Introduction to European Literature

Welcome to our topic Introduction to European Literature! As students of European Literature, it is fitting and proper that you put things in the context of European Literature whether as an observer or an insider or someone part of the entire continental Europe. As such, there will be instances where and when I will ask you to figure things out whether from a European standpoint or from an outsider’s. So, let’s take a closer look as what is European Literature is all about in this topic Introduction to European Literature. Hop on!

“The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Intended learning outcomes (ILOs)

At the completion of this topic, the students must be able to:

  1. Understand the concept of European literature;
  2. Discuss the time divisions of European literature; and
  3. Appreciate the influence of European literature today.

Introduction to European Literature

Europe is one of the seven traditional continents of the Earth. Physically and geologically , Europe is the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, west of Asia. Europe is bounded to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, to the south by the Mediterranean Sea, to the southeast by the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea and the waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. To the east, Europe is generally divided from Asia by the water divide of the Ural Mountains, the Ural River, and by the Caspian Sea. See map above for more details

European literature refers to the literature of Europe. European literature includes literature in many languages; among the most important of the modern written works are those in English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Polish, German, Italian, Modern Greek, Czech and Russian and works by the Scandinavians and Irish. Important classical and medieval traditions are those in Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Norse , Medieval French and the Italian Tuscan dialect of the renaissance.

European literature, also known as Western literature, is the literature written in the context of Western culture in the languages of Europe, as several geographically or historically related languages. Diverse as they are, European literatures, like Indo-European languages, are parts of a common heritage belonging to a race of proud nations which boast the likes of Homer who wrote Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil who wrote the Aeneid, Dante who wrote Divine Comedy, Chaucer who wrote Canterbury Tales. These, and other literary masterpieces form part of what we call as Western Canon.

The list of works in the Western Canon varies according to the critic’s opinions on Western culture and the relative importance of its defining characteristics. The Great Books of the Western World  is an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 60 volumes.

Indo-European Languages and Literatures

The common literary heritage is essentially that originating in ancient Greece and Rome. It was preserved, transformed, and spread by Christianity and thus transmitted to the vernacular languages of the European Continent, the Western Hemisphere, and other regions that were settled by Europeans.

To the present day, this body of writing displays a unity in its main features that sets it apart from the literatures of the rest of the world. The languages may be varied due to geographical distances but they share a common sense of identity bound by a common sense of ancestry. Some of the European languages include:

  1. Greek,
  2. Latin,
  3. Germanic,
  4. Baltic,
  5. Slavic,
  6. Celtic, and
  7. Romance languages are all members of the Indo-European family.
  8. Finnish,
  9. Hungarian, and
  10. Semitic languages of the eastern Mediterranean, such as Hebrew, are not Indo-European.

The common literary heritage is essentially that originating in ancient Greece and Rome. It was preserved, transformed, and spread by Christianity and thus transmitted to the vernacular languages of the European Continent, the Western Hemisphere, and other regions that were settled into by the Europeans. To the present day, this body of writing displays a unity in its main features that sets it apart from the literatures of the rest of the world.

The Divisions of European Literature

Ancient Literature

This covers the five ancient civilizations of Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome including the culture of the Israelites in Palestine—each came into contact with one or more of the others not necessarily in order but essentially by the influence each exerted over the others.

The use of clay tablets, papyrus paper scrolls paved the way for the writing of the Holy Scriptures which is very much influential in European literature. Likewise, songs, poems, fables, anecdotes and parables were all invented during this period.

Influential works of the Ancient Literature include but not limited to:

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh – the world’s oldest epic
  • The Code of Hammurabi – the world’s first codified law
  • The Book of the Dead – the compilation of Egyptian pantheon, rituals
  • The Holy Bible – the sacred scriptures of Jews
  • Iliad and Odyssey – the epics of Greece
  • Metamorphoses – the compilation of Roman mythology and culture
  • Aeneid – the Epic of Rome

Medieval Literature

The Fall of the Roman Empire marked the beginning of the Medieval or Middle Ages. Also known as Dark Ages, due to the prevailing conditions during this period, barbarian invasion and Muslim conquests marked this era. Wars, famine, plagues and decline in culture and learning.

The use of vellum (goat skin paper), parchment  (sheep skin paper), and wooden tablets covered in green or black wax to fashion books which are more durable than scrolls became widespread. Hence, the greatest number of books published during this era were bound with plain wooden boards, or with simple tooled leather for more expensive volumes.

The popular books during this period include but not limited to:

  • King Arthur – Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
  • History of British People – Venerable Bede
  • Divine Comedy – Alighieri Dante
  • Beowulf – Anglo-Saxon tradition
  • Norse Mythology – Norse Tradition
  • City of God – St. Augustine of Hippo

Renaissance Literature

The term Renaissance (rebirth or revival) is given to the historical period in Europe that succeeded the Middle Ages. This period marked the reawakening of a new spirit of intellectual and artistic inquiry, which was the dominant feature of this political, religious, and philosophical phenomenon, was essentially a revival of the spirit of ancient Greece and Rome.

In literature this meant a new interest in and analysis of the great classical writers. Scholars searched for and translated lost ancient texts, whose dissemination was much helped by developments in printing in Europe from about 1450. Written short stories, novella and tales were born in this period.

Influential persons during this era include but are not limited to:

  • Johannes Gutenberg – invented the movable type printing press
  • Desiderius Erasmus – initiated the Humanism Movement
  • Martin Luther – initiated the Reformation in Europe
  • Christopher Columbus – discovered the New World (the Americas)
  • Christopher Marlowe – wrote Doctor Faustus

17th Century Literature

The 17th century was a period of unceasing disturbance and violent storms, no less in literature than in politics and society. The great question of the century, which confronted serious writers from John Donne to John Dryden, was Michel de Montaigne’s What do I know?

This includes the ascertainment of the grounds and relations of knowledge, faith, reason, and authority in religion, metaphysics, ethics, politics, economics, and natural science. Hence, this period is also known as Age of Reason.

Some monumental European masterpieces were written during this period including but are not limited to:

  • Discourse on Methods – Rene Descartes
  • Pensees – Blaise Pascal
  • Complete Essays – Francis Bacon
  • Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
  • Iphigenie – Jean Racine
  • Absalom – John Dryden
  • The Tragedies – William Shakespeare
  • Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes
  • Life is a Dream – Pedro Calderon
  • Paradise Lost – John Milton

18th Century Literature

The 18th century was marked by two main impulses: reason and passion. The respect paid to reason was shown in pursuit of order, symmetry, decorum, and scientific knowledge. The cultivation of the feelings stimulated philanthropy, exaltation of personal relationships, religious fervor, and the cult of sentiment, or sensibility.

In literature the rational impulse fostered satire, argument, wit, plain prose. The other inspired the psychological novel and the poetry of the sublime. Novel and satire were born in this period.

World-class masterpieces were written during this period. Some of them include:

  • Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  • A Tale of the Tub – Jonathan Swift
  • An Essay on Understanding – Alexander Pope
  • Encyclopedie – Denis Diderot
  • Elegy written in a country churchyard – Thomas Gray
  • Candide – Voltaire
  • Social Contract Theory – Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • Poems of Scottish Dialect – Robert Burns
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • A Dictionary of the English Language – Samuel Jonson

19th Century Literature

The 19th century was one of the most vital and interesting periods of all. This period has special interest as the formative era from which many modern literary conditions and tendencies derived. Influences that had their origins or were in development in this period – Romanticism, Symbolism, Realism.

These literary movements are reflected in the current of modern literature, and many social and economic characteristics of the 20th century were determined in the 19th.

The literary giants who stood out during this period include:

  • William Wordsworth – Lyrical Ballads
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • John Keats – Ode to Psyche
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ode to the West Wind
  • Lord Byron – Don Juan
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
  • Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility
  • Guy de Maupassant – The Diamond Necklace
  • George Eliot – Middlemarch
  • Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
  • Thomas Hardy – Desperate Remedies
  • Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace
  • Anton Chekhov – Cherry Orchard
  • Henrik Ibsen – Enemy of the People
  • Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
  • Ivan Turgenev – Fathers and Sons
  • Emile Zola – La Comedie Humaine

20th Century Literature

The 20th century features an interest in the unconscious and the irrational was reflected in their work and that of others of about this time. This period marked an increasing sense of crisis and urgency, doubts as to the 19th century’s faith in the psychological stability of the individual personality, and a deep questioning of all philosophical or religious solutions to human problems.

In the 1930s these qualities of 20th-century thought were not abandoned but, rather, were expanded into a political context, as writers divided into those supporting political commitment in their writing and those reacting conservatively against such a domination of art by politics.

Some of the topnotch writers during this period include:

  • Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
  • L. Frank Baum – Wizard of Oz
  • Rudyard Kipling – Jungle Book
  • Jack London – Call of the Wild
  • Henry James – The Golden Bowl
  • H.G. Wells – War of the Worlds
  • Gertrude Stein – Three Lives
  • Ezra Pound – Exultations
  • D.H. Lawrence – The Trespasser
  • Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities
  • Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes
  • John Galsworthy – Quality
  • James Joyce – Ulysses
  • Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway
  • T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land
  • Aldous Huxley – Kangaroo
  • Franz Kafka – Metamorphosis
  • Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea
  • Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot


  • Reyes, Dinia Delfina S. (2011). World Literature:Literacy Gems of the East and West. Manila, Philippines: Rex Bookstore.
  • Sanyal, Lopa. (2011). Classics in English Literature. New Delhi, India: Discovery Publishing House.
  • Brazalote, Tumoroh. (2011). Readings in World Literature. Mandaluyong City: Books Atbp. Publishing.
  • Cruz, Jesus Q., (2010). A Treasury of World Literature. Mandaluyong City: Books Atbp. Publishing.

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