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The written word has grown to largely replace the oral traditions in Europe, an understandable development given how quickly and more widespread the transmission of stories can be when written down, even more if printed. Europe has produced many great writers, people who left a mark on culture and whose works are still being read. This list of notable writers is in chronological order.
Homer c. 8th/9th Century BCEBy Unknown - Unknown, Public Domain, Link
The Iliad and Odyssey are two of the most important epic poems in western history, both having a profound effect on the development of written arts and culture. Traditionally these poems are ascribed to Greek poet Homer, although he may simply have written and shaped works which had been in the oral memory of his ancestors. That said, by writing them down in the manner he did, Homer earnt a place as one of Europe's greatest poets. Of the man, we know little.
Sophocles 496 - 406 BCECorbis via Getty Images / Getty Images
A well-educated man from a wealthy family, Sophocles served several roles in Athenian society, including a role as a military commander. He also wrote plays, entering and winning the drama element of the Dionysian festival possibly over 20 times, more than esteemed contemporaries. His field was tragedies, of which only seven full-length pieces survive, including Oedipus the King, referenced by Freud when discovering the Oedipus complex.
Aristophanes c. 450 - c. 388 BCEBy JamesMacMillan (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
An Athenian citizen who wrote during the era of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes' work constitutes the greatest surviving body of ancient Greek comedies from one person. Still performed today, his most famous piece is probably Lysistrata, where women go on a sex strike until their husbands make peace. He is also believed to be the only surviving example of what is termed "Old Comedy", different from the more realistic "New Comedy".
Virgil 70 - 18 BCEJean-Baptiste Wicar Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Virgil was regarded as the best of the Roman poets during the Roman era, and this reputation has been maintained. His most famous, albeit unfinished, work is the Aeneid, the story of a Trojan founder of Rome, written during the period of Augustus' reign. His influence has been felt widely in literature and, as Virgil's poems were studied in Roman schools, by children.
Horace 65 - 8 BCE" Horace" ( CC BY 2.0) by Matt From London
The son of a freed slave, Horace's early career saw him commanding units in the army of Brutus, who was defeated by future Roman emperor Augustus. He returned to Rome and found employment as a treasury clerk, before achieving great renown as a poet and satirist of the highest order, even corresponding with Augustus, now emperor, and praising him in some works.
Dante Alighieri 1265 - 1321 CEBy Sailko (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A writer, philosopher, and political thinker, Dante wrote his most famous work while in exile from his beloved Florence, forced out by his role in the politics of the day. The Divine Comedy has been interpreted by each successive age in a slightly different way, but it has greatly influenced popular depictions of hell, as well as culture, and his decision to write in Italian rather than Latin helped prompt the spread of the former language in the arts.
Giovanni Boccaccio 1313 - 1375DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images
Boccaccio is best known as the author of the Decameron, an earthy and tragic-comic look at life which, because it was written in vernacular Italian, helped raise the language to the same level of regard as Latin and Greek. Shortly after completing the Decameron he changed to writing in Latin, and less known today is his work in humanist scholarship during the period. Together with Petrarch, he is said to have helped lay the groundwork the Renaissance.
Geoffrey Chaucer c. 1342 / 43 - 1400Corbis via Getty Images
Chaucer was a talented administrator who served three kings, but it is for his poetry which he is best known. The Canterbury Tales, a series of stories told by pilgrims en route to Canterbury, and Troilus and Criseyde have been hailed as some of the finest poetry in the English language before Shakespeare, written as they were in the vernacular language of the country rather than Latin.
Miguel de Cervantes 1547 - 1616Guy Vanderelst / Getty Images
In Cervantes' early life he enrolled as a soldier and was kept prisoner as a slave for several years until his family raised a ransom. After this, he became a civil servant, but money remained a problem. He wrote in many different fields, including novels, play, poems, and short stories, creating his masterpiece in Don Quixote. He is now regarded as the main figure in Spanish literature, and Don Quixote has been hailed as the first great novel.
William Shakespeare 1564 - 1616Hulton Archive / Getty Images
A playwright, poet, and actor, Shakespeare's work, written for the company of a London theatre, has seen him called one of the world's great dramatists. He enjoyed success in his lifetime but has gone on to ever greater and wider appreciation for works like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet, as well as his sonnets. Perhaps strangely, although we know quite a lot about him, there is a constant current of people who doubt he wrote the works.
Voltaire 1694 - 1778Culture Club / Getty Images
Voltaire was the pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, one of the greatest French writers. He worked in many forms, imparting wit, critique, and satire against the religious and political system which saw him become hugely famous during his one lifetime. His most known works are Candide and his letters, which encompass enlightenment thought. During his life he spoke on many non-literary subjects like science and philosophy; critics have even blamed him for the French Revolution.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm 1785 - 1863 / 1786 - 1859Westend61 / Getty Images
Known collectively as “The Brothers Grimm”, Jacob and Wilhelm are remembered today for their collection of folk tales, which helped start the study of folklore. However, their work in linguistics and philology, during which they compiled a dictionary of the German language, coupled with their folk tales, helped forge the idea of a modern “German” national identity.
Victor Hugo 1802 - 1885Culture Club / Getty Images
Best known abroad for his 1862 novel Les Misérables, thanks in part to a modern musical, Hugo is remembered in France as a great poet, one of the nation's most important Romantic-era writers and as a symbol of French republicanism. The latter was thanks to Hugo's activity in public life, in which he supported liberalism and the republic, as the period he spread in exile and opposition during the Second Empire under Napoleon III.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky 1821 - 1881Alexander Aksakov / Getty Images
Having been hailed as great by a vicious critic for his first novella, Dostoyevsky's career took a difficult turn when he joined a group of intellectuals discussing socialism. He was arrested and put through a mock execution, complete with last rights, then imprisoned in Siberia. When free, he wrote works such as Crime and Punishment, examples of his superb grasp of psychology. He is considered an all-time great novelist.
Leo Tolstoy 1828 - 1910Heritage Images/Getty Images
Born to wealthy aristocratic parents who died while he was still young, Tolstoy began his career in writing before serving in the Crimean War. After he this turned to a mixture of teaching and writing, creating what have been labeled two of the great novels in literature: War and Peace, set during the Napoleonic Wars and Anna Karenina. During his lifetime, and ever since he has been considered a master of human observation.
Émile Zola 1840 - 1902Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images
Although famed as a great novelist and critic, French author Zola is known primarily in historical circles for an open letter he wrote. Entitled “J'accuse” and printed on the front page of a newspaper, it was an attack on the upper ranks of the French military for their anti-Semitism and corruption of justice in falsely condemning a Jewish officer called Alfred Dreyfus to prison. Charged with libel, Zola fled to England but returned to France after the government fell. Dreyfus was eventually exonerated.