During the Renaissance/Reformation period, literature flourished primarily in Italy, France, Spain, and England. Thanks to the invention of printing (in 15th-century Germany) and the Early Modern rise of the middle class (which possessed the time and wealth to partake in literacy), literature spread more quickly and to a wider audience than ever before. This article focuses on creative literature (as opposed to scholarly literature); key scholarly developments of this period are covered elsewhere (see History of Western Philosophy, History of Science).
The cultural shift known as the Renaissance (which emerged in Italy, then spread across Western Europe) can be defined as "the full revival of humanism". The term humanism denotes "an outlook that emphasizes human capabilities and concerns"; the two most visible consequences of this outlook are secular appreciation (i.e. appreciation for humans and the human world) and critical thought (see Humanism).
Propelled by humanism, Renaissance scholars sought to revive the study of classical literature, as well as to create new literature in the spirit of the classics. Renaissance authors embraced humanism by injecting a measure of realism (physical, social, emotional) into the characters, plots, and settings of this new literature, distinguishing it from medieval work (which lacked such realism). Though some new creative writing was produced in Latin, the dominance of vernacular languages (which had been established by medieval writers) would not be displaced.
While the Renaissance took place mainly within the period ca. 1400-1600, the roots of the movement lie in the fourteenth century. This is especially true of literature, the earliest field of Renaissance endeavour. Thus, in discussion of literary history, it is convenient to define the span of the Renaissance as ca. 1300-1600. (Alternatively, the period ca. 1300-1400 can be described as a transitional "pre-Renaissance".)
The Renaissance overlaps with most of the Reformation, in which much of northern Europe was converted to Protestantism (see Reformation). Since Protestantism emphasizes salvation through individual faith (as opposed to relying on clergy as intermediaries), its adherents were encouraged to become literate and personally read the Bible. Rates of literacy improved, and the Bible was translated into many vernacular languages (including a German translation by Luther).
The term novel can be defined as "a long prose story". In the Western world, the novel first emerged as a minor genre of literature in ancient Greece and Rome. It grew more prominent in the Middle Ages, especially in the form of prose romances. Only in modern times, however, did novel-writing truly surge, in terms of both output and innovation.
During the period ca. 1800-present, the novel has thrived as the leading form of Western literature. This triumph was preceded by the formative age of the novel, ca. 1500-1800, during which many types and styles of novel-writing initially developed. The primary languages of the novel's formative age were Spanish, French, English, and German.
The pinnacle of Italian literature, which flourished throughout the entire Renaissance/Reformation period, was achieved during the fourteenth century. This century gave rise to the three most renowned authors in the Italian language: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.
The first stirrings of humanism date to the early fourteenth century; the foremost manifestation of these stirrings is the poetry of Dante, greatest of Italian writers. Though generally classified as a late medieval author, Dante is considered the outstanding forerunner to Renaissance literature, and thus is logically included in this article.
Dante is renowned as the greatest epic poet of the Middle Ages (placing him alongside Homer and Milton, the greatest ancient and modern epic poets, respectively). His masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, is the foremost work of Italian literature. Describing the author's journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, the Divine Comedy provides a detailed account of the medieval Christian view of the universe.
The greatest lyric poet in Italian is Petrarch, known primarily for the Canzoniere, a collection of over three hundred poems. Consisting mainly of sonnets, the Canzoniere explores a variety of subjects, in particular Petrarch's love for a woman named Laura. Petrarch was the leading pioneer of the full-scale revival of classical literature, earning him the title "father of humanism".
Boccaccio, the greatest writer of Italian prose, is renowned chiefly for the Decameron, a collection of one hundred short stories. The tales, ranging from earthy comedies to romantic tragedies, are framed by a story of ten travellers, each of whom tells ten stories in order to pass the time. Many of the stories were not freshly composed by Boccaccio, but rather skilful reworkings of folktales. (Indeed, creative adaptation of preexisting work has been common artistic practice in all media throughout history.) The firm humanism of Boccaccio's work (e.g. the realistic speech and behaviour of his characters) secure his place as a distinctly Renaissance author.3
One of the most prominent consequences of the humanist outlook is optimism in human potential. While the medieval outlook consistently portrayed humanity as inherently lowly and corrupt, humanism proclaims the dignity and worth of human beings, asserting that determined people can rise to greatness through force of will. This belief in human capability to triumph over fortune is reflected in the stories of the Decameron.3
As noted in the previous article, epic legends (in the form of narrative poetry and prose) are by far the most prominent works of medieval literature; consequently, even though many other types of literature flourished during the Middle Ages, these are relatively unfamiliar to modern readers. Fortunately, much of the character of medieval literature is present in the works of the fourteenth-century Italian authors, given that they stand at the very dawn of the Renaissance era. Through Petrarch, one is exposed to the qualities of medieval lyric poetry; through Boccaccio, to the qualities of non-epic medieval story-telling.
France, Spain, and England
As noted earlier, the foremost literary tongues of the Renaissance/Reformation period were Italian, French, Spanish, and English. The first century of this period witnessed the pinnacle of Italian literature; the last century, of Spanish and English literature. French literature (which, along with German, would culminate in the Romantic age) is less prominent during this period.
The foremost French author of the Renaissance/Reformation era is Michel de Montaigne, the first great modern writer (and perhaps greatest all-time writer) of the essay, which can be defined as "a short prose examination of a subject"; indeed, Montaigne himself coined the term "essay" (from the French "essai", meaning "attempt"). Prior to Montaigne, who established the essay as one of the most popular methods of Western expression, only a handful of ancient philosophers had embraced the form. Montaigne's essays, written over the late sixteenth century, explore such profound human themes as friendship, ethics, and death.7
Spanish literature culminated during the Spanish Golden Age (ca. 1500-1650), the literary pinnacle of which is occupied by Miguel de Cervantes, foremost author in the Spanish language. As noted earlier, the "formative age" of the novel spanned ca. 1500-1800; Cervantes' masterpiece, Don Quixote (published in the early seventeenth century), is considered the greatest and most influential novel of this period. Don Quixote follows the comical adventures of a retired gentlemen who, in a state of idealistic madness fuelled by medieval romances, embarks on a series of delusional chivalric quests.6
The late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries also witnessed the most renowned figure in all of literature: William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist of all time. Shakespeare's repertoire consists of some three dozen plays, conventionally divided into comedies, tragedies, and histories (tragedies drawn from English history); the tragedy Hamlet is often singled out as his masterpiece. In addition to plays, Shakespeare composed over 150 sonnets.8
2 - "Western Theatre", Encyclopedia Britannica.
3 - "Decameron", Encyclopedia Britannica.
4 - "Novel", Columbia Encyclopedia.
5 - "Lope de Vega", Encyclopedia Britannica.
6 - "Miguel de Cervantes", Columbia Encyclopedia.
7 - "Essay", Encyclopedia Britannica.
8 - "Shakespeare", Encyclopedia Britannica.