forerunner of 20th-century stream-of-consciousness writing.

"I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me."

Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne



A significant novel in the Sturm und Drang (literally, “Storm and Stress”) movement, The Sorrows of Young Werther established its 26-year-old German author, Goethe (1749—1832), as an internationally acclaimed writer. Completed in just six frenetic weeks, Goethe’s debut novel is epistolary in form and loosely autobiographical. It consists of a series of letters written by the hero, Werther, a young artist in the Romantic tradition, to his friend William. The letters describe his tormented passion for a young woman, Lotte, who is promised to another. The novel’s popularity was such that “Werther Fever” spread across Europe, with young men adopting the dress and habits of its eponymous, tragic hero.

"It is certain that nothing on earth but love makes a person necessary."

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience — masterpieces of English lyric poetry, rich in rhythmic subtlety — explore what the poet defined as “Two Contrasting States of the Human Soul”. Songs of Innocence, first published in 1789, portrays the innocence of childhood through the eyes of the child or as observed by adults. The edition of 1794 was expanded to include the contrasting “Songs of Experience”, including “The Tyger” and “The Fly”. These explore experiences of fear, aggression, conflict, and oppression, which come with the loss of innocence and childhood.

William Blake

Born in Soho, London, in 1757, Blake left school at the age of 10. Profoundly influenced by the Bible from an early age, he experienced visions on angelic and heavenly themes throughout his life; religious and spiritual motifs figured heavily in both his poetry and his engravings. After being apprenticed to a distinguished London printmaker, Blake developed his own method of relief etching in 1789, which he used in his finest illustrated works. Now considered the earliest and most original of the Romantic poets, at the time of his death in 1827 many contemporaries dismissed his work and regarded him as mad.

Key works

1794 Songs of Innocence and of Experience

1804—20 Jerusalem



Published posthumously, Jacques the Fatalist and his Master by French Enlightenment philosopher and writer Diderot (1713—84) explores issues of moral responsibility, free will, and determinism. Much of the novel consists of dialogue between Jacques and his unnamed master who are riding through France; on his master’s prompting they begin to talk about their loves. A picture emerges not just of 18th-century France, but also of a world in which events occur at random and, as personified by Jacques, where history determines an individual’s fate. Diderot’s novel is complex and multi-layered — the haphazard progress of Jacques’ journey is frequently interrupted by long, often-comedic digressions, other characters, other narratives, and chance events. This playful and modern narrative style has led to Diderot’s book being hailed as a precursor of the 20th-century novel.